These Teachers Educate and Make a Difference in Westchester

Patricia Barry, 3rd Grade, Greenville Elementary School, Edgemont School District, Scarsdale | Photo by Ken Garbrielsen

Meet a handful of local educators who have devoted their lives to education and enrichment for students throughout Westchester County.

By Paul Adler, Nick Brandi, Cristiana Caruso, Joe Cesarano, Melissa Kagan, Michelle Gillan Larkin, and Gina Valentino

Except for our parents, teachers exert the greatest influence on our lives and determine who we ultimately become as people. And while it would be an exaggeration to claim that teachers are “unsung,” it is nonetheless true that they still don’t get the credit they deserve. That’s why we’ve taken this opportunity to showcase some of our county’s many outstanding pedagogues, ranging from elementary school all the way through high school, who have made it their missions in life to mold young and impressionable minds into healthy, well-prepared, and productive members of society. Certainly nothing can be more noble — or important — than that.


Rye Middle School, 7th Grade Math

There are few things Aleksey Vodyanitskiy wouldn’t do for his students. This includes standing on a desk every now and then. “I want my kids to be engaged in learning. I love to make learning fun, and I love to make it memorable,” says the seventh-grade math teacher. “We move around a lot; we laugh, and I would not be afraid to jump on a table if, say, a lesson requires jumping on one as a way to demonstrate how a decimal point jumps into the quotient.”

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Students have returned Vodyanitskiy’s passion, fondly referring to him as “Mr. Vod” and who are referred to by him as his “munchkins.” Now in his 13th year at Rye Middle School, Vodyanitskiy was born in Novosibirsk, Russia, but made his way to America in 1995 at the age of 19. At first, he followed his passion for opera, graduating from the Hartt School of Music before singing with several noted opera companies. After a stint in computer science, Vodyanitskiy finally found his true passion when he took a position with New York City Teaching Fellows.

“I knew it was what I wanted to do once I was actually in front of a classroom and could really see the impact you could make on those little people, how they respond to you and how that impact lasts,” reflects Vodyanityskiy. “It’s not a one-day thing. It goes on almost like waves in an ocean or when you throw a rock in a lake and see the circles.”

Today, Vodyanitskiy, who holds two master’s degrees, teaches a seventh-grade pre-algebra class. “In addition to that, I teach a support class for kids who either need pre-teaching or re-teaching, or for whom math may not come easily,” he adds.

Also, as an out gay man, Vodyanitskiy brings an important perspective to his students. “All of my kids know I am gay and that my husband is Matthew, who is a math teacher in New Rochelle. I feel proud that I built this relationship with my kids, that I feel safe to tell them who I am,” shares Vodyanitskiy. “I feel it’s so important for the kids — especially those whose families may not be okay with homosexuality or the kids who may be questioning their own sexuality — to know that it is okay and that there is a spectrum of ways to be happy in this life.”

Aleksey Vodyanitskiy
Photo courtesy of Aleksey Vodyanitskiy


The Ursuline School, New Rochelle, Performing Arts Chairperson & World Languages Dept.

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Teaching was never the end goal for Rosemary Rossi Clarizio, a graduate of the prestigious Manhattan School of Music and The Mannes College, with a bachelor’s and master’s in music, specializing in opera. It wasn’t until one of her voice teachers mentioned she’d make an excellent teacher, because of her fine ear and attention to detail, that Clarizio experienced a paradigm shift. “To be a superior educator in any subject, one must continue to develop their discipline,” says Clarizio. “To be a better singer, I must be an effective teacher, and to be a better teacher, I must be a fine singer.”

In 2006, while still working as a profession al singer, Clarizio began teaching music at The Ursuline School, her alma mater. She inherited a fledgling program and was now charged with building exceptional curricula. In less than 10 years’ time, she’s amassed a music program of more than 200 girls. There are three choirs, three instrumental ensembles, a full symphonic orchestra, all genres of dance, and a Tri M Music Honor Society. Clarizio’s panache for making music relatable to her students has kept her program vibrant and strong. “The girls respond to how I teach because they know I strive to create a positive experience for every type of learner and their unique process,” she says.

