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Everyday Heroes: AFT Teachers finalist

Julie Ahern

Second-grade teacher
Andrew Cooke Magnet School, Waukegan, Ill.
Lake County Federation of Teachers, Local 504

Julie Ahern

Julie Ahern often counts her victories by the moments when her students take a bow. A second-grade teacher at Andrew Cooke Magnet School in Waukegan, Ill., Ahern entered teaching 20 years ago as a second career. Her background in business and marketing has proved useful over the years, as she scours the landscape for new resources and opportunities that don’t always reach students in schools like Andrew Cooke, where everyone qualifies for federal meal assistance.

Ahern’s first school contest was collecting signatures for the Sharpie Supply Challenge, and the effort brought an amazing nine awards of $5,000 each to pay for school supplies. All of Ahern’s students today have their own laptops thanks to donations, and her classroom boasts 12 iPads for student use. Another grant brought a 3-D printer for the classroom: Now, when Ahern’s students are not cranking out “Despicable Me” minions on the printer, they are learning how this type of next-generation equipment has the amazing capacity to turn out everything from baby carriages and houses to living organs sculpted from tissue. “Not long ago, one of my little guys took me aside and whispered, ‘I want to be a designer,’” after working with the 3-D printer, Ahern remembers.

And she says it never gets old, finding new ways to bring the cutting edge into the lives of students in ways that make them blossom. Recently, she helped the school win a Pepsi Refresh Project grant—money that returned the school’s greenhouse to its original mission after too many years of neglect, serving as a glass-paneled storage area. The award was even sweeter, her nominator says, given the fact that Andrew Cooke students starred in several project TV ads that aired coast to coast.

Another competition Ahern helped to land, one based in the arts, brought celebrity authors and illustrators like Mike Thaler and Dav Pilkey to the school. And more important, it provided a springboard for one of Ahern’s quiet and talented students to really shine. “Henry can be one of my shyer students, but he’s amazing when it comes to drawing,” Ahern says of the student whose work won the author/illustrator visits. “I’m so excited he took the chance.” She adds with a chuckle, “When the other students heard that Henry won them a chance to meet the author of the Captain Underpants books, they were practically bowing to him.”