Léa Lacerenza

Teaching excellence award goes to Toronto teacher

  • May 25, 2011

TORONTO - Toronto Catholic District School Board veteran Léa Lacerenza has won this year’s Premier’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, Lifetime Achievement for her innovative work in special education.

Lacerenza has worked in special education with the TCDSB for 31 years, the past 23 years seconded to the Learning Disabilities Research Program at Sick Kids Hospital as the senior research teacher and lead writer in curriculum development and programs.

Lacerenza leads the collaboration between Sick Kids and the board in developing innovative techniques designed to help students with severe learning disabilities through the Empower Program. The Empower Reading Programs are now taught in hundreds of schools across North America.

Lacerenza says her experience with her youngest sister, Diana, who had a mild learning disability, first motivated her to work with students with learning disabilities. Diana “was immensely talented, smart and creative,” Lacerenza recalled. But in the 1970s, Diana was streamed into a vocational program because of her learning disability. This helped Lacerenza discover her professional vocation.

“I knew that this was not right. The educational system was limiting her more than her disability,” she said. “This marked the turning point for me. I knew I wanted to become a teacher and wanted to help the neediest child.”

Given the appropriate programs, methods and teachers, the 55-year-old Lacerenza believes “exceptional students (can) succeed. I have experienced hundreds and hundreds of success stories.”

One of these success stories is Robert. The Grade 10 student had wanted to drop out of school and was always in trouble, said Lacerenza. When she first began working with Robert, he “never lifted his head off the desk.” But over time Lacerenza saw great improvement.

Robert was progressing so well that the principal came to Lacerenza to ask what Robert was doing in class because “he hadn’t seen Robert in trouble in his office for weeks.”

“The answer was simple, I was teaching him to read and spell,” Lacerenza explained.

Robert’s confidence “skyrocketed” and he passed the Grade 10 literacy exam, was chosen captain of the school’s basketball team and applied to college.

Another student who overcame a severe reading disability with her help was Jordan, a Grade 4 student.

She recalled his determination to overcome his challenges and make the honour roll in high school. He has since gone to Africa twice to help build schools and will soon graduate as a firefighter, Lacerenza said.

“Reading opens the door to a person’s self worth and a person’s confidence.”

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