Third grade teacher Nicole Bollerman ’10 made a wish for her students at UP Academy in Dorchester. That one wish turned into a gift that kept giving.

By Maura King Scully

It started simply enough. On Facebook the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Nicole Bollerman ’10 noticed a posting for a contest. Sponsored by the bank behemoth CapitalOne, it asked people to submit their wish for others with the promise of cash prizes for a handful of lucky winners.

A teacher at UP Academy, a two-year-old charter school in Dorchester’s Geneva-Bowdoin neighborhood, Bollerman knew just what to wish. “I’m a third grade teacher in a low-income, high-risk elementary school in Boston, MA. My #wishforothers is that my voracious, adorable, hard-working, loving scholars all leave for their December break with a book in their hands.” She hit “post” and didn’t think any more of it.

Then things got bigger—much bigger—quickly. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, CapitalOne arranged a Skype call with her. The following Wednesday, one week after making her wish, CapitalOne called Bollerman with incredible news: she was a grand-prize winner, an honor that came with a $150,000 prize.

“I couldn’t believe it. They had to repeat it to me a couple of times,” Bollerman recalls. “I was hoping that maybe I’d win enough money to buy books for my class.”

On Tuesday, Dec. 9, CapitalOne sent a camera crew to Bollerman’s classroom to film a 45-second commercial. The spot’s highlight shows Bollerman rolling a big cart into the classroom, adorned with white draping and a big red bow. “I made a wish for you guys,” she tells the class. The kids cheer with glee, pumping their arms in the air, as she pulls the drape off the cart and distributes packages of books.

“I chose three books: My Father’s Dragon, because that was my very favorite book growing up; the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, because they love those books and couldn’t wait to get their hands on the new one; and then Where the Wild Things Are, because I’m from the same town in Connecticut as its author, Maurice Sendak,” she explains. “I wanted the kids to have something they could read to their little brothers and sisters.”

The spot ends with an emotional Bollerman saying, “It made them feel really important. And they are really, really important.”

A Selfless Act
That would be a natural place for this story to end, except it kept going. Bollerman decided to donate the balance of the $150,000 grand prize, what remained after purchasing the books, to UP Academy.

“CapitalOne made it clear that after the original wish was fulfilled (the book gift) that the remainder of the cash prize was mine to share as I saw fit. There was no requirement to donate it,” she explains. “That said, the contest was a ‘wish for others.’ To me, donating the rest to the school was the right thing to do. It wasn’t a hard decision.” But considering Bollerman is not independently wealthy and lives on a teacher’s salary—it was selfless.

Her generosity sparked even more media attention, from the national ABC News to the very local Dorchester Reporter. Bollerman and her scholars (as students at UP Academy are called) graced the front page of the Boston Globe. They were invited to City Hall for a press conference with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

“That was neat. We not only got to meet the mayor, but we also got to ride in his private elevator. The kids got to sit in his chair. Those opportunities are priceless for my students,” Bollerman notes. “I told them, ‘Our mayor is from Dorchester. You’re from Dorchester—you could be mayor one day.’”

And then, Hollywood came calling. After New Year’s, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” contacted her, asking if she’d be interested in flying out to Los Angeles to be a guest on the program. That was how, on Jan. 16, Bollerman found herself sitting in a chair opposite DeGeneres.

Prompted by the affable host, Bollerman told several moving stories from her two years at UP Academy. There was the time she took a student out to the Olive Garden for dinner as a reward for good behavior. Over his second dessert, he revealed that there wasn’t much to eat at home. “I packed up the leftovers and made sure he brought them home,” Bollerman says.

Then there was the student who constantly gazed out the classroom window. Instead of reprimanding him for daydreaming, Bollerman asked what he was looking at. “He told me he liked watching the birds because they made him feel peaceful,” she recounts. Knowing his home situation was not particularly peaceful, Bollerman bought him a bird-watching book, so he could learn more about the birds he loved.

“His grandmother called me that day in tears,” she recalled. “She said that was the only gift he was going to get that Christmas.” Bollerman and her mother, a former teacher, went out and bought gifts for the boy and his sister. “Every child should have something to open on Christmas,” Bollerman explains.

