NAFC Presents the Third Annual Allies in Education Award.

Newtown Allies for Change (NAFC) is pleased to announce Ariana Leggio, second-grade teacher at Middle Gate Elementary and Erika Carlson, Library Media Specialist at Hawley Elementary School, as the 3rd annual Allies in Education award winners. The awards were presented on May 30th at the Newtown Community Center.

In April, NAFC asked educators, administrators, and community members to nominate educators who have gone above and beyond in making their learning spaces more inclusive. Nominees submitted their biographies, highlighting their work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). From those nominations, the NAFC Board selected individuals they believe most successfully created learning environments that are culturally and racially inclusive. This year, in addition to the two educators, NAFC also awarded monetary gifts to the Student Advocates for Diversity and Equity (S.A.D.E.) club at Newtown High School.  

“My awakening to the need for work in Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Education began with my complete unawareness of the systemic obstacles Black, Indigenous, People of Color were facing, and currently still face, when I took a teaching position in Key West, Florida,” stated Ms. Carlson. Recognizing that she had an incredible gap in her understanding of what BIPOC faced, Carlson spent time reading and educating herself. Upon returning to New England, she worked hard to help diversify the books and materials in the library. “I love when students share with me how a book is similar to them or their family because of the holidays they celebrate, or that the book’s characters are similar to themselves in looks, culture, and language,” she writes, “It helps our students understand themselves and bridge the gap to students who, at first, may not seem to be like them on the surface.” Carlson understands that empathy and understanding are key to helping students grow in relationships with one another. She was very honored to receive this prize acknowledging her hard work.

Ariana Leggio has been passionate about having a diverse classroom library since she was in college. By receiving the Dr. Ernest Leighton Bond Classroom Library award during her undergraduate studies at Salisbury University, she was fortunate to be granted a plethora of books that represent students’ races, ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations, and disabilities. This sparked her interest in wanting to gain more insight on how to utilize these books effectively. While earning her master’s degree at Sacred Heart University, Ms. Leggio published a thesis titled Diversifying Classroom Libraries in Elementary Schools by Providing Mirrors and Windows to All Students. She has shown a commitment to DEI in her Newtown classroom by using her diverse classroom library to spark conversations among her students in hopes of having this generation become more accepting of others. 

This year the Allies in Education Awards were sponsored by three local businesses whose owners are dedicated to investing in Newtown educators who make a conscientious effort to make classrooms more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Those businesses are Social Décor, owned by Marissa and Jay Rizzo, Sky Blue Designs, owned by Nicole Powers and Prism House Painting Plus, owned by Alex Villamil. Social Decor and Sky Blue Designs have both generously contributed to our educators since the inception of this award.

Social Decor is a lighting and fabric design company for extra special events based in Newtown. They offer elevated, inspired lighting & fabric draping solutions for weddings, celebrations, social events, corporate functions, and commercial productions. The Rizzos believe that diversity, equity and inclusion in educational spaces is imperative for the community and must be valued and fostered. They believe that now, more than ever, it is important to recognize teachers who create safe and inclusive learning environments where diverse voices and stories are centered and celebrated.

Sky Blue Designs creates fun and fashionable handmade beaded fashion jewelry with beads from around the world. Nicole Powers also makes her own lampwork glass beads which she incorporates into her jewelry. Sky Blue Designs is proud to support Newtown educators through Allies in Education. An elementary school librarian recently told Ms. Powers that a student picked out a book with a Muslim family on the cover. The boy pointed to one of the children on the cover and said, “Hey, this kid looks like me!” Powers hopes this award facilitates learning by helping everyone feel included in the classroom. 

Prism House Painting Plus is a first time donor to the Allies in Education award. Prism House Painting Plus has been in business for the past thirty-one years. They deal primarily with residential work, not only in interior and exterior house painting, but also kitchen and bathroom remodeling, floor installation, roofing, and gutter replacement. Prism House Painting Plus is very happy to sponsor an award that supports a profession that is often overlooked, overworked, and underpaid. Mr. Villamil says that teachers are the backbone of a free thinking and productive society, and they should be treated like rock stars and supported at every level. 

Over 25 people were in attendance for the event, including educators from Newtown schools and other surrounding communities, Newtown Board of Education members and members of Newtown Allies for Change. Participants enjoyed food, some of which was graciously donated by Uncle Matt’s Bakery and Chef Micah Foote. 

The presentation opened by announcing all of the nominees and gifting them with books to help further their journeys in becoming anti-racist. Attendees also heard from previous years’ winners about how they used the gifts they had received. It was exciting to hear how local educators have used gifts from businesses to help diversify their libraries as well as help offset costs for their own education. As educators grow in their own knowledge, they are able to pass it along to their students.

Prior to the event, educators were given the opportunity to submit questions to the panel. One question which was discussed in small groups: “How can we incorporate DEI into every single subject?” Each table was assigned a subject and discussed how inclusion could be incorporated in that particular area of study. The ideas ranged from including non-Eurocentric artists and composers for music and art classes to discussing how science and math were improved by efforts and work from BIPOC. They also discussed how educators thought the school district was performing when it came to the DEIA resolution enacted in 2020. While some thought there was some growth, many educators in attendance agreed that there needed to be a better effort by the school district to incorporate more professional development training for all of their employees.

In addition to healthy discussions about allyship and anti-racist efforts in the school, the event was interspersed with fun moments of prizes donated by local Newtown businesses, including Amazon gift cards donated by a private Newtown resident, and free haircuts and stylings donated by Smoke and Mirrors hair salon. 

Alongside casual conversation celebrating the end of another school year and excitedly sharing hopes for what is to come in the future, was the rare opportunity to talk openly and honestly about race. Attendees appreciated the opportunity to share with one another the difficulties and frustrations that come with teaching. Overall, the afternoon was a time to celebrate Newtown educators and demonstrate to them that their efforts have not gone unnoticed. 

NAFC congratulates the winners and looks forward to expanding this award ceremony in years to come.