Who’s Next: Education: 19 up-and-comers preparing Pittsburgh for the future

Updated 12:05 p.m.

The Incline’s third annual Who’s Next: Education class includes teachers and mentors. But it also includes boosters of student journalism, a medical expert teaching students how to save lives in a mass shooting, instructors working to keep the arts alive in schools, administrators with creative responses to budget constraints, educators bettering services for immigrants and refugee students, and many more.  

Who’s Next, presented by S&T Bank, is our chance to recognize up-and-coming dynamos in Pittsburgh and to introduce you today to tomorrow’s leaders and influencers.

And we’re excited to introduce this class of innovative and dedicated educators.

Meet them here and then get your ticket to join us at a happy hour in their honor on June 26.

This Who’s Next class is in session.

Ryann Barr

English Teacher, Valley High School

Age 40 (note: under 40 at time of nomination)

Lots of teachers go above and beyond for their students, and for students at New Kensington’s Valley High School, Ryann Barr is no different. An English teacher, Barr is often much more than that to her students — some of whom are dealing with absent or drug-addicted parents, food or housing insecurity, teen pregnancy or just limited resources, her Who’s Next nominator said.

Barr offers students creative instruction designed to engage and meet them where they are. This includes current events and pop culture-based discussions in her 10th grade honors classroom, offering a relevant, local topic — such as Amazon, urban planning/gentrification, or Antonio Brown — and giving the students a chance to deliberate.

One student wrote in a classroom journal recently that he enjoys this particular lesson and how Barr actually listens to his opinion, adding, “She wants to know what I am thinking. Not many people ask me questions like this.”

Barr attended the University of Pittsburgh and North Carolina State University and lives in Aspinwall.

Jenise Brown

Museum Educator, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Age 32

🔗 LinkedIn

Jenise Brown is an aquatic ecologist who currently works as an educator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Her mission? To communicate science to the public and train middle and high school students to undertake real scientific research themselves.

Brown spent nearly the first decade of her career as a researcher, but found that her discoveries were only reaching other scientists. She has since collaborated on revising a substantial part of the biology and chemistry curriculum used in the museum’s home school and summer camp courses and has written new courses designed around ecological field studies.

Brown also works for Rivers of Steel, a National Heritage Area, where she teaches environmental science on a specially designed education boat on Pittsburgh’s three rivers. “The main drivers of my career over the years have been my love of science — particularly ecology and evolution — and my desire to communicate science to as vast an audience as possible,” Brown told The Incline. “I want everyone to be able to understand and get excited about science, not just academics.”

Brown attended the University of South Florida and University of Pittsburgh and lives in Squirrel Hill.

Kelli Canonge

Education Specialist, Penn State University

Age 37

🔗 LinkedIn

Kelli Canonge is an education specialist whose work has focused on closing the achievement gap for marginalized students. Canonge has helped first-generation and low-income students matriculate to post-secondary education after high school, and her Who’s Next nominator calls Canonge an “innovative counselor who proactively stays current with the ever-changing trends in education.”

Canonge has served on the Penn State University’s Commission for Racial and Ethnic Diversity and is a current member of PA TRIO and the Mid-Eastern Association for Educational Opportunity Program.

Canonge attended Edinboro University and lives in Natrona Heights.

Sara Cole

Instructor, Literacy Pittsburgh

Age 33

🔗 LinkedIn

Sara Cole brings her passion for working with immigrant and refugee students to her work as an instructor at Literacy Pittsburgh with a special focus on emergent readers. 

Cole is also working to bring arts-based programming to English language learners with help from a National Endowment for the Arts grant and Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art, connecting artists with organizations that work with immigrants and refugees. She is currently helping to organize the 2019 Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults conference in Pittsburgh and was recently one of four Pennsylvania teachers chosen to take part in a national pilot program that focuses on teaching skills that matter in adult education and job readiness skills.

Cole is also interested in how trauma affects learning in all adult learners and how teaching spaces can become more trauma-informed to better accommodate and recognize students learning needs.

Cole attended the University of Pittsburgh and University of Chicago and lives in East Liberty.

Jennifer Elliott

Associate Professor, Duquesne University’s School of Pharmacy

Age 35

🔗 LinkedIn

Earlier this year, Dr. Jennifer Elliott and her team conducted a food allergy and asthma awareness program for 1,800 Pittsburgh Public School students, teachers, and other professionals. Elliott led a team that developed a community-based screening model to identify children with undiagnosed and uncontrolled asthma and connect them with appropriate care. The free service is offered in underserved schools and communities throughout Allegheny County.

Elliott also created school-based asthma clinics in six underserved schools throughout the county, this as childhood asthma rates in and around Pittsburgh remain alarmingly high. An award-winning educator and researcher, Elliott is currently working to create school-based health centers, which would provide preventative, acute and/or chronic medical care to high-risk youth.

Elliott attended Duquesne University and lives in Warrendale.