DeGeneres then cut to a live video feed from UP Academy, where she had a crew assembled with Bollerman’s very excited third grade class. Praising her work as a teacher, DeGeneres explained that Target was donating 700 backpacks to the school, each filled with supplies, and that every UP Academy teacher would receive a $500 Target gift certificate to purchase items for their classrooms. Bollerman’s students were each presented with $100 Target gift certificates. Bollerman herself scored a gigantic fish aquarium full of Skittles (the candy she confesses is her guilty pleasure) along with a check for $25,000. She didn't hide her emotions—she cried openly on national television.

The Consummate Educator
Teaching at an inner-city school is not new for Bollerman. Just out of Stonehill, she moved to Washington, D.C., to teach at Imagine Hope Charter School, Tolson Campus. She spent three years there, earning accolades as Imagine Schools’ “Teacher of the Year” in 2012. When UP Academy opened in 2013, the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new urban charter school brought her back to Boston.

She credits Stonehill with setting her on her current path. “My experience in the Education Department absolutely prepared me for what I’m doing now,” she says. And my favorite professor, George Branigan [now retired], turned me on to urban education. He had us read Savage Inequalities,” a 1988 book that examined the stark differences between rich and poor school districts. “And I thought, ‘That’s it.

That’s what I’m going to do: teach in an urban school district where I can make a real difference.’”

Watching her in action in the classroom for five minutes, it’s easy to see that she is making a difference for her students. She’s a natural teacher: equal parts warm and challenging, a perennial cheerleader who’s a master of classroom management. She seems to have constant situational awareness, working with one group, periodically praising others for working quietly at their desks or encouraging them to seek help from a neighbor if they’re stuck. Writing math problems on the white board, she simultaneously affirms students. “Even though my back is turned, I know you have integrity,” she says, citing one of UP Academy’s core values.

After Christmas break, Bollerman hosted a book club during lunch one day, inviting any student who had finished My Father’s Dragon. “Almost the whole class came,” she says proudly. “I ordered pizza and chicken wings, and we talked about the book—what we thought about it, what characters we liked.” Bollerman herself belongs to a book club, a fact she shares with her students so they understand that a love of reading reaches beyond the school walls.

And though there’s no question that Bollerman loves her job, it’s also one that demands she ward off burnout. “I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by great colleagues at UP Academy, and the administration is terrific and very supportive,” she explains. “But I do have to turn it off at the end of the day. I find I’m always thinking about the kids, and I have to remind myself to unplug. I also don’t work over the summer. I’ve committed to giving myself that five-week mental break, which I think helps.”

As January turned to February, Bollerman was looking forward to getting back to her regular routine. “With all the excitement, we are just trying to return to normal,” she confesses. But in no way is she discounting the impact of this experience on  her—and even more so on her students. She says, “The best part of this whole thing has been that it’s made my students feel important, like they’re famous. And when you think about it, they probably are not going to have a lot of opportunities to be in a commercial, to be on the cover of the Globe or to meet the mayor.” For kids growing up in a high-risk environment, it’s this feeling— not the books, school supplies or even the publicity—that may be the best gift of all.

Keeping College Real

To keep the possibility of college in front of every student, each classroom at UP Academy bears the name of that teacher’s alma mater. Nicole Bollerman’s room is called Stonehill College, of course. It’s located across from the University of
Texas and is next to Wheaton College.

“When I send letters home, I address them, ‘Dear Stonehill College Families,’” she explains. “It’s kind of fun.” The practice also gives teachers a chance to show their school pride. Bollerman’s door sports a prominent Stonehill banner, and Ace the Skyhawk appears in and among student papers displayed on bulletin boards. Above the white board is a poster-sized glamour shot of campus; a Stonehill mug on Bollerman’s desk holds an assortment of pencils and pens.

In addition, such classroom names ensure college is part of the daily conversation, whether the subject at hand is fractions or non-fiction literature. “Remember, if you’re going to college,” Bollerman tells students, “you have to work hard and do well.”

To see a photo gallery of Bollerman's recent field trip to Stonehill with her Up Academy students, click here