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December 22, 2014

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Award-winning teacher finds success putting kids first

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Leila Navidi

Manda Kristof, right, helps Jacob Zell, left, with an assignment while teaching a fifth grade writing class at Ferron Elementary School in Las Vegas on Wednesday, October 31, 2012.

Teacher Manda Kristof

Manda Kristof, left, helps Andrew Rodriguez Quijano with an assignment while teaching a fifth grade writing class at Ferron Elementary School in Las Vegas on Wednesday, October 31, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Colorful sticky notes cover the side of a metal supply cabinet in Manda Kristof’s classroom.

Scrawled on each note is a testament to Kristof’s enormous impact on students and staff at William Ferron Elementary School.

“Mrs. Kristof: You are awesome,” a note from Mileena reads. “I love you with all my heart.”

Another student writes, “She is the best teacher in the world!” Twenty-five exclamation points follow.

Kristof, 36, smiles as she gazes at the wall of thank-you notes. The fifth-grade writing teacher has received countless “Thank yous” from hundreds of students who have passed through her classroom in her 15 years at the east Las Vegas elementary school.

There are stories behind all these notes, too. Those stories are why these “Thank yous” keep coming for this year’s recipient of the Myra Greenspun Teacher Excellence Award, which recognizes an exemplary public school teacher who uses innovative teaching strategies to raise student achievement.

One of these stories involves a boy — a former student — who wasn’t quite ready for middle school writing classes. Kristof spent an entire summer two years ago tutoring this child, even bringing him breakfast as an incentive.

Another story involves a Chaparral High School senior — again a former student — who was on the verge of dropping out of school. Kristof, who had the teen’s younger sibling in her class, pulled the girl into a parent-teacher conference and drafted a plan to get her to graduate. She did.

“You just know when you have a teacher who puts kids first,” says Principal Christy Beaird, who nominated Kristof for the Greenspun award. “Manda is always putting kids first.”

•••

School was like a second home to Kristof, who grew up in Norman, Okla.

Both of Kristof’s parents were educators. Her dad, before he died earlier this year, was an art teacher-turned-principal. Her mom is a high school French and Spanish teacher.

Kristof credits them for inspiring her to teach. Her parents instilled in her the transformational power of education and why it’s so important for students.

“It was never an option; I had to go to college,” says Kristof, who received scholarships to attend Oklahoma University. “But for my kids, it’s a dream and not a choice.”

Since she was recruited to the Clark County School District in 1998 — back when the nation’s fastest-growing district was hiring thousands of teachers a year — Kristof has seen a multitude of changes in Las Vegas.

Class sizes have risen as the School District became the nation’s fifth-largest. As new immigrants have moved to Las Vegas, Kristof has seen a rise in the number of English Language Learners in her classes. In recent years, Kristof has witnessed the devastating effects of the Great Recession at her school.

Nearly three-quarters of Ferron students now receive free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches. The nonprofit Three Square food pantry provides dinner for many students, but even then, it hasn’t been enough to stave off the hunger.

That’s why Kristof keeps a stash of cheese and crackers for her students.

“If kids come to school hungry, they’re not going to learn,” Kristof says. “If their stomachs are empty, their heads are going to be empty, too.”

As school supply budgets were slashed in the recession, Kristof turned to spending hundreds of her own money to keep her classroom afloat. Her husband — a local attorney — didn’t understand at first why Kristof kept putting extra supplies into her shopping carts.

“I want to make sure our kids get whatever they need,” Kristof told her husband.

Now, he’s buying extra supplies for students, too.

Kristof also wants to ensure her students' academic well-being.

Click to enlarge photo

Manda Kristof teaches a fifth grade writing class at Ferron Elementary School in Las Vegas on Wednesday, October 31, 2012.

When her mother asked what Kristof wanted for Christmas one year, she replied she wanted a new set of dictionaries for her class.

Kristof laughs.

“I think she got me a sweater, too,” she said.

•••

Despite all the challenges facing Las Vegas children, Ferron teachers have made incredible strides to raise student achievement. This year, the three-star school was just one point shy of becoming a four-star school.

Kristof has been instrumental in Ferron’s turnaround, Beaird says.

When she first stepped foot on campus in 2005, Beird says just 30 percent of Ferron students were proficient in writing.

By the end of last school year, Ferron had closed the achievement gap in English. With Kristof and other teachers’ help, Ferron boosted its writing proficiency rate to 53 percent, exceeding the state and district average of 45 percent.

Kristof credits the gains to her teaching philosophy: taking it back to the basics. She makes sure students are writing every day, and she tirelessly corrects their grammar and syntax.

It’s a never-ending battle, reminding students of proper spellings and punctuation — skills they should have mastered years ago but probably have forgotten or never learned as teachers navigate student poverty, transiency and language barriers.

“Writing is very difficult to teach,” Kristof says. “But I’m not going to let things slide before they go to middle school. That’s non-negotiable.”

Kristof keeps an up-tempo approach to her lessons, using timers to keep students on task. She’s got only 70 minutes a day to get her students up to speed and on an accelerated track toward proficiency. “Hop to it,” she tells her students.

