Surprise! Three of Camden’s Top Teachers Get RISE Award The Shocked Teachers Also Were Each Handed a $5,000 Check
By Neill Borowski
CAMDEN, NJ – When a large group of education and government leaders burst into Erica Nelms’ classroom at KIPP Lanning Square Primary School on Friday, she looked up in shock and then was overcome with emotion as they told her she was one of three Camden teachers recognized this year with the 2023 RISE Teaching Awards from the Camden Education Fund.
Across town, English Language Arts teacher Iran Mercado dropped into a slump as the group of adults sprang the surprise of his RISE award from the door of his Creative Arts High School classroom.
And, at Mastery Molina Upper School, English Language Arts teacher Reyna Sosa-Gomez clutched the RISE award as it was presented to her.
Vehicles filled with education, city and county officials drove from school to school for a few midday hours on Friday to celebrate some of the city’s most-devoted and effective teachers, who were nominated by their principals with recommendations from colleagues, students or families.
Each teacher was presented with a $5,000 check from the nonprofit Education Fund to be used in any way they choose. It was the third annual RISE Teaching Awards presentation by the Camden Education Fund.
Students in the three classrooms burst into cheers and applauded their teachers as colleagues crowded into the rooms.
“I just love my city,” said Mercado, 31, who graduated from Creative Arts and now lives in the city with his family. “I love these students around me,” he said after getting the award.
Mercado looked across the room at Davida Coe-Brockington, the school principal, and smiled. Coe-Brockington was principal when Mercado was a student.
“I am only trying to be to my students what you were to us,” he said to her.
As the applause and cheers died down, Mercado looked out at his students and reminded them what was coming up: “You still have that quiz.”
“We are honored to partner with the city and its public schools to honor and reward outstanding educators for their work in the classroom,” Camden Education Fund Executive Director Giana Campbell said in a statement. “There is no more important responsibility than educating, caring for, and guiding our youth.”
Sosa-Gomez, 35, a Lindenwold resident, said using her Spanish language skills was one of the factors that attracted her to Mastery Molina, after previously teaching in Las Vegas.
Her embrace of the language was evident in her nomination, as well: “She supports our Spanish-speaking families in navigating mental and behavioral health resources, acts as translator in…meetings, and is a constant ambassador at events,” her school administration wrote in her nominating note.
Sosa-Gomez was credited with solid academics in her seventh- and eighth-grade middle-school intervention class. But the teacher goes beyond teaching the material, the nomination noted, she also introduced career and life skills.
“On Fridays, the group explores the different careers, maps the pathway and creates a budget based on earning potential that includes car, rent, groceries, toiletries, etc. It always elicits laughs from the adults when students learn how much is taken out in taxes; and the Lamborghini dreams are deflated!” according to her nomination.
Nelms, the Lanning Square school winner, grew up in Cinnaminson and now lives in Philadelphia. The 30-year-old teacher is expecting her first child in July, but at one point in the ceremony said that all the students in the classroom are viewed by her as her children.
Her nomination cited the positive achievement outcomes of her students, calling her “the definition of a totally revolutionary teacher.”
Nelms ” doesn’t miss an opportunity to build relationships with her students or families. When there is a student in need, Ms. Nelms is the first to volunteer her support! Working in the community of Camden, Ms. Nelms not only recognizes the challenges but embraces them with love, patience, and support.”
At Creative Arts, Mercado got similar accolades from his nominators.
“He is beyond deserving of the Camden RISE Award because the word rise is what he has continually done for our students and as well as parents,” one parent wrote of Mercado in his nomination package. “He is a beacon of hope, light, grace, and love or our youth. Knowing that he resides and has been reared in this city creates hope, faith, resilience, and pride for our children.”
Camden Ed Fund