In March of 2020, Clarizio found herself at the crossroads of two of the hardest-hit sectors: education and the arts. “I had to learn to fly while behind the controls,” she explains. “I had two weeks to create an entirely virtual music program.” Clarizio implemented several platforms she could use to dynamically engage her students while they were learning remotely and hybrid, from singing into a website that matched pitch and notes to creating custom comic strips based on lessons. She enrolled in professional development courses to design a viable, virtual lesson plan. “Students have told me that these classes are the best part of their day, that music and dance are keeping them happy and focused,” shares Clarizio.

For Clarizio, teaching extends far beyond what students glean from a lesson or a song. “Music is interdisciplinary by nature; it should not be an ‘extra,’” she says. “It teaches accountability, discipline, how to be a team player, and life essentials. It’s an inherent right of a well-rounded education.”

Associate editor Cristiana Caruso was a student of Mrs. Clarizio’s.

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Photo by Doug Schneider


Byram Hills High School, Armonk Social Studies, Grades 10 & 12, Psychology & Economics

Ilana Fromm, who graduated from Armonk’s Byram Hills High School in 2015, says she will never forget her time in Matt Allen’s 10th-grade Global History class. For the final assignment that year, Allen instructed Fromm and her classmates to write a letter to themselves that he would send to them in seven years, no matter where they happened to be. “He told us to write about anything — our friends, our hopes, our dreams, what we were wearing or listening to,” Fromm recalls. “A year after I graduated from college and started my first ‘real’ job, I found myself in that weird post-grad limbo. Hearing from 16-year-old me seven years later was so eye-opening — and that letter was one of the most valuable parts of my high school experience.”

For his part, Allen knew he wanted to be a teacher since the fourth grade. “Mr. Klepis was my fourth-grade teacher, and I always remember him as a teacher who just loved to teach kids,” says Allen. “He just had a passion for what he did.”

The popular teacher graduated from Nanuet High School in 1992, and his passion for learning led him to Cornell University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in educational psychology in 1996. He continued his Ivy League education at Harvard, where he earned his master’s in education in 1997. He supplemented that recently by completing an administrative degree at Stony Brook University. He currently lives in Yorktown Heights with his wife and two young daughters, ages 4 and 11. But his impact is felt in numerous ways in Armonk. In addition to teaching global history and government to 10th and 12th graders, he also teaches elective courses in psychology and economics and serves as the varsity boys soccer coach.

Allen’s greatest motivation as a teacher is the challenge of applying history and historical events to current times for his students and allowing them to understand the history that is unfolding before them. But the pandemic has made that especially difficult. “Less content and a bit more compassion seems to be the key now — as one never knows what issues kids are dealing with due to this pandemic,” Allen notes.

Historic challenges or not, the compassion and caring that Allen has showed in the classroom has made an indelible mark on his students over the years, as Fromm’s fond memories prove. “Mr. Allen was an incredible teacher of history, but he was also an impactful teacher of life,” she notes.

Photo courtesy of Matt Allen


The Leffell School, White Plains, 4th Grade

Rhona Aronstein takes a page out of Mary Poppins’ book when describing her teaching style: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” As she explains, “If you can establish an environment that’s highly organized and structured, where expectations are clear, yet it’s balanced and tempered by flexibility, humor, and spontaneity, then you can really have the kids, as a group, and as individuals, in the palm of your hand, so that you can help them grow and develop.”

The New Rochelle resident’s detail-oriented, encouraging, and frank style makes her a memorable fixture locally (she taught at Hackley School prior to The Leffell School). “I have the niece of one of my [former] second graders in my class right now. Her uncle would always say, ‘I had the most fun in second grade; that was the best class ever.’ If somebody who was 7 at the time remembers that, it says something, whatever that might be,” she laughs.

Over the years, she’s been asked why she hasn’t gone into administration. “I want to be with the kids. I want to see their growth,” she replies. “I go over what they do with a fine-tooth comb, because I want to understand their development and how it impacts their absorption of material, their integration across subjects, their basic skills, their conceptual grasp, and their personal development. That’s something that I crave.”

After 32 years in the profession, Aronstein insists that students have not changed much: Their hunger for knowledge remains the same. “They’re so enthusiastic, and I don’t think that’s changed at all. Kids are still kids,” she says. “I want my students to increasingly feel masterful. That means making plenty of mistakes. They don’t need praise because they blink and breathe. I think kids get that it’s artificial. They need praise when they’ve done something of consequence — that’s where they really derive a sense of accomplishment. I have very high standards because they’re capable of reaching them.”