“It has to be fast-paced to keep the kids going,” Kristof says as she bounces from child to child, dispensing advice and writing tips. “If you slow down, then they slow down.”

Kristof slows down occasionally to allow herself and her students to discuss the writing craft, reflect and set goals for their future. Throughout it all, she heaps tons of praise on her kids, often telling them: “You are all the best!”

While she tries to keep the classroom positive, the nature of a writing teacher is part educator, part counselor. Kristof reads all of her students’ journal entries, and she always writes a response.

“It’s easier to put things down on paper,” Kristof says. “It gives them an emotional outlet, too. I get to learn more about the kids, not just as students but as people.”

Sometimes what Kristof finds out from her students’ journals is troubling: suicidal thoughts, bullying, divorce, a death in the family. There are events that elementary school kids should never have witnessed.

“She’s often the first one to know there’s a problem,” Beaird says of Kristof.

Kristof always follows up, making sure her students’ needs are met. And through the years, she’s become a trusted resource, mentor and friend to countless students.

That might explain why Kristof is the most frequently visited teacher on campus, Beaird says.

It’s a common sight to see a gaggle of middle school children knocking on Kristof’s familiar door. They often return to Ferron to ask Kristof for friendly advice and help on class projects. Kristof always obliges.

“I want my kids to know they’re always my kids,” Kristof says. “I tell them I’m not going anywhere. They know how to get ahold of me.”

And that they do. Every year, the elementary writing teacher receives an invitation from former Ferron students to attend Chaparral’s graduation. Kristof always goes.

“I’ve watched them grow up,” Kristof says. “I have yet to see my children’s children, but I know it’s coming.”

“She’s made such strong connection with kids,” Beaird says. “I think that’s every principal’s dream.”

•••

Although test scores and proficiency rates are important, Kristof understands there’s more to education. Kristof strives to be a good role model to help her students become responsible and respectful citizens.

Amid posters outlining proofreading symbols, vocabulary words and classroom rules, there are posters with more practical lessons for students adorning Kristof’s classroom walls.

Top 10 ways to make smart choices. Top 10 reasons why it’s no joke to smoke. Believe. Stand up for yourself.

Click to enlarge photo

Manda Kristof helps students with assignments while teaching a fifth grade writing class at Ferron Elementary School in Las Vegas on Wednesday, October 31, 2012.

“I want my kids to be positive contributors to society,” Kristof says. “I want them to be the best they can be.”

Kristof has worked tirelessly to ensure her students become just that.

She works long past her contracted hours, preparing lessons even while she juggles two young children and a family at home.

Despite this, Kristof is among the most energetic teachers in the school, Beaird says, showing off yearbook photos that show Kristof decked out in costumes for spirit days and Halloween.

Kristof even has found time to start an afterschool homework club, a Saturday writing camp and a journalism club that last month published Ferron’s first school newspaper, Beaird says.

There is a minuscule stipend of about $800 Beaird has in her budget for extracurricular clubs, split among about a half-dozen teachers. But Kristof isn’t doing these things for the money.

“Manda doesn’t do it for any other reason than it’s for the kids,” Beaird says. “She is one of the most selfless people I know.”

Kristof understands the consequences of failing to engage students and teach good manners and responsibility. For the past seven years, Kristof and her colleague Julie Bellavia — a Ferron school counselor — have been working a second job for the Clark County gang intervention team, helping high school students caught selling drugs and getting in trouble.

Kristof can be found two nights a week during the school year at the Cambridge Center in a rough part of town, helping troubled teens earn their high school equivalency diploma and fulfill their court-ordered community service requirements by cleaning up graffiti.

Sometimes, Kristof will see a former student there.

“That’s hard, she says. “It’s sad to see them back there. But our role is for them to get an education and then a job.”

Bellavia agrees: “Manda believes in her heart that everyone can learn, no matter where they come from.”

Teachers have been learning from Kristof, as well, Beaird adds. Kristof has volunteered to be videotaped to help incoming educators learn about good teaching practices. She’s even sat down with principals at other schools to help them improve in writing, just like Ferron did.

“I’ve never worked with a teacher who so consistently goes above and beyond,” Beaird says. “She lives that as a teacher and as a person.”

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  1. Great story. Thank you, Ms. Kristof for your service to the community.

    One of my now-retired teachers was gifted like this. She's now Facebook friends with hundreds of former(adult)students.

    These are the kind of teachers we NEED, and should be paying handsomely.

  2. This teacher is a shining star and we all should appreciate her. One class act!

  3. There is plenty of work and reward for dedicated teachers. Thank you, Ms. Kristof.

  4. What an awesome article. It is great to see educators making a profound difference in their students' lives.

    What is sad is that she can't be financially rewarded by her job. A valued employee is unable to earn extra compensation for her extra-ordinary efforts due to the teacher's unions, which rewards employees for tenure, not results. Sadly, there is a below average or incompetent educator making the same or more than Kristof.

    Once again, congratulations and good article.

  5. You nailed it Eddie...that's why public employee unions need to be disbanded, the last concern of the union is good teachers.