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By VANESSA DE LA TORRE, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
8:27 PM EDT, May 31, 2011
One by one, Marilyn Jack-Ortique's geometry students stood at the front of the classroom Tuesday to solve a math problem on the board.
Some of the problems involved the Pythagorean theorem, and students were required to demonstrate how they arrived at their answers.
Occasionally, a few of the bright teenagers at the University High School of Science and Engineering would skip those steps, apparently having done all the work in their heads. Rather than praise, this brought a gentle admonishment from Jack-Ortique, the city's 2011 Teacher of the Year.
Some students don't grasp the answers as quickly, she told them. "You have to be mindful of others."
In Jack-Ortique's classroom at the magnet high school on Mark Twain Drive, the walls are covered with student projects and the dominant theme is empathy.
"I don't want anyone to feel that they're overlooked or that they're not good enough," said Jack-Ortique, 40, a Hartford-born mother of two who lives in the city's West End. "Even if they struggle, it's OK. We struggle together. But don't feel like you're less of a student to me."
That doesn't mean she lets anyone shrink from tough problems. All students go to the board, whether they have an answer in mind or not.
"Nobody gets to sit back and not do anything," Jack-Ortique said. "You can master your challenge."
She should know.
Raised in Hartford, then Baton Rouge, La., and later Windsor for her middle and high school years, Jack-Ortique said she did well in her classes — until eighth grade, when she flunked algebra.
Jack-Ortique couldn't understand why the subject stumped her like no other, but she worked on problems until "it finally clicked," and by the end of the year had raised her grade to a C. Still, math was the most challenging class. Her senior year in high school, she audited a calculus course and felt uncomfortable because it was difficult, Jack-Ortique said, and the teacher did not seem interested in helping her.
"You have to care," she said.
Her mother, a homemaker who didn't finish high school, encouraged Jack-Ortique to stick with mathematics, and so she did, continuing to take courses at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford as an undergraduate. Jack-Ortique said Elizabeth Markham, a math professor there who since has retired, proved instrumental in making it the subject of her bachelor's degree and career.
"If you can get a degree in math, you can get a job anywhere," Jack-Ortique recalled Markham's telling her. "People will know you can think."
Jack-Ortique decided to teach after a substituting stint in Bloomfield. She also earned a master's degree in education from Saint Joseph College and a master's degree in mathematics from St. John's University in New York.
Over the past 14 years, Jack-Ortique has taught math at various levels — from adult education in the city's North End to freshman math at Hartford Public High School. Since 2009, she has been on the faculty at the 400-student science and engineering magnet school affiliated with the University of Hartford.
Colleagues nominated Jack-Ortique, who teaches geometry and advanced algebra, for teacher of the year. A committee of administrators, union representatives and past top teachers chose her from a field of 38 candidates throughout the city.
The award was announced Thursday night, but, Principal Elizabeth Colli said, "The kids are her prize ... She values and appreciates the achievement of each student, regardless of the level they're on."
Moments before a geometry test Tuesday, Ama Gyimah, a 15-year-old freshman, said she used to struggle with math but has improved this year under Jack-Ortique, who is patient, clearly explains steps and is "always there after school if we need help."
Jack-Ortique considers that the regular business of being a teacher. "I wouldn't want a day to go by that I didn't talk to each student, to make them feel that they are important," she said. "They're the reason why we're here....
"If they miss a day, I let them know, 'We missed you. You're still responsible for the work.'"
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