Photo courtesy of Rhona Aronstein


Harrison High School, 9th & 10th Grade Spanish

It’s fair to say that Jennifer Salinas is a renaissance woman, one who brings with her a richness of life and passion for living that suffuse her classrooms at Harrison High School with ebullience.

Raised in Thornwood, Salinas has seen much of the world, having lived in such cultural meccas as Rome, Barcelona, and Seville. Though she is the holder of a bachelor’s degree in international business from Hofstra University and did a turn in the glitzy limelight of the New York fashion industry while working for the accessories division of Ralph Lauren, she ultimately was drawn to the calling of inspiring young minds. So, after going back to school to earn a master’s degree from Manhattanville College, she embarked on a career as a teacher.

For the first decade of her career in education, she used her dual New York State certification in Italian and Spanish to teach at Harrison’s Louis M. Klein Middle School. For the past eight years, she’s been bringing joy and learning to the freshman and sophomores of Harrison High School, where she teaches Spanish.

In addition to her lush cultural influences, a key to Salinas’ resounding success in the classroom is her love of music. Blessed with powerful pipes, Salinas was for many years the lead singer of a popular wedding band that racked up more than 400 area performances. Not surprisingly, Salinas uses that talent to further ignite her students, including things like rewriting the lyrics of Luis Fonsi’s global megahit “Despacito” to help teach Spanish verb conjugation.

But Salinas brings even more to the International Baccalaureate school. Cinco de Mayo and Dia de los Muertos parties (in full regalia) are staples of her classroom; she is the club advisor for El Club Español, the organizer of the annual International Café, which celebrates diversity, and is a trained mentor of new teachers. An ardent community advocate, Salinas also founded a local mommies social network that ultimately attracted 4,000 members. That work led to an invitation by Greenwich Hospital to be its co-chair for two annual fundraising galas. Says the mother of two: “I try to lead by example and be a positive influence, shaping young minds to do positive things and give back to their community.”

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Salinas


Peekskill High School, lead teacher for the Science Research Program

Erum Hadi’s path to becoming the lead teacher for the Science Research Program at Peekskill High School was not a straightforward one. She began as an epidemiologist for the Dutchess County Department of Health and later became a city research scientist for New York City Department of Health. While she was there, she became interested in sharing her knowledge with others and decided to get her master’s in secondary education at Lehman College. She was approached to join the faculty at Peekskill High School about 11 years ago.

“My favorite aspect of teaching is making special connections with the students and helping them find the right tools to succeed with their projects,” she says. “I also love helping kids reach important milestones in their studies and seeing how good it makes them feel about themselves.”

Hadi is passionate about the Science Research Program. It’s a three-year program at the college undergraduate level in which students attend class every day and meet individually with Hadi every two weeks while conducting most of the work independently. In addition to teaching her students science-related topics, she takes them to science fairs, symposia and competitions, primes them for making presentations, secures internships with prestigious researchers, and shows them how to conduct science surveys and interpret public health data. She was even able to help a former student get published in an international science journal.

“The beauty of the Science Research Program is that I teach the students life skills they will use in the future. For example, they learn letter writing, resume building, public speaking, design, editing, and application of concepts,” she explains.

Hadi describes herself as “super flexible” and “accommodating,” encouraging her students not to give up when the going gets tough. The success she’s had over the years in forging those all-important bonds with her students has become a hallmark of her career as an educator and is perhaps the greatest testament to her tireless dedication.

“She goes above and beyond in making sure you get the help you need, not only with schoolwork but personal issues, as well,” says former student Dania Alwadi. “She truly cares about her students and pushes them to succeed. I want to thank her a million times for being with me the whole way.”

Photo by Ken Gabrielsen


Greenville Elementary School, Edgemont School District, Scarsdale 3rd Grade

Adapting to the new normal brought about by COVID has been challenging for teachers and students, but teaching means so much to Patricia Barry that “I’d put on a hazmat suit to be with the kids.” An elementary school educator for 16 years, Barry considers herself lucky to be encircled by the enthusiasm and energy of the younger set. “I love their excitement when they understand something you’re saying, and you see the lightbulbs going off in their eyes.”

Barry didn’t start out as a teacher but spent two decades in finance before seeking a shift that would enable more time at home with her kids. She was downright smitten the first time she stepped into the classroom as a sub. “Being with the kids, it’s a gift,” she insists.

