Charlestown High School teacher nominated for $100,000 award for work with Diploma Plus Program

The program was in jeopardy earlier this year due to the school budget deficit.

Sunny Pai speaks with two students in the Diploma Plus program at Charlestown High School.
Sunny Pai speaks with two students in the Diploma Plus program at Charlestown High School. –Nellie Mae Foundation

Sunny Pai has spent the past six years focusing on the needs of students in the Diploma Plus Program at Charlestown High School. Because of that work, he’s been nominated for an award— one that comes with a $100,000 prize.

Pai is one of six New England educators nominated for the Nellie Mae Foundation’s annual Lawrence W. O’Toole Award, which “honors an individual who has demonstrated great leadership in advancing student-centered learning throughout New England.” The winner, determined by a public vote which begins Monday at noon, will receive a $100,000 grant to further advance student-centered learning.

“It’s super nice to be personally recognized; my parents are really happy,” Pai, who is the program’s director, said. “But it’s important to me that we recognize the whole team. Only about a third of my time is spent with [Diploma Plus] and the teachers spend their whole day working with those kids.”

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The Diploma Plus program helps students who haven’t been successful in traditional school environments or who have dropped out of the system altogether. Many of the students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, he said, and have families that are going through difficult times. To gain entry into the program, students must have at least one year of failing grades.

“The truth is, that students who come to us are brilliant, but they have not been successful in school so they don’t have confidence in themselves,” Pai said. “It’s a pretty amazing group of adults we have that take on that challenge every day.”

Started in 2009, Diploma Plus uses a “competency-based learning approach,” which means there’s flexibility in the way that students earn classroom credit. Instead of giving a student a poor grade for turning in a paper late, for instance, the student would instead receive separate grades for the quality of the paper and the timeliness in which it was turned in.

“I’d been teaching for 12 years and it was something I really hadn’t thought about before,” Pai said. “It’s indicative of the philosophy our team has created, and puts agency in the hands of students.”

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Pai said the $100,000 prize would be a boon to the Diploma Plus program, which was in jeopardy earlier this year. Thanks to additional funding from the district and a donation from Liberty Mutual, the program now has the approximately $500,000 it needs to operate this coming school year. The grant, however, would allow educators to further experiment with methods to teach students.

“We have regular operating costs to pay for teacher salaries, but we look for grants and other sources of funding that allow us to try different things,” he said. “One week, we had a van pick up the 15 students with the worst attendance and take them to lunch to talk about why the kids weren’t coming to school. It was really productive, but we don’t always have $100 to rent a van for a day and $100 to $200 for lunch.”

That individualized attention has made all the difference, according to students who are part of the program.

“Diploma Plus is really different,” student Keisha Fertil said in a video produced by the foundation. “They’re more about you and what you need and ‘how can we do this so you can learn better’ and ‘what steps can we take so you wanna come to school and graduate and go further in life?”

The program has already changed the scope of what students see as possible for themselves, but Pai said this kind of money could let them explore in ways they’d never imagined. All of the students in this year’s Diploma Plus program have ancestral origins tracing to Africa, and Pai said teachers have discussed giving students the chance to visit the continent.

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“When they were filming the video, I got a little emotional for a second,” he said, “With $100,000 it opens up the door to so many types of things we can do. Before we’ve had dreams and and say, ‘Oh, it might be nice,’ and move on, but with this kind of money we could actually have a conversation about how to make them happen.”

Voting opens Monday at noon and ends Friday, June 3 at noon. You can vote here.

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