Blackboard Awards: Tonia Percy, Second Graders Are Happy to See a Familiar Face

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By Ellen Keohane In high school, Tonia Percy aspired to be on stage. "I went to the Yale School of Drama for a summer program," she said. Professors there encouraged her talent but questioned if she'd be able to deal with the constant rejection most actors face. "They said, 'Really think about other professions in which you can engage your audience,'" she said. "And teaching came up." A recipient of this year's Blackboard Award for excellence in elementary education, Percy said she often uses her theater background with her 27 second graders at P.S. 290 (Manhattan New School) on East 82nd Street. "We do a lot of role playing," Percy explained on a recent morning in her classroom. "I just feel like that takes a more abstract situation and makes it really tangible for kids." Wearing her dark hair in a ponytail, Percy, 36, moved her arms in wide, enthusiastic gestures as she talked how much she loves teaching. "I can't shut up," she said. A Washington Heights resident, Percy is expecting her first child, a girl, in August. "My husband and I are very excited." After six years as a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 290, Percy started teaching second grade two years ago-so some students have studied with her twice. "You really become part of people's families," she said. "I was more than thrilled to have her again," said Jess Walsh, whose daughter attended kindergarten and second grade with Percy. "She makes learning fun." "I appreciate the effort she puts into the class," said Barbara DiLorenzo, whose son had Percy as a teacher last year. "She really knew how to bring out the best in him." Percy grew up in Germany before moving to the United States at the age of 16. "My mother is Greek and my dad is German," she explained. "I was the new kid. I didn't speak English." It's an experience she draws on when integrating children who are new to the school or even the country, she said. Every summer, Percy, who speaks without an accent, visits her parents in Greece. They moved back to Europe about four years ago, "so now it's just me and my brother here." While working at P.S. 290, Percy started to notice more children with disabilities in her class. "I didn't feel properly trained," she said. Last year, she went back to school and earned a certificate of advanced graduate study in special education from Adelphi University. Percy also has a bachelor's degree from Barnard College, where she majored in German literature and psychology and minored in secondary education. She earned her master's degree from Teachers College, Columbia University. Before working at P.S. 290, Percy taught preschool at the Hollingworth Center for Highly Gifted Children. "At this point, I'm licensed to teach general ed, special ed and gifted ed," Percy said. "So whatever type of learner you throw at me, I will know how to engage them, how to support them, how to keep them happy, interested, curious and learning."

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