Georgia’s only Milken winner this year: “I am my students.”

Milken Educator Shekema Silveri believes her classroom has to be healing place for her students. (AJC photo)

Milken Educator Shekema Silveri believes her classroom has to be healing place for her students. (AJC photo)

When Clayton County teacher Shekema Silveri won the Milken award last month, the most prestigious prize in education, another teacher commented to me, “That’s her ticket to a better job anywhere she wants.”

Silveri won’t be cashing in that ticket, saying she is where she was called to be — with students who thrive on her love and support.

“I want students who actually appreciate a teacher who loves them,” she says. “I would not be in my element in a school where students said, ‘I don’t need a teacher to love me because I have two parents and a nanny.’”

Silveri’s deep affection for her students at Mount Zion High School in Jonesboro takes many forms, from cautioning them at the start of the weekend, “Come back to me safely. I love you,” to daily texts to a teen whose mother died three years ago, “Good morning princess, God loves you, and so do I,” to shopping for groceries on Saturday for a needy student.

She gives her students her cell phone number for homework help at night and regularly engages in online writer’s conferences with them via Skype.

As winner of a $25,000 Milken Educator Award, Silveri, chair of her school’s language arts department, has now been recognized as one of the top teachers in the United States. She is married to fellow Clayton educator, William Silveri, who shares her belief that the job is a calling.

“I am my students,” she says. “I grew up in public housing after my grandmother died and I had to go back to live with my mother. I have been homeless with a 5-week-old baby. I knew that I wanted more than what I had seen in my life.”

The 35-year-old mother of four understands the appeal of more affluent schools in upscale suburbs. Silveri attended one of them under the minority to majority program, M-to-M, which allowed students from less-successful schools in south Fulton to attend higher performing ones in the north side of the county.

“I graduated Riverwood high school in Fulton County through the M-to-M program. I was getting on a bus at 6 a.m. just to get a good teacher. I promised then that if I ever had an opportunity to fix that, I would.”

Her first opportunity came through a free after-school tutorial program she began in Atlanta to work with girls ages 12 to 18, but she decided that she could accomplish more in a classroom fulltime.

In Silveri’s own life, two Riverwood teachers inspired her, Melissa Anderson and Connie Dyleski. “They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,’’ she says. The pair insisted she was college material and encouraged her to apply.

“My mother was on public assistance,” says Silveri. “I never even thought poor people could go to college.”

A top student in college and grad school, Silveri is a doctoral candidate at Georgia State University. At her high school, she has become a teacher leader, with colleagues from Clayton and the state observing her classes. She travels this week to St. Louis to help rewrite the National Assessment of Educational Progress 12th-grade writing standards.

In giving her the award, the Milken Foundation cited her accomplishments in the classroom, noting that  100 percent of her students passed the state End of Course Test for American Literature. This year Silveri is teaching only advanced placement classes where she uses technology on a regular basis. During a recent visit to her classes, students engaged in a discussion via Skype with Megan Felt of the Lowell Milken Center about its Unsung Heroes project, which Silveri’s students are doing, and watched a documentary about an environmental activist in Africa.

In one class, after listening to a director of an area nonprofit describe his agency’s mission, Silveri marched her 25 AP students outside where they huddled in groups to figure out ways they could help. (She may use some of her prize money, she says, for a gazebo on the green so students could sit and work.)

Her students leap up to volunteer information about why they love Silveri, lining up to laud her ability to take discussions to a higher level and to connect passages in books with real-life events and personal experiences. During class discussions, students openly relate literature to their own experiences being homeless or never seeing their father.

“I tell students there will be tears. But this class is a healing place, a therapeutic place. It has to be,” she says. “The hardest part about my job is that I never get a moment alone. Even at lunch, kids come to sit and talk with me.”

So where is her therapeutic retreat?

“My place is in my van in my driveway,” she says. “I go sit in my driveway and crank up the music. But it has to be gospel.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

65 comments Add your comment

Dr. Proud Black Man

November 13th, 2011
11:26 am

@ slob

No one likes to be patronized. You have used your spawn’s school and held it up to equal ALL schools. And about the contract; feel free to contact your representative and let me know how that goes…


November 13th, 2011
12:44 pm

Hey doc

I’m not holding up anything. I call it like I see it here in mighty whitey world. And I have discussed the contract with Brooks Coleman among others. Mr. Coleman claims teachers are overworked and under compensated. But that is coming from a retired teached/administrator who also has a daughter in the business. Things that make you go HHMMM?

I think this mornings article titled “If parents set real limits, students will succeed” has a very good point. If teachers will also contribute to the solution making certain students don’t leave school each day unless they have a command of the days lesson, we together may have stumbled on the solution to this problem. I think this will correct bad behavior as teachers will no longer tollerate such behavior in schools. Not when it affects what time they are allowed to walk out the door each school day. And if your students don’t pass the CRCT, teachers will be mandated to teach during the summer until students have a command of the material taught during the year. And none of this every student has an A for a grade. They all already have that. They just seem to be having a hard time scoring at or above a MEETS SCORE on the CRCT. Kind of takes something away from all those wonderful A’s.