Paige Gilson

Dance Program Coordinator for Sarah Heinz House

Age 27

Paige Gilson strives to bring the joy of dance to children in the Pittsburgh area, believing that creative freedom in a judgment-free environment is a crucial part of a child’s life. And as STEM programs become more popular, Gilson is passionate about making sure that the arts aren’t forgotten. In her three years at Heinz House, the dance program has nearly doubled in size.

Next year, Gilson is planning to add a dance team to get her students out of the studio and into the community. She wants people to understand that dance is more than just a fun after-school activity — it is a path to a well-rounded child.

Gilson attended Temple University and lives in Manchester.

Jessica Hall-Wirth

Assistant Professor, Slippery Rock University // Director, Students with Exceptional Abilities

Age 27

🔗 LinkedIn

Jessica Hall-Wirth chose the field of special education after growing up with a sibling with multiple disabilities. Now an assistant professor with Slippery Rock University’s Department of Special Education and director of the nonprofit Students with Exceptional Abilities, Hall-Wirth is interested in transition programming, pre-service teacher education programs, and inclusive practices.

Hall-Wirth’s nominator writes, “Not only is Jess working for the good of her students, she also has conducted a study that identified the causes of stress in special educators in local Southwestern PA school districts.”

Hall-Wirth is credited with always coming up with new and better ways to make sure education is individualized for the students she interacts with. “She makes students feel welcome and ensures that they get the individualized education they deserve,” her nominator added.

Hall-Wirth attended Slippery Rock University and lives in Cranberry Township.  

Kira Henderson

Principal, Weil PreK-5

Age 39

🔗 LinkedIn

According to her Who’s Next nominator, Principal Kira Henderson is a testament to the power of community-minded and community-based educators.

“Kira is a Hill District resident,” the nominator wrote, “and she has such a great rapport with her students and their parents.”

Henderson is a product of Pittsburgh Public Schools herself and is now principal of the district’s Weil PreK-5 school in the Hill District. Henderson’s nominator cited “a boost in morale” at Weil PreK-5 during Henderson’s tenure and Henderson’s willingness to work creatively to bring in needed resources and provide services in the face of budgetary constraints.

Henderson lives in Middle Hill and attended Carlow University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and Community College of Allegheny County.

Kirk Holbrook

Director, University of Pittsburgh’s Hill District Community Engagement Center (CEC)

Age 38

Kirk Holbrook is using his background in politics to improve education services in the Hill District as director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Hill District Community Engagement Center.

A former staffer with Rep. Jake Wheatley’s Hill District office, Holbrook now works to engage stakeholders and collaborate with organizational directors, elected officials, community leaders, activists, and residents to develop community initiatives and partnerships that benefit residents of the historically African-American enclave.

“He has a specific passion for providing educational opportunities to students and closing the opportunity gap,” Holbrook’s nominator told The Incline.

Holbrook attended the University of Pittsburgh and lives in the Hill District.

Heather Price

Behavior and Instruction Support Consultant, The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh

Age 32

With a focus on autism, Heather Price is a crucial asset to the autism support program at The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh’s Day School, Price’s Who’s Next nominator says. As the school’s behavior and instruction support consultant, Price coaches The Day School team on how to manage crisis situations with students through de-escalation strategies and the most up-to-date training techniques.

“I specialize in working with students with autism by utilizing key principles from the field of Applied Behavior Analysis,” Price told The Incline. “My job is to train and coach teachers, paraprofessionals, and therapists in the most up-to-date instructional practices by using cutting edge and research-based training techniques.”

Price attended The Pennsylvania State University, Florida Institute of Technology, Slippery Rock University and lives in Monroeville.

Megan Sommers

ESL teacher, Pittsburgh Public Schools

Age 33

🔗 LinkedIn

The number of ESL, or English as a second language, learners in the U.S. is growing, and ESL teacher with Pittsburgh Public Schools, Megan Sommers, is a fierce advocate for the interests of those students here and their parents.

Sommers’ Who’s Next nominator said Sommers is “often at IEP meetings, or setting up meetings with general education teachers to help them with strategies for their (English learners), or at fairs for new teachers in PPS to answer questions about ESL and what it looks like in the District.”

Sommers believes in the connections made when English learners are taught alongside English speaking students, and she supports integrating ESL in all classrooms and making the community stronger by embracing and learning about each others’ culture.

Sommers attended St. Francis University and lives in Aspinwall.

Ben Schonberger

Lecturer of Photography, Point Park University

Age 31

📸 Instagram

Ben Schonberger is a multidisciplinary visual artist. As a lecturer of photography at Point Park University, Schonberger helps students find their voices through meaningful art making.

“Ben works to help his students understand that contemporary art is a provocative tool that has the ability to change how people perceive information,” Schonberger’s Who’s Next nominator told The Incline. “When students understand and embrace this concept, some of the best art is created.”

Schonberger’s own artwork can be found in public and private collections including at The Detroit Institute of Arts Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs and The Toledo Museum of Art.

Schonberger attended Cranbrook Academy of Art and Shepherd University and lives in Brighton Heights.

