OXFORD, Miss. – Coming from a family of teachers, Jay Levy had no doubt about what he wanted to do in life. His determination was so great that a paralyzing car accident couldn’t shake his resolve to become an English teacher.
The accident, during Levy’s junior year of college, left the 2011 University of Mississippi graduate in a wheelchair. But it hasn’t stopped him from achieving his goals or helping his students set new standards.
In his first year of teaching, Levy led his 53 students at Pisgah High School in Brandon to a 98.1 percent pass rate on the English II Subject Area Testing Program. Their scores blew away the Rankin County School District average of 80 percent and the state average of 73 percent, according to new data from the Mississippi Department of Education.
In fact, the Pisgah students’ pass rate is the highest in Mississippi, an honor not often associated with Title I schools, where more than 50 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches and many come from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Many people expect our students to perform low on tests,” Levy said. “I don’t adhere to any of those thoughts. At Ole Miss, they were adamant that all students can learn. That’s probably the most important thing I took away from college, and I try to apply that to my own classroom.”With the latest scores, Pisgah High School ranks 47th out of 250 Mississippi schools. The district also ranks 22nd out of 133 districts for the 2011 school year. Pisgah principal Norman Session said that thanks to teachers such as Levy, student achievement is on the rise. Historically, the English II exam has been the most challenging exam for students at Pisgah High School, he said.
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“Jay handles all aspects of the classroom with professionalism and maturity beyond his years,” Session said. “Over the years, I’ve had more students fail the English II exam than any other. For Jay to produce these results is incredible, especially in his first year. I swear he’s just a natural born teacher.”
As a classroom leader, Levy introduces himself to students on the first day of a new school year with a Power Point presentation about himself. He explains his accident and why he is in a wheelchair, emphasizing that a safety belt can save lives. He’d forgotten to buckle up before the accident, which led to the neck injury that left him paralyzed from the knees down.
Despite his new physical challenges, Levy still graduated on time, taking 21 hours a semester, and completed his student teaching at Lafayette High School in a wheelchair.
“The car wreck was a turning point because life as I knew it would be totally different from then on,” Levy said. “Could I still be a teacher? Would my instruction still be as effective? I grieved a lot until one day, I had a revelation. I was going to go back to school. I was going to be a teacher. I didn’t let it stop me. Now my students don’t even notice I’m in a wheelchair.”
To help his students gain a deeper appreciation for literature ranging from Shakespeare to his favorite novel, John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Levy searches for ways to relate the material to students’ lives. Projects can range from writing narratives from the perspectives of characters in books to creating Facebook pages for Romeo, Juliet and whole cast of classic characters.
“It’s a way to trick the students into a deeper level of learning,” Levy said. “When you can get them to write from different perspectives within a story, you’re getting them to use a higher level of intellect than just reciting the plot.”
A Madison native, Levy enrolled at Ole Miss in 2007. The UM School of Education is the state’s largest teacher training institution, producing nearly a quarter of Mississippi’s new teacher education graduates each year.
Levy studied secondary education, gaining many insights from Rosemary Oliphant-Ingham, professor of teacher education. In his classroom, Levy still uses one of his mentor’s techniques: At the beginning of every class, he goes around the room and asks students to name the best thing about their day, to create a sense of community.
“Jay was always a very upbeat and positive young man,” Oliphant-Ingham said. “He always made sure he got all the information in class to be the best teacher he could be, and his students’ scores reflect that. He never let his disability come into play and he was a great example that a disability doesn’t mean you cannot accomplish as much as anyone.”
Describing himself as his “own worst critic” during his first year, Levy wasn’t sure if his teaching methods were effective or if he was covering everything correctly. However, when the test results came back with a near-perfect pass rate, he was humbled. He was named teacher of the year at Pisgah in May.
“I’m honored for everything that’s happened,” Levy said. “I hope my students remember their 10th-grade English teacher. I want them to learn about the figurative language and classic literature that we cover but I also want them to take to heart the life lesson that when life throws you lemons sometimes you just have to catch them, squeeze them and make lemonade.”