For the fifth time in ten years, a Maryland teacher is one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award. Athanasia Kyriakakos is the first Baltimore City teacher to reach those heights.
Kyriakakos, the only visual arts teacher at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School, or Mervo, was chosen for her dedication to her students and her commitment to teaching art as a critical thinking skill.
She started at Mervo, the biggest high school in Baltimore, four years ago and found the school didn’t do much in the way of proudly showcasing its students’ work in the glass display cases that line the halls.
“All the windows . . . they had dust that was half an inch tall and they had never been changed for at least 15-20 years,” she recalled.
She says she was told when she came to the school, she couldn’t hang art on the walls because students would vandalize it. So, Ms. K, as her students affectionately call her, started cleaning the display cases and hanging her students’ work.
“All the kids would congregate around it, talk about it, take pride in it,” she said. “People were coming up to me and saying, 'wow our kids are so talented.'”
Now, the cases hold x- rays, medical bottles and books, representing some of the trades students can learn there, along with paintings and clay busts.
Kyriakakos says it wasn’t an easy road to get them to this point. Most students, seniors by the time they take her course, foundations of art, have only had one, or maybe two, art classes at best in city schools.
She says that minimal background makes it a struggle to get them to the point where they understand how to draw and “create their own, independent compositions.”
But by the end of her class “they understand highlighting, shadowing, all the technical skills. And that’s where they’re supposed to be coming to me at that level in drawing and in art,”
Lori Snyder, of Arts Education in Maryland Schools, or AEMS, says students in other schools across the state have consistent visual arts and music education from kindergarten to 8th grade. But in Baltimore City “students most likely will not have that consistent access to the arts.”
“So their first exposure might be when they get to high school to take that fine arts credit,” she said.
In her class, Ms. K talks about building resilience, perseverance and patience. The semester starts with a blind contour drawing, then sculpture, and eventually a decadent, colorful, self-portrait full of dreams and expression.
She even has former students who return to keep painting. James Anderson is one of them. He comes to school early, stays late or squeezes time in between classes to paint. He’s working on his fourth painting which features not just him, but his brothers.
“My other two is already hanging up. I’m real happy about how I completed it,” he said. “One of my paintings is about me. I made it look realistic so that’s why I continue doing this.”
To make the paintings, Kyriakakos has her students research Renaissance painters, African cultural symbols and photography, to develop a self-portrait in a pose that symbolizes power to them. It’s a technique she developed from the artistic process of renowned African American painter, Kehinde Wiley.
Alexander Freeman, a 12th grader who wants to be a mechanical engineer, was working on a portrait of himself in what he calls a typical Baltimore teen pose, stylized in a white t shirt and jeans.
“The way the picture is, the sunlight is there,” he explained. “I have to balance the colors to make sure I have the reflections. “It is simple, basic but it has a story behind it.”
Freeman says his long-time role model, Lor Scoota, a rapper who was murdered at a traffic light in Northeast Baltimore last year, inspired the backdrop of the painting.
“The team he is a part of is YBS, the Young Ballers Shining, and what they see is young Baltimore teens becoming things that they never thought they would become,” he explained. “That’s why I put the stars there to symbolizing shining.”
The fact that several students, Alex included, are here painting after they finished the course, speaks to Ms. K’s expectations -- she pushes them to make their own masterpieces.
Though Kyriakakos says she has the resources and support she needs at Mervo, she worries that arts programs will be the first victims of what will likely be sweeping cuts to close City Schools’ $130 million budget gap.
“Just as we’re tapping into their potential we’re saying, 'you know that was enough of you looking in your future,'” she said. “'Let’s close that door, you don’t need that.'”
Meanwhile, she waits to hear whether she could be the national winner, and possibly the first Baltimore City teacher to reach those heights. The award will be announced at the White House this spring.