At the conclusion of an April 8 assembly where students received awards for their achievements, Katrina Fernandez, the principal of St. Columba School in Oxon Hill, Maryland, announced that there was one more important award to give out, and invited up Kelly Branaman, associate superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington,to announce what that award would be.

As Branaman explained that the school’s first grade teacher, Grace Chengery, was one of the 11 teachers in the archdiocese chosen this year to receive a Golden Apple Award, the students cheered and waved gold pinwheels in celebration. Father Gary Villanueva, the pastor of St. Columba, noted that the award is an honor for both the school and the parish.

Students celebrate after learning that Grace Chengery is a Golden Apple Award winner. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

“[Mrs. Chengery] lives the mission for Catholic education by sharing the faith to our children and also by the way she lives,” said Father Villanueva.

The annual Golden Apple Award recognizes a teacher’s professional excellence, leadership, commitment to Catholic values, and devotion to teaching in Catholic schools. Each award winner receives $5,000 and a golden apple and is honored at an award dinner in May.

“Grace is one of our outstanding teachers,” said Fernandez. “She strives to make sure every single student learns in her classroom, and that is not just learning about the academics of reading and math, but she makes sure she grows them in their spiritual development as well. She does a lot of hard work to get them ready to be prepared for their First Communion and First Reconciliation in second grade.”

Grace Chengery stands with her first grade class after learning that she has received a 2019 Golden Apple Award. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Chengery also works hard to connect her students with the wider parish community, leading them to make cards for parishioners. On St. Patrick’s Day, they made four-leaf clovers out of pipe cleaners to give out. She also led the school’s Grandparents Day, which brought more than 70 grandparents to the school.

Lilibeth Soriano, a pre-kindergarten teacher at St. Columba who nominated Chengery for the award, said, “Grace brings Jesus to everybody, every day.”

“In her actions in her words, she shows nothing but love,” said Soriano.

Chengery is particularly passionate about teaching her students to read, and Fernandez said she works extra hard to make sure that no matter what level of reading the students enter her class with, they are always advancing. She sends home extra support for students who are struggling and has created a reading program for students who are not in her program to prepare them for the next school year.

“She knows how to meet the children where they are and bring them to the next level,” said Soriano. “She teaches them through engaging activities – (including) song and dances – (and) she tries to reach every type of learner.”

Chengery sees her work as a first grade teacher as building foundations for what students need to succeed in the rest of their lives, both academically and spiritually. At the front of her classroom, the bulletin board says, “For the greater glory of God,” and at the back of her classroom, the bulletin board says, “Go forth and set the world on fire.”

Grace Chengery teaches her students how to tell time. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

“Every day I get the joy of bringing my kids around the reading table and teaching them how to read and building that strong foundation so they can be successful,” said Chengery. “We also build the foundation of religion in the classroom, so we spend a lot of time talking about being saints and how we are saints in the making.”

Chengery was born and raised Catholic but said she never had the opportunity to attend a Catholic school until college, and then spent time student teaching in Catholic schools, which she enjoyed.

“I loved the idea of getting to constantly integrate my faith and my religion into what I was doing,” she said.

Her mom is a first grade teacher as well, and Chengery said when it came time for her to look for jobs, her mom encouraged her to choose an environment that would be loving and supportive.

“I found that here at St. Columba and in Catholic schools in general,” she said.

One word that she felt best described what it is like to work in a Catholic school is “joy,” she said.

“There is a lot of joy in our school and because we get to celebrate the Mass and talk about God, how could there not be joy in what we do?” said Chengery. “We spend a lot of time singing and dancing in my classroom and keeping our energy up…that is just a constant joy. I don’t ever go home without a good, fun story, so I think that is the blessing of my job.”

(CS photo/Mihoko Owada)