Rob Velella

Student Development Specialist, Community College of Allegheny County (North Campus)

Age 39

💬 Twitter

🔗 LinkedIn

Rob Velella is helping to make a new generation of journalism possible as an adviser with the Community College of Allegheny County’s student newspaper, The Voice. In recent years, The Voice has won 38 awards and done so without a journalism major on campus. And while Velella insists this is all to the credit of the students involved, they credit his influence with helping to grow the paper’s circulation and improve its content.

As a student development specialist with the college, Velella is also credited with making students feel welcome and engaged — on campus and social media — and with making their time at CCAC fun and memorable. Velella’s Who’s Next nominator calls him “one of the most passionate, indefatigable administrators I know.”

Velella attended the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Rosemont College and lives in Monroeville.

Angela Welch

Education Manager and Assistant Principal, City Charter High School

Age 38

As education manager and assistant principal at City Charter High School, Angela Welch has pushed for healthier lunches and taking a holistic approach to classroom learning.

“I was initially attracted to the idea at City Charter High School of a progressive educational environment in which the educational environment was accepting of students of all learning abilities,” Welch told The Incline. “Being a special education teacher at heart, it was and still is thrilling to me to provide access to the general education curriculum for students with disabilities.”

Welch has gone from being a learning support teacher to assistant principal at City Charter and says she remains an advocate “for a broader group of students across the school.”

Welch attended Clarion University and the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Carnegie.

Darren Whitfield

Assistant Professor and Chair of Direct Practice, University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work

Age 33

🔗 LinkedIn

As a researcher, Darren Whitfield’s scholarship focuses on health disparities among LGBTQ communities and HIV prevention among gay and bisexual men. As an assistant professor with Pitt’s School of Social Work, Whitfield stresses the sociological dynamics infused into social work and social workers.

“He taught my Diverse Populations class which has students critically think about their socialization and privilege, and how to use their privilege to help those without power,” Whitfield’s Who’s Next nominator wrote. “It’s sometimes a really tricky subject but he challenged us to dig in and really consider the readings and really consider how these issues play out in our own daily life and the lives of those we’ll help through our social work practices.” The nominator added, “His class and how he taught us left a big impression on me and I have often referred back to it as I progress through my master’s program.”

Whitfield attended Buena Vista University and University of Denver and lives in Swissvale.

Natasha Williams

Co-Founder, Stairways to Success

Age 39

Natasha Williams is a mentor and, according to her Who’s Next nominator, a life-changer. As co-founder of Stairways to Success, Williams works — for free — to educate young people in her community about post-secondary career opportunities. And she does it with a focus on underrepresented students, engaging them in workshops on college applications, scholarship eligibility, and taking them on college campus tours.

Williams, whose day job is with the Career Services Department at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, also assists graduate students in identifying and securing internships and job opportunities. Her helping of high school girls, in particular, to cultivate life skills, explore colleges, hone their financial literacy, network, and develop their career paths continues to impact and shape those young lives for the better, her nominator adds.

Williams attended Carlow University and the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Penn Hills.

Michael Zeiler

Choral Director / Musical Director & Choreographer, Highlands High School

Age 34

The vocal music department at Highlands High School is hitting a high note thanks, in large part, to Michael Zeiler. As choral director, musical director and choreographer at the Natrona Heights secondary school, Zeiler is credited with growing the arts program there and putting together top-notch, student-led musical productions.

“While some school districts have opted to eliminate funding altogether for fine arts programs, Highlands continues to support Mr. Zeiler’s efforts — both educationally and financially,” Zeiler’s nominator told The Incline.

Zeiler attended Slippery Rock University and lives in Natrona Heights.

Sarah Zelazny

Trauma Prevention Coordinator, Allegheny Health Network

Age 33

🔗 LinkedIn

Over the last several years, Sarah Zelazny has taught more than 7,500 Pittsburgh-area school students how to control bleeding in the event of an emergency. As a trauma prevention coordinator with Allegheny Health Network, Zelazny has developed and implemented several programs designed to prevent and treat trauma in Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities. It is a necessary and grim reflection of present-day education concerns.

Zelazny also encourages violence prevention and told The Incline, “While it has been such an honor and privilege to work with my beloved Pittsburgh neighbors to share life-saving skills and empower our communities to respond in emergency situations, my hope is that we can shift focus from ‘Stop the Bleed’ to ‘Stop the Need.’”

Zelazny attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania and University of Pittsburgh and lives in Brookline.   

Lora Zemanek

Youth Program Manager, Venture Outdoors

Age 30

As Venture Outdoors’ youth program manager, Lora Zemanek doesn’t get much time in the classroom, but that doesn’t diminish her role as an educator. She works daily to improve the quality and structure of Venture Outdoors’ afterschool programming and to provide high-quality training opportunities and staff mentoring.

“It is essential for an educator to champion continued education/professional development for themselves and for staff,” Zemanek’s Who’s Next nominator wrote. “With Lo’s support, our staff is able to use paid time to participate in these trainings, and our growth is evident because of it.”

Zemanek attended The Pennsylvania State University and lives in Lawrenceville.