By Mike LaBella
---- — He stays late after school to give students extra help so they don’t become overwhelmed and drop out.
He plays basketball with them during the day, saying it’s an opportunity for him to connect with them in a different way. Once a week, he takes them to a ropes course to build trust and encourage teamwork.
“It puts kids in a position where, by the end of the program, I’m putting my safety into their hands, and it all transfers back into the classroom,” said Jay Schaefer, a math teacher at the Haverhill Alternative School. “They know I believe in them and that I know they can succeed.”
For going above and beyond for his students, Schaefer was named this year’s Educator of the Year by the Haverhill YMCA.
He is the fifth person to be honored since the program began in 2009.
“Anything beyond being nominated would have been a surprise to me,” Schaefer said. “When they announced the winner, I stood up and began clapping, not realizing it was for myself.”
Schaefer is the first teacher from the Alternative School to receive the honor. The school is for students who have trouble succeeding in a traditional classroom setting and need special attention.
“For me it was kind of neat to have our school recognized in that light, in that it put us on the map in a good way,” Schaefer said.
The YMCA held its annual awards program on Oct. 30 at DiBurro’s function hall, where Schaefer was one of 10 nominees.
“The whole night was about bringing different parts of the school district together to say we all do good work and that we all care about what we do,” Schaefer said.
During the celebration, the YMCA presented its Community Partnership Award to Lester Schindel, its Commitment to Community Award to Andrew Herlihy, and its Volunteer of the Year Award to Sandra Kerwin.
In addition to Schaefer being named Haverhill’s top educator, every student at the Alternative School received a free membership to the YMCA.
“For me, that went above and beyond anything I expected,” said Schaefer, who received a $100 gift card courtesy of Target in Haverhill and a $50 gift card courtesy of Staples in Plaistow.
He also received citations from state Rep. Brian Dempsey, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, Mayor James Fiorentini and state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives.
Tracy Fuller, executive director of the Haverhill YMCA, said Schaefer embodies what the YMCA looks for in an Educator of the Year because of his commitment to helping his students grow and learn.
“He likes to think outside the box when working with students, and I found that to be inspirational,” Fuller said.
John DePolo, principal of the Alternative School, nominated Schaefer, with his work ethic and constant energy to support at-risk young people, rivals anyone he has worked with in the past 23 years.
“The creativity in the curriculum and effort that Jay puts into connecting with his students is remarkable,” DePolo said.
Schaefer wants his students to learn “real life math” as well as textbook math, so he gets them involved in following the stock market, balancing check books and solving daily group word problems that require critical thinking.
The majority of Schaefer’s students arrive in his classroom well below grade level and therefore require a customized approach to learning,
Twice each week, Schaefer stays late so his students can make up work, get extra help or simply connect with him for support if need be.
“A lot of kids, when they fall behind, feel they’ll never get caught up,” Schaefer said. “I don’t want to see that happen. We push all of our kids to graduate.”
After classes let out last Friday, Schaefer accompanied one of his students on a 5K practice run in preparation for the school’s first 5K Run/Walk on Nov. 10. He wanted to be sure the boy could make the run safely.
“He never ran in a race before,’’ Schaefer said, “and wasn’t sure if he could do it.’’
What makes Jay Schaefer a special teacher
Stays at school late to help students in danger of dropping out
Plays basketball with students to connect with them
Takes students to a ropes course to build trust and teamwork
Uses “real life math” — has students follow the stock market and balance check books
Went running with a student to help him prepare for a 5K school-sponsored race