With Dorchester teacher’s prize, the pupils win

December 22, 2014


It’s the last day before Christmas break, and Nicole Bollerman is teaching her third-grade class at UP Academy Dorchester a reading lesson.

Vacation is looming, but you wouldn’t know it from their high-energy attempt to make sense of a newspaper article about the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. Though they don’t know a lot about Alaska, or oil tankers, they are transfixed by the size of the spill. “Eleven million gallons!” Bollerman exclaimed. “That’s like filling up my car one million times!”

Nikki Bollerman’s enthusiasm enriches her classroom, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Just before Thanksgiving, she saw an ad for a contest — the #WishForOthers campaign — inviting people to submit a wish the sponsor company could grant.

What did she have to lose? Her short essay read, in part: “I’m a third-grade teacher in a low-income, high-risk elementary school in Boston, MA. “My #wish for others is that my voracious, adorable, hard-working, loving scholars all leave for their December break with a book in their hand.”

A remarkable chain of events followed. First, Capital One, the contest sponsor, agreed to send all her kids books. Then, Bollerman, who is 26, won one of the grand prizes — $150,000 — and quickly announced she would give it all to the school.

“I never thought about keeping it for myself,” she said. “I won it for the kids, and that’s where it’s going to go.”

Bollerman is in her second year at UP Academy Dorchester, a school that has been reinvented over the past two years. It’s the former Marshall Elementary in Bowdoin-Geneva, a tough neighborhood. The Marshall had been a fixture on lists of underperforming schools for years.

Last year UP Academy, a private education company that operates four other schools in Massachusetts, was brought in to take it over as an in-district charter school. The entire administration and faculty were replaced. Everything is different except the building and the students.

Already, the results are startling. In results announced in October, UP Academy Dorchester posted the biggest one-year jump on the MCAS exam of any school in the state.

Bollerman was one of the teachers brought in to turn the school around. A graduate of Stonehill College, she had been teaching at a charter school in Washington, D.C., for three years, but was itching to return to Massachusetts. She was an easy hire.

“You know what was here, in general, it wasn’t working, and when things aren’t working they need to be fixed.”
Nicole Bollerman, UP Academy teacher

“We just loved everything we saw from her,” said Adkeem Jackson, one of the school’s administrators.

Bollerman, who is from Ridgefield, Conn., says teaching is in her blood. Her mother and both grandmothers were teachers, and she always knew she would follow them. She picked Stonehill for its strong education program.

Along the way to becoming a teacher she became passionate about educational opportunity, and addressing the achievement gap. She read Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities” and started thinking about where and whom she wanted to teach.

“I was lucky enough to get this great public school education, but I realized that people in Bridgeport were not getting that education,” she said. “The more I grew up and learned, the more I thought if I have all this energy and talent for teaching, the place to use it is a place where I can really have an impact. Once I realized I could make a difference I was really committed to working in urban education.”

So she’s in Dorchester, a passionate advocate for her students and for charter schools in general.

“You know what was here, in general, it wasn’t working, and when things aren’t working they need to be fixed,” she said. “I would say I’m pro-kid. I’m pro-education. Like whatever we can do to educate kids and close that achievement gap, that’s what I’m for.”

The school has yet to work out what exactly her gift will be used for, besides the books that have already been promised. Bollerman said she would like for some of it to fund a computer lab for students. There are plenty of good uses for it.

“They got their wish granted, but there’s a lot of things that would better the lives of the students in this building,” she said.

Winning the prize has been only part of the fun. Bollerman and her students will appear in a Capital One ad on social media.

“The best part of this is that it makes my kids feel really special and important,” Bollerman said. She was beginning to tear up. “And they are — they’re such special kids. Some of them have challenges at home. Their lives might not be easy. They deserve so much more than we could ever give to them but this is a start. Why would I even consider doing something else?”

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