With a little yelp, lots of tears and a bouquet of flowers from her developmentally disabled twin sister, who inspired her to help students persevere, special educator Ketia C. Stokes was named Baltimore City's 2013 Teacher of the Year.
The Green Street Academy teacher was surprised with the honor in an emotional gathering at the school Thursday morning, which included Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso and her family.
"You are the epitome of all that's good in my eyes," said Alonso, who started his teaching career as a special educator and pointed out that Stokes was the first special-education teacher to receive the honor in his nearly six-year tenure.
Stokes, a founding member of the "green"-themed middle-high school, where she teaches a self-contained classroom of students on the autism spectrum, was chosen from among more than 300 nominees for the honor after a rigorous review by a panel of teachers that included essays, recommendations, interviews and classroom observations.
"When you go into teaching, it's not something you do for money or the accolades," Stokes said. "I was called to be a teacher. It was my gift."
The gift, her mother said, was given to her in the womb. Her twin sister, Lekia Sokes, was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 18 months old and was not expected to live past the age of 5.
"God gave me both of them to be used in different ways," said Linda Stokes. "All along, she never left her sister behind. So I feel her sister pulled her into her gift."
Stokes said that her sister's education — which she helped shape since the age of 8 in Sunday school and church camps — inspired her to ensure that other students got the same opportunities.
"I'm so happy to say that 33 years later, she's still here with me because we didn't have that promise," Stokes told her colleagues and students as her beaming sister stood next to her at the gathering Thursday. "I have truly seen what can happen when they have someone who loves them."
Stokes' mother said Lekia helps her sister set up her classroom at the beginning of the school year and is the first to receive instruction from her lesson plans.
Lekia even pretends to be a teacher, instructing imaginary students in her room, her mother said.
"They share everything spiritually," Linda Stokes said. "She always comes back to her sister."
Green Street's principal, Crystal Lindsey, said that Stokes' compassion and commitment have helped her during her first year heading the school.
"Sometimes when I'm making decisions, she's that voice in the back of my head saying, 'You have to make decisions for all of the children,' " Lindsey said.
Among Stokes' accomplishments in her career at Green Street — where she has taught since 2010 and where she says teachers "can dare to be different" — is serving as a mentor, literacy leader and learning strategist, school officials said.
Stokes, 33, earned her undergraduate degree in communication sciences and disorders from James Madison University and her master's in special education from Coppin State University. She has been teaching for seven years, all in the city.
In her classroom, she developed a "peer buddy" system, which pairs her autistic students with students from general education classrooms.
One of Stokes' chief philosophies is fostering independence and confidence in students, and challenging them to go beyond their comfort zones.
Her class was recently recognized by the Passport to Assisted Living program, and visited by the authors of the Styer-Fitzgerald Program for Functional Academics, a curriculum that promotes teaching real-world skills to students with mild, moderate and severe disabilities.
Stokes noted that honor also comes during Autism Awareness Month, and her mother said that her commitment to connect and educate her autistic students and their families extends beyond the classroom.
For example, this school year, she also obtained memberships for the families of her 11 students to the Autism Society, using money from her students' recycling program at M&T Bank Stadium to finance the memberships.
Stokes said being Teacher of the Year is more motivation.
"The work is not done," she said. "This inspires me to do more."
For the honor, Stokes will receive a $1,000 cash prize, $2,500 toward professional development and $1,000 for materials for a classroom project, contributed by the Fund for Educational Excellenceand the Kurt L. Schmoke Teacher Recognition Endowment Fund. She also receives awards from various businesses, including Lebanese Taverna, Canton Car Wash and the Baltimore Orioles.
She will represent the city in the competition for Maryland Teacher of the Year.
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