All in favor say “AYE.”

Everyone else continue to say Iphone. Perhaps they now have an app for that!

Dr. Proud Black Man

November 13th, 2011
2:35 pm

Truth in Moderation

November 13th, 2011
4:16 pm

“I know many people who claim the title CHRISTIAN, but I know of only a handful who do what this woman does. Very refreshing to see someone who’s acts mirror their beliefs.”

How right you are! You should read the Book of James. Now, do you consider yourself one of these people? Do your actions reflect your words?


November 13th, 2011
4:42 pm

Not taking anything away from her achievements, but there ARE many teachers in Clayton and all around GA with the same level of dedication. Just curious, was her Friday class was aligned with the almighty standards? Was her essential question posted and addressed? My big question is how does she get to go to St. Louis give Ed Heatley’s punitive teacher attendance policy?


November 13th, 2011
4:43 pm

“give” should be “given”


November 13th, 2011
6:53 pm

Truth in whatever moderation is,

I have no imaginary friends in the sky. That said, I also do not object to my children hearing the word GOD daily in class. Our forefathers were very aware that the word GOD was a term that covered many beliefs and religions. The term God wasn’t what caused them to leave Europe. The Jesus Christ seems to have been the culprit. That is the imaginary fellow that seems to have caused them all their pain and suffering. Please note. Our money dosen’t say in Jesus Christ We Trust.There is a reason for that.

As for what I/we give and contribute to the local needs, I contribute as much as I/we can afford. Time included. The we is our family if you are confused by the term. It may be less than others contribute and in some cases it may be more. Our giving has nothing to do with standards. Simply needs. You see, there is no REVIVAL TENT in our yard. So much for Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.

To doc proud BM, perhaps you should have said NAY in your earlier post. Even the goat next door found it to be inappropriate! TTTHHHHAAATTT WWWAAASSS BBBAAAADDD

Student Advocate

November 13th, 2011
8:52 pm

Congratulations, Ms. Silveri – what an inspiration!

Truth in Moderation

November 13th, 2011
9:33 pm

@Slob. You seem to have misunderstood my question. First, what are your beliefs? Second, do your actions mirror them?

A simple, yes, no, or sometimes, would suffice.

Dr NO / Mr Sunshine

November 14th, 2011
6:42 am

“Milken Educator Shekema Silveri believes her classroom has to be healing place for her students.”

Oh brother. A “healing place?” Really? So 90’s, might as well have Jesse or Useless Lowery standing in regurgitating some additional nothingness.

All flash no substance.


November 14th, 2011
8:27 am

Truth in Moderation-Says you?

Are you really that important that you think you can tell people how to respond and what to say? Now that is a typical modern day teacher mentality. And your first response was priceless. Read this and then tell me if you are one of these people? Please get some help. They have medication today to help with these overwhelming feelings of self importance. Keep working on trying to get your dog to sit on command. One step at a time. Good luck!

If the english language isn’t your strong suit please advise and I will see if I can find someone to translate my last post to your native tounge. Perhaps that will help you to find the answers you so desperately seek. Now go child! And may God be with you!

Truth in Moderation

November 14th, 2011
8:50 am

@Dr. No,
In a perfect world, you would be correct. But it isn’t, and it is rapidly getting worse. Severely dysfunctional homes are becoming the norm. It is undeniable that children who are victims of violence or sexual perversions, will bring their cares with them to school. They don’t have a normal healthy emotional support system at home. Their parents aren’t parents, but in some cases, are criminals to be feared. This teacher recognizes this status of many of her students and tries, in the power of her faith, to overcome this evil. It would seem that she is having success, AND THIS IS A GOOD THING! There is a lady at my church who is a Foster Parent. She is very kind and loving to them and brings them to church, so they can have the hope of Christ in their heart and emotional healing. Her current foster child is a beautiful 10 year old girl. My friend told me that all six children in the family had been abused by the father. This young girl, now separated from her family, will be put up for adoption. Even with this heart breaking background, surrounded by a loving church family and the redemptive love of Christ, she is starting to smile again and trust again.

Truth in Moderation

November 14th, 2011
11:04 am

When adults quit “aiding and abetting” criminal activity, perhaps things will get better for children.

Dr. Proud Black Man

November 14th, 2011
3:38 pm

@ Truth in Moderation


Between the Penn State NAMBLA Lions and Herman ” where de white women at!” Cain, there are very few adult role models…smh.


November 15th, 2011
8:48 am

Hey I’m a local college student doing a research project on perceptions of Atlanta transportation. Please take a few moments to fill out my short survey.