Jessica Gerrond of Rockford has 22 years of teaching experience, the past 14 at Rockford's East High School. Both her mother and grandmother were teachers. Her mother, in fact, was also a nominee this year! Jessica took her first sign language class at the Center for Sight and Hearing before middle school and her career goal was set. However, she says, "Deafness is a low incidence disability, so there are very few jobs." She struggled to find a position teaching deaf and hard of hearing students. All her students have IEPs. Many of their parents do not know sign language. Her students often live with little to no language until they first start attending school, usually at age three. Reading is often a major challenge. Jessica says, "many of my students have been taught along the way that they are 'behind' their hearing peers in skills and knowledge. I believe my students are all capable of learning like everyone else; they just need additional support and a different modality of communication. By building their self-confidence, through relationships and a safe learning environment, I am able to present my students with higher level work that other teachers felt they could not achieve." Jessica and her students also developed a "Buddies" program to build relationships between special education and general education students. The club hosts many activities to promote these friendships. Its members learn about different disabilities and the importance of compassion. East is now recognized as one of very few Special Olympics Unified Schools. To reach and teach her students, Jessica is constantly learning. She is trained in restorative practices, informed trauma care and working with at-risk adolescents. She is also a Special Olympics coach and collaborates with the Rockford Ice Hogs, whose players presented an anti-bullying campaign for the Buddies Club. Just 20 teachers were selected to participate in the inaugural Rockford University-RPS205 cohort of in-service teachers pursuing their M.Ed. in Urban Education. Jessica was determined to be among them to gain knowledge that would benefit her students. Her research proposal was accepted and her work presented at the Mid-Western Educational Research Association's annual conference in October in Cincinnati. R.U. Education Dept. and Unit Head, Dr. Jean Swindle, is one of her professors. She says, "I have witnessed how Jessica's clear and high expectations, innovative teaching practices and inclusive classroom have brought deaf and hard-of-hearing students together ... she has been able to create a welcoming community [of learners] among students who often feel distanced from their own families due to their exceptionalities." Jessica says of the program, "I have gained so much knowledge of teacher leadership, strategies to use in urban settings, that it is acceptable to challenge current practices if it means bettering our school and student learning, and I have confidence to be an agent of change in RPS."