McNary High School's Heidi Tavares received a Crystal Apple from the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation Nov. 7. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

McNary High School’s Heidi Tavares received a Crystal Apple from the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation Nov. 7. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

It’s all too easy for critics to stand by and point to high school students that don’t meet state standards, using individual struggles to diminish the public school system as a whole.

McNary High School’s Heidi Tavares is doing something about it.

“(Mrs. Tavares) taught me that dedication to achieving goals pays off and that it is a lifestyle choice,” wrote Taylor Purkey in a letter nominating Tavares for a Crystal Apple. “It takes her kind of heart to be a good teacher.”

The Crystal Apple, awarded by the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation, honors excellence in education. Tavares laid claim to one at a ceremony Thursday, Nov. 7. She was one of three Keizer teachers to earn the award.

Tavares teaches ninth grade English classes, a freshman AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) class, and runs the school’s writing workshop class for seniors who haven’t met state standards. In at least one way, Purkey’s praise was right on the money.

“My husband said the Crystal Apple was like my white whale. A few years back I decided that it was something I wanted and I’ve been working toward it ever since,”  Tavares said. “Each year before this year, I would go home after the nominations were announced a little disappointed. It was huge just to get the nomination, much less the actual award.”

For all the times she may have doubted herself, there was one person who never did: her father.

“I’ve wanted to teach since I was a little kid. My dad built me a chalkboard and desk for my bedroom,” she said. When she told him of her desire for earning a Crystal Apple, his only response was, “I know you will.”

She worked toward the award in ways large and small. She offered after-school assistance in reading and writing for students willing to push themselves. In hope of inspiring students to attend college, Tavares took it upon herself to find out all the degrees earned by McNary faculty. She took the list to a graphic designer and now each teacher’s degrees are listed under their names outside their homerooms.

Those are in addition to her regular duties inside the classroom.

“With the freshmen, my task is making it relevant to them, making them see that no matter what they do, they are going to need to read and write a little bit,” she said.

Tavares, who has taught at McNary for eight years after a four-year stint in middle school, joined the AVID faculty thinking the students represented a slightly easier task.

“They all want to go to college, but they don’t have the support and the families don’t have the experience to relay to them,” she said.

While both of those groups present their own challenges, the one that offers the most immediate return on investment is the writing workshop. In that course, students are in such dire straits that their low comprehension of writing is putting their graduation in peril.

“It gives me a chance to see how I make a difference. A lot of them come in and they struggle, but then you see them crying because they passed a paper,” she said.

She covers everything essential to writing: ideas and content, organization, sentence fluency and conventions (grammar).

“Talking about punctuation isn’t fun, but I need them to get it. I don’t want them in here second semester, I want to know that they got out of this class and got to enjoy their senior year rather than be stuck in here with all the pressure,” she said.

The award gave her a too-rare glimpse into the difference she’s made in students’ lives. Former students, alongside coworkers, were the ones to nominate her. It was another reminder of something the students have repeatedly taught her over the years:

“Never judge a book by its cover. I’ve had kids come in looking totally sharp and clever and thought they were going to be A students, and they bombed. Some are rough around the edges and they’re amazing,” she said.