Florida charter school teacher among winners of national Changemaker Award

Cielo Acosta, a teacher at SLAM! Miami, is among seven winners of this year’s Changemaker Awards, which recognize outstanding charter school educators. SLAM! Miami prepares students for careers in sports medicine, television and media production, sports marketing, and entertainment and management.
Cielo Acosta

Cielo Acosta, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at SLAM! Miami, is among seven winners of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools 2023 Changemaker Award, given annually to charter school teachers or founders who make an outsized difference in their communities.

In addition to serving as a teacher at SLAM! Miami, Acosta, an alum of the school, sponsors several clubs. When she is not in the classroom with students, she is pursuing a graduate degree in school counseling with the aspiration of continuing to help support the emotional and social well-being of her students.

She believes it is essential for educators to teach students more than academics, also instilling the importance of kindness, compassion, and self-growth.

SLAM! Miami was founded in 2013 in Little Havana for students in grades 6-12. At SLAM, students prepare for post-secondary careers through academies in sports medicine, television and media production, sports marketing, and entertainment and management.

Students have access to mentors and internships through partnerships with Telemundo/NBC Universal, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the Miami Marlins, the Miami HEAT and others.

They can earn college credit through SLAM’s dual enrollment and Advanced Placement programs.

Changemaker Awards honor individuals who are making an exceptional difference in their charter schools, going above and beyond expectations to shape their students’ lives for the better. The educators selected each year are deemed unique in their communities as well as representative of the educator who thrives in public charter schools: one who can personalize teaching and act autonomously to meet the differing needs of the students in their classroom, according to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

“We are humbled to honor these exceptional and hardworking teachers and leaders who do the vital work of educating and supporting rising generations of students,” said Nina Rees, CEO and president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“Teachers are the backbone of education and deserve our support, encouragement, and recognition for continuing to serve students even in the face of ongoing challenges.”

The seven winners, including Acosta, will appear on a panel on Capitol Hill next week as part of National Charter Schools Week, which runs from May 7 to May 13. They will share why they chose to become educators, how the charter school model supports the teaching profession, how the teaching profession can be better supported by leaders, how schools and leaders can work to attract more teachers of color to the profession, and their passion and dedication to their students.

Here are the other winners:

Nathaniel Dunn III (i3 Academy, Birmingham, Alabama)

Dunn is a third-grade teacher and was recognized as the Henry Nelson Teacher of Excellence by the Alabama Charter School Commission in 2021. In addition to teaching third grade, he is a baseball coach, mentor, and EdFarm Teacher Fellow. His fellow teachers say he is relational, inspiring, innovative, and a team player.

Tiffany Ortego (One City Preschool, Madison, Wisconsin)

Ortego is a kindergarten lead teacher known for going above and beyond to help her students create the tools they need to reach their full potential. In her time at One City, Ortego helped create the Preschool Garden Space and created the school’s 4K Volunteer Reading and Early Literacy program. Students are known to feel at home in her classroom.

Jermar Rountree, 2023 National Teacher of the Year Finalist (Center City Public Charter – Brightwood Campus, Washington, D.C.)

Rountree is the district teacher lead and teacher of the health and physical education departments. Rountree was recognized as D.C.’s 2023 Teacher of the Year and was a finalist for the 2023 National Teacher of the Year, the nation’s highest honor. In addition to sports, he teaches students about their social, emotional and mental health. He has established in-school, after-school, and weekend partnerships with local organizations to help kids grow in all facets of life.

Alissa Russell (Life High School Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas)

Russell is a master teacher and math department head. She inspires students of all backgrounds and abilities to learn using Socratic Seminar, differentiated group modeling, and peer partnership grouping as innovative instructional practices to meet her students’ differentiated needs. Russell was recently appointed to an advisory council convened by Texas state Sen. Royce West and has served on a Texas Education Agency think tank.

David Singer (University Prep, Denver, Colorado)

Singer started his teaching career 20 years ago as a high school math teacher but became passionate about early education and the ability to help more children at an early stage in their academic careers. In 2011, Singer founded University Prep with 100 kindergarten and first graders. The school has since grown into a network of two public charter schools serving nearly 700 children and was approved in 2021 to open its third campus.

Andrea Thomas (Dream Diné Charter School, Shiprock, New Mexico)

Thomas is a third and fourth grade teacher, a TeachPlus Fellow, and a community leader from the Diné tribe. In addition to teaching, Thomas is vice president of the Navajo Nation Board of Education and empowers her local teachers and parents to advocate for improved public education in New Mexico. She recently was recognized by the New Mexico House of Representatives for significant achievements to the community.


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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.