2019 Princeton Prize for Distinguished Secondary School Teaching Honorees

Princeton University will honor four outstanding New Jersey secondary school teachers at its 2019 Commencement on Tuesday, June 4.

This year’s recipients of the Princeton Prize for Distinguished Secondary School Teaching are Kimberly Dickstein of Haddonfield Memorial High School, Kevin Killian of Pascack Hills High School, Petrina Plunkett of Lawrence Middle School and Arun Srivastava of High Tech High School.

The teachers were selected for the award based on nominations from public and private schools around the state. They each will receive $5,000, as well as $3,000 for their school libraries.

“Although the four prize winners teach across a range of subject areas, grade levels and types of schools, they all demonstrate a remarkable ability to profoundly influence the lives of their students,” said Todd Kent, director of Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation. “Each of these individuals is a masterful teacher, but their influence extends well beyond the walls of their classrooms. The work of these four teachers is truly inspiring, and they remind us that teachers play such important and meaningful roles in their communities, as well.”

The staff of the Program in Teacher Preparation, in reviewing the applications, considers recommendations from colleagues and students as well as evidence of the teachers’ accomplishments in the school and the community. From the initial pool of applicants, 10 finalists are selected and visited at their schools by Rosanne Zeppieri, a member of the program staff. The winners are then selected by a committee chaired by Elizabeth Colagiuri, deputy dean of the college, that also includes Kent; Jennifer Jennings, professor of sociology and public affairs, Woodrow Wilson School; Stanley Katz, a lecturer with the rank of professor in public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School; and Steve Cochrane, superintendent of the Princeton Public Schools and a 1981 Princeton University graduate.

Princeton has honored secondary school teachers since 1959 after receiving an anonymous gift from an alumnus to establish the program.

Teachers honored this year are:

Kimberly Dickstein

For Kimberly Dickstein, words printed on a page aren’t static as they might appear, but instead, they can become a vital part of one’s lived experience. For the past 11 years as an English teacher at Haddonfield Memorial High School, Dickstein has made reading an active experience for her students, connecting assigned texts with performances and service activities.

“Her work with close reading of texts along with kinesthetic activities has made a dramatic difference in the way her classroom looks and functions compared to others,” said Principal Tammy McHale. “Students do not simply sit and discuss or debate. They are moving around the room, the auditorium, or other areas of the campus and beyond, acting out exchanges within the text to deepen their understanding.”

Dickstein has engaged local theater companies, bookstores and festivals in developing companion activities for her students, particularly those taking Greek Drama and Shakespeare electives she developed at the high school. “I wanted to build a page-to-stage program of study that went beyond the classroom and brought the texts to life,” she wrote in her application for the award. “We would take what we do in the classroom to the community and vice versa.”

After introducing her classes to “A Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah, a story about the trauma endured by a child soldier, she connected with a former child solider in South Sudan named Garang Buk Buk Piol, who shared his real-life experiences via Skype. In speaking with Piol, they learned he needed to demonstrate financial stability in order to attend a master’s program at Emory University. The students and community, led by Dickstein, then raised more than $50,000 in support of his education.

“She is a selfless leader and truly dedicates her life to helping others,” said a student. “She recognizes that teaching is not just about teaching the material, but teaching and inspiring students to be a part of something that is much bigger than themselves.”

Kevin Killian

Any student who asks Kevin Killian when they’ll ever use math after graduating is likely to receive a laundry list of ideas. Killian, who worked for two decades as an engineer before becoming a mathematics teacher and robotics adviser at Pascack Hills High School, is known for his ability to make even the most challenging math relatable.

“His love of math is infectious,” said colleague Charleen Schwartzman. “Through Kevin’s lens, kids are able to see math’s beauty and power and realize that math is all around us.”

“Whether it be through shopping, engineering, physics, sports or business examples, Mr. Killian makes sure every student is learning in a way he understands, relates to and can apply,” said a student. “The students who typically do not enjoy math are very engaged in his classes.”

Killian teaches ninth-grade algebra, in addition to pre-calculus and statistics. He coaches the district’s national-award-winning FIRST Robotics team, “The Pascack Pi-oneers,” and in 2017, he was named the district’s Teacher of the Year. 

“Mr. Killian has helped to mentor coaches and students from robotics programs around the state, thus modeling what it means to give of one’s time and talents for the benefit of others,” said Mark Russo, district supervisor of mathematics and computer science.

Killian also has served as a mentor to his colleagues at Pascack Hills, and he has been instrumental in improving teaching and learning in the schools, Russo said.

“Mr. Killian is an absolute lynchpin in the Pascack Hills community, and he works tirelessly and consistently to enrich the lives of students, colleagues and members of the larger community,” Russo said.

Petrina Plunkett

Petrina Plunkett’s influence is felt throughout Lawrence Middle School, where she is a seventh-grade language arts teacher and literacy coach.

“Without exaggeration, Petrina has impacted countless students through her own classroom, as well as the students of other teachers she has inspired,” said a colleague.

In addition to teaching classes and advising fellow teachers, Plunkett coordinates activities that build community and improve literacy in all subject areas.

Twice a year, Plunkett organizes a Family Book Night where students and community members come together to discuss a book. She also hosts book discussions for staff members, supplementing the reading with online materials for more in-depth discourse.

“Whether in person or online, Petrina eagerly shares her knowledge with staff members from all disciplines, demonstrating her ability to support and inspire all staff towards the common goal of increasing schoolwide literacy,” said Jennifer Cline, a fellow teacher.

Both educators and students praised Plunkett’s ability to motivate even the most “reluctant learners.”

“Mrs. Plunkett always found creative and interactive ways to get students interested in her classes,” said a student. “I could tell that even classmates who disliked language arts had fun and learned with Mrs. Plunkett. She found ways to relate our lessons to real-world issues and experiences.”

“Mrs. Plunkett does not treat us like her students, she treats us like we are her very own children,” said another student. “She encourages us to try new things and branch out, in and out of the classroom.”

Arun Srivastava

Arun Srivastava is an educational leader and innovator at High Tech High School in Secaucus, where he brings his experience in zoology and scientific research into the classroom.

Among other high-level classes, Srivastava teaches a Medical Intervention course and AP Seminar and AP Research in a district with a large percentage of at-risk students. On any given day, his students can be found investigating how bacteria spread and develop antibiotic resistance. As part of their studies, they take pictures of bacterial colonies to feed into an app and check bacterial DNA sequences against a national database.

“As a teacher, Dr. Arun Srivastava has cultivated the significance of expanding one’s own horizon,” said a student. “He is a leading example of entertaining one’s own curiosity.”

Outside the classroom, Srivastava has led students on field observations of animals. He coordinates the Young Science Achievers Program, mentoring students through research projects they complete throughout the school year.

Srivastava founded an annual schoolwide competition on zoological topics, and he organizes the school’s science fair program, preparing students for local and national competitions in which they have won awards each year. 

The apiculture club he established teaches students to observe bees, collect honey and wax, and turn bee products into lip balm and soap. He developed the club into an academic course, as well as a company called Hive Tech Honey, where students learn about business, marketing and food, in addition to science.

“He truly enjoys teaching and his students respond to his enthusiasm and devotion to his craft,” said Nina Lavlinskaia, a science instructor at High Tech High School.


Denise Valenti for the Office of Communications