Kim (Harrod) Wendt ’06 had quite a few reasons to celebrate.
Due to her efforts, Mitchell Middle School in Racine, Wisconsin, was able to remodel four of their science classrooms through the Pepsi Refresh Challenge, a national grant competition.
She was selected as the 2012 Teacher of the Year by the Racine Area Manufacturer and Commerce (RAMAC) for its Excellence in Education awards. Each year RAMAC selects three educators and one educational program for their Excellence in Education awards. (That year’s Administrator of the Year award recipient was another Carthage graduate, Eliot Underhill.)
“It takes the acknowledgment of others that you model yourself after to truly realize that what I’m doing is reaching beyond my classroom and affecting more than just my ‘Mitchell family,’” she said of the RAMAC award. “I am both humbled and honored to have achieved this with so much of my teaching career ahead of me. I still have much to accomplish.”
Currently, Ms. Wendt is an eighth grade science teacher at Mitchell Middle School in Racine. She graduated from Carthage in 2003 with an undergraduate degree in biology. but after working for the Racine Zoo, she realized that education was her passion. She returned to Carthage through the Accelerated Certification for Teachers program, from which she graduated in 2005. Ms. Wendt came back a final time and was awarded her master’s degree in educational leadership in 2006.
“Ironically my time at Carthage caused me to want to go into the sciences, and I actually changed my major from education to biology after my freshman year,” Ms. Wendt said. “Dr. Hegrenes and Dr. Radwanski definitely made an impact on my decision to go into the sciences. They made science come alive and impactful. I wasn’t sure if science was for me until I had their classes.”
Now she is continuing the tradition by making science come alive for her own students. As an educator, she loves making a difference in the lives of her students.
“To be the person who makes science engaging, relevant and fun is empowering,” Ms. Wendt said. “All while teaching each student that they matter and are important, building those relationships are the best.”
The Pepsi Refresh Challenge helped her to build relationships with her students and to teach them the importance of unity, as well as the power of voting. Her campaign began in March 2011 after hearing an advertisement on the radio for the challenge. Ms. Wendt thought that it would be the best way to raise money to convert Mitchell Middle School’s outdated seventh and eighth grade science classrooms into a safer, more engaging science wing.
She submitted the Pepsi Refresh online application, but was denied because the entries were over-capacity. After battling a few glitches in the system, her submission was made in April and the marketing began with the help of her Carthage network of friends.
“I ordered pencils, T-shirts, yard signs, buttons and more that were distributed anywhere and everywhere I went,” she said. “I sent emails out to anyone I knew. Care packages full of posters and goodies went out to every school in the district. For my spring break, I flew to LA to meet up with a friend in the sciences who had contacts at many of the colleges and we spread the word. The stewardess on both of my American Airline flights let me pass out pencils and tell the plane about my cause. The Racine Journal Times and Racine Post had already run multiple articles and said they would support me until the end. Now the trick was getting enough votes to keep us in the top 10 in the nation so we would win. We had one month.”
The school held a massive pep rally to encourage students to vote and spread the word. On opening day, they were in sixth place. Where originally there was skepticism, there was now excitement and belief. The proposal ended up placing third in the nation out of 400 projects, was the first Wisconsin winner, and was also one of the first winners in the education category.
After winning the grant — a $50,000 prize — construction began on the new science wing. They tore down the walls separating the four original classrooms and added sliding-glass partitions that allow teachers to create their own classroom configurations. There is also a new science library and office for the teachers. Winning the Pepsi Refresh Challenge was a “dream come true” for Ms. Wendt, who was at the school every day for two months overseeing the project. Undoubtedly, she said, the most amazing part of the project is the impact that it has had on the students.
“Seeing students believe they are catalysts for change,” Ms. Wendt said is one of the most rewarding parts of winning the Pepsi Refresh Challenge. “That if you work hard and believe in making a difference you can. They lived it. They made that science wing safe, fun and an unbelievable place to learn. What they did affects so many each year. They have no idea the ripples their actions have caused. It was great to see them view themselves as winners, some for the first time.”
All of her success in 2011 has taught her that big ideas aren’t necessarily unattainable.
“Don’t give up,” is her advice for future educators. “Don’t be afraid to dream big and be an advocate for change. You’ll never know if those crazy ideas turn out to be an amazing success until you try.”