Rotary Philhower Fellowship and Steengrafe Award
Westfield Public Schools
Wilson 1st grade teacher Marie Morris is the 2023 recipient of the Rotary Club of Westfield’s Philhower Fellowship in recognition of outstanding teaching at the elementary school level. At the same time, Franklin head custodian Jesse Rodriguez received the Steengrafe Award, introduced this year by the Rotary Club to recognize non-certificated staff for their dedication and commitment.
Morris and Rodriguez received the news on May 1 as Superintendent Dr. Raymond González paid surprise visits to their schools.
“It was great to surprise Marie and Jesse with this well-deserved recognition,” says González, “It also was fun and heartwarming to witness the enthusiastic reaction of the students in both instances.”
Morris has been teaching first grade at Wilson for 11 years and taught kindergarten previously in Franklin, New Jersey for five years.
“My favorite part of teaching is building a classroom community of students who work together and are kind and caring to one another,” says Morris. “I also believe it is important to build a strong foundation of learning during these early years. I am always looking for ways to make it fun and exciting for them. It is very rewarding to see the growth the students make by the end of the year.”
Letters of nomination for Morris from parents and colleagues laud her as “an extremely dedicated and passionate teacher” who “goes above and beyond daily to educate, care for, and make sure her students have fun while learning.”
“The growth I have seen in my daughter as a reader and writer is incredible,” writes one parent nominator. “Mrs. Morris has managed to not only ensure her students are retaining this challenging material, but are having fun while doing it.”
Rodriguez has worked as head custodian at Franklin Elementary School since 2010. When asked what he likes most about working at Franklin, he replies: “One word. GREAT staff!”
Colleagues who nominated Rodriguez for the Steengrafe Award say that he embodies the award’s criteria as an employee who is “dedicated, kind, and supportive” and someone who “demonstrates a clear commitment to the students and staff.”
“The students all love Mr. Jesse and know they can go to him for help with almost anything,” writes one nominator. “When something is broken, you can hear ‘Ask Mr. Jesse, I’m sure he can fix it.”
Another nominating letter notes that, in addition to keeping the school and grounds clean and safe, Rodriguez “continues to assist the staff with any emergencies or needs they may have in a timely fashion. He will fix a broken window or air conditioner. He will find shelving, tables, and chairs for a classroom. And he’s constantly seen painting or improving different places around the building.”
“Jesse embodies the spirit of someone who not only cares about his job and our school, but also the people he works with. I believe he is truly deserving of this award,” the letter concludes.
Morris was recognized at the May 9 Board of Education meeting; Rodriguez will be recognized at the June 13 Board meeting. They received the Philhower and Steengrafe Awards on May 16 as a guest of honor during a Rotary Club luncheon.
A committee of two Rotarians, a previous Philhower Fellowship recipient, and two elementary school principals reviewed all nominations and selected Morris and Rodriguez as this year’s recipients.
The Philhower Fellowship was established in 1993 by the Rotary Club to honor former Westfield Rotarian Charles Philhower and to recognize the importance of teaching in the elementary grades. An educator for more than 50 years, Charles Philhower, who died in 1962, was supervising principal (superintendent) of Westfield schools for three decades as well as co-founder and past president of the Rotary Club of Westfield.
This is the first year of the Steengrafe Fellowship, established in memory of Weyman O. Steengrafe who began teaching Social Studies in the Westfield Public Schools in 1942 before serving as principal at Franklin, Tamaques, and Wilson Elementary Schools. Weyman was a lifelong Rotarian from 1966-2010, serving as Club President in 1971-1972 and District Governor in 1985-1986.