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University High School Teacher Named Connecticut History Teacher of the Year

Posted 12/14/2012
Posted by David Isgur

Theresa Vara-Dannen, a teacher at the University High School of Science and Engineering (UHSSE) in Hartford, has won the Connecticut History Teacher of the Year award from the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History.

Vara-Dannen is receiving this recognition for a multi-year project in her University of Connecticut ECE American Studies class, in which her students researched a number of relatively unknown, but historically significant African-American figures from Connecticut’s past. Twenty-seven of the students who participated in the project have had their work accepted for publication in the African-American National Biography, which is edited by Dr. Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University and published by Oxford University Press. (This is quite a prestigious accomplishment for high school students, as academicians and scholars write the majority of entries in the African-American National Biography.)

A representative from the Gilder Lehman Institute will present Vara-Dannen with the award on Friday, Dec. 14, at 10:30 a.m. during a brief ceremony at UHSSE with her students. Vara-Dannen will receive a certificate of recognition and a $1,000 award. In addition, UHSSE will be named a Gilder Lehrman Affiliate School and receive books and other material for its school library.

Her students’ projects involved research in primary documents at the Connecticut State Library and the Connecticut Historical Society as well as local town historical societies. Until now, these African-Americans and their achievements and contributions were largely unknown; in researching and writing their biographies, the students have essentially returned these individuals to written history.

At the same time, these students are discovering the histories right in their own backyards, walking the same streets and neighborhoods where many of these distinguished African-Americans walked. “Each of their subjects became a real person to these students,” said Vara-Dannen.

“Perhaps, most importantly, the students are getting a view of how these people lived and still succeeded in spite of the issues of slavery, oppression and a lack of political power,” Vara-Dannen said. “It is inspiring how these people were able to do great things. My hope is that our University High School students will take heart from the stories of these eminent people and let no obstacle block their way to achievement.”

Vara-Dannen, who has been teaching at UHSSE since 2006, has more than 20 years of teaching experience. She previously taught French and English for six years at Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury, and prior to that, taught at a variety of parochial and public schools, working with students of all ages, from elementary school through adult education.

She recently earned her Ph.D. in English from Swansea University, Wales, and had a chapter from her thesis, which is entitled "Benevolence and Bitterness: the African-American Experience in Nineteenth Century Connecticut," published this month in Connecticut History.

Vara-Dannen, who lives in Middlebury with her husband Chris, earned a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Liberal Studies from Wesleyan University and a B.A. in French and English at Manhattan College. She also earned a juris doctorate from New York Law School, but found that the legal profession was not for her. She grew up in the Bronx and was the first member of her extended family to graduate from high school and then college Vara-Dannen previously had a book of her poetry, Profligate with Love, published by Antrim House Press.

This American Studies class is a college credit class, which means the students are earning both high school and college credit for this class. As an “early college” model high school, students at the University High School can qualify for the opportunity to take University of Hartford college courses on campus or take University of Connecticut courses taught by adjunct professors like Vara-Dannen, thereby earning college credits prior to their high school graduation. Each year, dozens of eligible students take advantage of this opportunity and finish their high school careers having already earned credits that can be applied at the colleges or universities they go on to attend.

The University High School of Science and Engineering, an intra-district magnet school in the Hartford Public Schools system with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, was established in 2004 as a partnership with the University of Hartford and is located on the campus of the University.

The University High School of Science and Engineering, one of Hartford’s top performing schools, this year received the Secondary School of the Merit Award from Magnet Schools of America as the top magnet high school on the United States. UHSSE was also on the U.S. News and World Reports list of America’s Best High Schools.

Founded in 1994 by Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History is a nonprofit organization devoted to the improvement of history education. The Institute has developed an array of programs for schools, teachers, and students that now operate in all fifty states, including a website that features the more than 60,000 unique historical documents in the Gilder Lehrman Collection, Each year the Institute offers support and resources to tens of thousands of teachers, and through them enhances the education of more than a million students. The Institute’s programs have been recognized by awards from the White House, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Organization of American Historians.