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Mayor Bloomberg Presents Education Alumna with Big Apple Award for Teaching

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A double alumna of St. John's University is one of 11 New York City educators to receive the inaugural Big Apple Award, presented jointly by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

Following a rigorous evaluation process, Catherine Downey ’07Ed, ’08G, who teaches fifth grade at P.S. 128 in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, NY, was chosen from among 2,000 nominees for the prestigious award.

The program recognizes the city’s best teachers while encouraging a larger conversation about excellence in the classroom. Honored in June with a ceremony at Gracie Mansion, the Mayor’s official residence, Downey and her fellow recipients each will receive a $3,500 classroom grant to enhance their work with students.

At St. John's Staten Island campus, Downey served as an undergraduate student worker and a graduate assistant for The School of Education. She also served a two-year term as President of Kappa Delta Pi (KDP), the international honor society for education.

Susann Ragone, Assistant Dean in the School, worked closely with Downey throughout her time at St. John's. "I can't say enough about her,” Ragone declared. “I'm not surprised to learn that she earned this award.”

Downey traces her interest in education to the influence of her mother, who has taught at St. Anselm’s School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, for many years. "I remember watching her correct homework in the evenings,” Downey said. “Some of my friends were in her class, and they loved her. She always considered her students her ‘other kids.’”

Today, many of Downey’s students require ESL services and, consequently, a visually creative approach to classroom instruction. "Without a command of the language,” she noted,” social studies content can be quite difficult to understand.”

A recent lesson illustrates her approach to clarifying challenging concepts. To explain the Mayan caste system, Downey randomly distributed chocolates of various sizes to students, who were assigned to different castes. She then instructed the students in the lower castes to relinquish their chocolates to higher-caste classmates, an exercise that helped them to understand the system. (No tears were shed during the lesson—a testament to Downey’s skill in classroom management.)

In addition to her work in the classroom, Downey is a member of the P.S. 128 leadership team and coordinates the after-school program. She also regularly volunteers for special functions including school spirit events, movie nights and state test preparation sessions. And, at St. Anselm’s, Downey’s choreography enlivens student theatrical productions.

The benefits to studying at the Staten Island campus are many, said Downey. "You know everyone on campus, which is great,” she said. “Your advisors really guide you in the right direction. They have an open-door policy and are very nurturing. I think other schools aren’t as warm and personal—at St. John’s, I really felt like part of the family."

Downey, Ragone stressed, was instrumental in helping KDP to win an ACE Award for chapter excellence. "She would develop an idea and see it through from start to finish," she said. Downey’s efforts included collecting used prom gowns for a local organization that donated them to girls who otherwise would be unable to afford them.

"Katie was a very well-rounded student," Ragone said. "Her enthusiasm and dedication had such an impact on her fellow students and professors. They obviously realized there was something special about her even then."