A kid at heart, Barry enjoys “project-based learning” as much as her students do. When they build volcanoes in science, “we make them all erupt at the same time!” she says, excitedly. For lessons in units of measurement, Barry has the class draw and measure life-size George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns. Then, there’s the wax museum project: “They research a famous person, dress up like them, and when a classmate pushes their ‘buttons,’ they give a speech.” They’re learning from each other “without even realizing it,” she says.

The pièce de résistance of Barry’s class involves Hamlet, a kid-conceived playbill of characters and their development, and the creation of a six-foot replica of Elsinore Castle, with a moat. “We open the windows and light lanterns that bring us into the castle.”

Harrison resident Julie Kirshner hired Barry as a tutor for all three of her children and considers her a “legend” in Westchester. “Using laughter, creativity, and a true passion for connecting with students, Mrs. Barry inspires them to learn and grow.”

As much as she enjoys fun in the classroom, Barry acknowledges that teaching carries a heavy weight. “It’s my responsibility to initiate their love of learning,” she says. “Because you become a part of their lives, you have to be the best person you can be.” A burden and challenge she’ll accept any day — in a mask, a hazmat suit, or just as the educator who loves kids above all else.

Photo by Ken Gabrielsen


Annunciation Elementary School, Yonkers, English Language Arts (ELA), Grades 5 & 6

Melissa Hollywood knows firsthand how hard it can be, at times, to be a kid. “My dad passed away suddenly when I was 7, and not every teacher knew how to respond to that,” she recalls. “But the ones who did? The ones to me? Those teachers left an imprint on my heart.” Hollywood knew as she grew, playing school with friends, that one day: “I’m going to be a teacher who leads with love.”

Believing children learn best when they feel secure, understood, and loved, “I share things about myself and acknowledge how difficult grade school was for me.” She hopes this helps her students see her as a person, not just a talking head at the front of the room. “I want to get to know each child and build a rapport with them.”

Getting to know a preteen can be tricky, she notes, so Hollywood, a lifelong Yonkers resident, attends their games, drama productions, and has coached soccer. “I want to be the teacher who sees the whole child, and I want them to see me in different roles too.”

In class, she brings “the curriculum to life,” so her that students don’t necessarily realize they’re fulfilling their requirements. “We watch movies, listen to music, and look for literary devices in the things they’re into. Then, we read literary passages, and they’re much less bothered by the textbook.”

Hollywood gets her students to enjoy writing via similarly outside-the-norm methods, which include the creation of a class magazine, original Christmas stories that they present to the kindergarteners, business letters to local and national companies (often eliciting corporate responses), and screenplays viewed with popcorn and an Oscars-style awards ceremony.

“They are shrouded in talent, and it’s my job to help them uncover it,” she says. When they do, “it’s the most rewarding thing.”

A mother of two young kids who attend her school — where she’s spent the entirety of her 20-year career — Hollywood believes teachers are the second-biggest influencer in a child’s life, after their parents. “All the best educators show they care. To me, that’s such a natural thing,” she says, confirming that to her, teaching is a calling and not just a job.

Melissa Hollywood
Photo courtesy of Melissa Hollywood


Principal at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, Elmsford

If you walked around Our Lady of Mount Carmel School long enough during the 2020-21 school year, you would have run into Sister Mary Stephen Healey. But regardless of where you found her, she was no doubt inspiring and supporting others.

“I wasn’t surprised to hear she was still roaming the halls of OLMC during a pandemic,” says 2004 graduate Adriana Harris. “I never would have pegged her as someone to run from a difficult situation.”

And while the 91-year-old principal has risen to the occasion, she sees no silver lining in the obstacles of the past couple of years. “The period of remote learning has created gaps that we are finding difficult to fill,” she says. “But it’s not [the children’s] fault. They can’t focus or thrive in an unstructured and undisciplined environment.”

She was named principal of OLMC in 1966 but had taught there several years before that. For 55 years, Sister Mary has devoted her time to the school where she has mentored each teacher, instilled a strong work ethic in the students, introduced technology, organized community service initiatives, encouraged faith, and provided emotional support to whoever needed it. According to one former student, she even taught herself to speak Spanish so that she could in turn teach it to her students.

