Bonnie McNeely: ‘I always want to be part of making our school the very best it can be’

Bonnie is a math teacher and among the founding group of educators at Riverside High School, which opened in 2017.

As told to Shaina Cavazos

My dad was a social studies teacher when I was young, and eventually became an assistant principal. I was always involved in that life, and I enjoyed helping people.

After several years teaching in a township district, I worked on a master’s program at IUPUI, and I was teaching part time an introductory Algebra I course. I realized I was much more passionate about that than the master’s work I was trying to do, so I applied for a summer position at Herron High School and ended up working there for two years. When they offered me a job at Riverside High School and the opportunity to start a new school, I jumped at it.

We started with just seven people in a church trying to build a school, and we’ve thought a lot about how we keep that momentum going when we add all these new people who maybe weren’t apart of that. The level of competence among the staff is just something I’ve never experienced before. It’s a challenge to start a school. We’ve all worked above and beyond, and put in hours, and done jobs that aren’t in our job description.

The first day when the kids actually showed up ready to go in their uniforms — there was a part of all of us that was a little convinced it wasn’t going to happen until we saw that. In year two, when we moved into our current building at the armory, that really felt like school. We have a gym, we have a cafeteria, we have cheerleaders, we have a basketball team.

I think that I’ve been able to carve out a role for myself in our school in a way that I maybe couldn’t have done in a more well-established school. The kids call me their “School Mom.” Even though I’m 40, I’m one of the older teachers in the building, and that has translated into me seeking out opportunities to help train and develop new teachers. I’m doing coaching, and I just always want to be a part of making our school be the very best it can be. When you’ve been somewhere a while, you get to have that institutional knowledge to share with other people.

I’m continuously learning about how to help kids who are entering high school behind, academically, socially, and behaviorally. In many ways, Riverside has become a family to our students, and I hope that’s something I’m fostering in my classroom every day. Often, especially in math, as teachers move up, they move out of those lower-level Algebra I classes and move into calculus or precalculus. There’s also a need there, but I’ve found real value in helping our most struggling students develop those foundational skills. It’s hard work to take a kid who has never taken a test before, isn’t used to doing homework, or struggles to sit in a class. It’s just as valuable to hone my math education skills as it is teaching kids how to do school. Those are skills that will serve them well in every class as they move through their high school career.

At the end of their first year, our students were growing at more than twice the national average on their benchmark exams. That felt like we were really doing something here. It’s not just an idea or a theory. We love the kids, and we support them, and we care for them, but is that enough? To see them growing academically was what felt really important.

It has been a pleasure to see the founding freshman class, who are seniors this year, take the underclassmen under their wing. As juniors, we took them on a trip to Vincennes University, and it was a real moment for all of us and for some of those kids who, two years ago, thought college wasn’t a possibility. They’re finding things they are interested in, things that they can do, and a future that looks hopeful for them.

We’re featuring each of the 11 Office of Education Innovation 2020 Teacher of the Year finalists. Look for new features throughout the summer and fall.