“If there were ever a person who exemplifies what the standard of academia should be, it would be Sister Mary Stephen,” says Harris. “She is accepting and empathetic. She truly has a passion for bettering her students and has this drive to give the best of herself.”

Sister Mary admits it hasn’t always easy but says her students have pushed her forward. Not one to easily accept praise, she gives her colleagues and staff credit for her achievements. “I owe my success to my faculty,” she states. “If it weren’t for the people I work with, I wouldn’t be as successful as I have been.”

As for what keeps her going, her philosophy is elementary: “I love what I do. It’s as simple as that. There’s no other vocation out there that touches as many lives as teaching does.”

Photo courtesy of Principal at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School


Iona Preparatory School, New Rochelle Technology & Track/Football Coach

Darin Gillenwater would not have foreseen a career in teaching. “Mr. G,” as he is affectionately known, graduated from Iona Prep in 1986 and came back to the school to coach track and football in 1992. He has also taught computer studies there since 1995. So what made him change his mind about teaching? He credits his grandmother, who was a longtime teacher in New Rochelle and an active member of the community.

“One minute I was cleaning her house to get it ready for a Halloween party she was throwing for some students from The Children’s Village, and the next thing you know, I’m coaching football and track at Iona Prep,” he says. “I have always loved kids, and her dedication to them inspired me to pursue this career path,” he adds.

But make no mistake about it: While Gillenwater is approachable to his students, he is also a disciplinarian and commands respect.

“He has a perfect balance of where he is strict and holds his students to a standard, but he also mentors kids and leaves himself open to offering advice about everything from personal matters to how to navigate certain situations,” says former student and current Westchester County Legislator Tyrae Woodson-Samuels, of Mount Vernon District 13.

His approach to teaching and coaching seems to be working. Gillenwater was part of the coaching staff that won a Catholic State Championship in November 2021, as well as the 2018 Indoor Track & Field Catholic State Champs. He was also instrumental in establishing the GaelForce Live production studio, during the summer of 2013, through the MSG Varsity program.

You’d think that someone with such a hands-on approach would have had a tough time teaching virtually during the pandemic — and he did. “I was wearing two hats because I had my own kids at home, and I was conducting class remotely,” he recalls. “But the positive side was that it took me out of my comfort zone, and I was forced to become more creative,” he says. In typical Mr. G fashion, he made the kids attend Google Meet classes while they were outside during nice days, and he says the whole experience made them closer.

Darin Gillenwater
Photo by Doug Schneider


Lincoln High School, Yonkers, 9th Grade Math

Kristina Nilaj is the definition of hardworking educator. The Albanian-born Nilaj teaches five different classes, including three ninth-grade algebra classes and two extension classes. For Nilaj, her success as an educator lies in her ability to make her students feel safe and understood.

“The culture in my classes is one of encouragement,” says Nilaj. “Most kids don’t feel comfortable asking a question, because they don’t want to sound dumb, so I think making that safe zone in the class, where the kids respect that and know it’s okay if they don’t know an answer, is very important.”

Nilaj experienced few advantages as a child in Albania. “I was there from 1991 to 2001,” recalls Nilaj. “Classes were very strict, and the teachers were able to hit us. We were doing cooking, cleaning, and anything we could to support the family, as young as 5 or 6 years old.” After Nilaj’s politically active father was attacked, her family made the decision to flee.

In America, things were not immediately easier for Nilaj, who didn’t speak English when she arrived. “However, within two years I was out of ESL and was even taking Spanish by my third year in America,” she says. Nilaj also excelled in volleyball, basketball, and softball, attending the College of New Rochelle on an athletic scholarship and Mercy College for two master’s degrees, in administration and math.

After joining Race to the Top, “a state initiative that was trying to recruit math teachers,” Nilaj subbed for three years before getting a full-time teaching position at Lincoln High School, where she has taught for more than five years.

When teaching, Nilaj often reflects on the lessons of her youth. “My older sister is a lawyer; I am a teacher with two master’s; we were brought up in America to see this as the land of opportunity,” explains Nilaj. “I feel like that is the biggest struggle for me now, to have students who don’t see all the opportunities they can take advantage of or the life they could have in America. I still struggle with it, but I try to teach my students that you can get what you want if you have the work ethic and believe that it is possible.”

Kristina Nilaj
Photo by Doug Schneider

Related: Westchester County’s Best Teachers Work in These School Districts

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