Leading a short line of sixth graders down the Woodlawn Middle School hallway was Stephanie Gerhold, who teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages. She was taking the multilingual learners back to her classroom for Math Lunch Club.

“We’re talking about ecuaciones,” Gerhold said, referring to the Spanish word for equations.

As she challenged students to solve for X, she incorporated a quick Spanish lesson. In Spanish, adjectives should match the gender of the sentence’s subject. In the sentence “El chico es alto,” (translating to “The boy is tall,”) the Spanish-speaking students knew “alto” ends with “o” because “chico” ends with “o.” It’s the same with solving an equation like X+5=10, Gerhold explained. What’s done on one side of the equation has to be matched on the other side.

“Because whatever I have over here, I have to get rid of it so that I can have X alone,” she told the class.

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Baltimore County Public Schools chose Stephanie Gerhold, a Woodlawn Middle School teacher, as Teacher of the Year. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)

Gerhold is Baltimore County Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year, praised for not only her teaching skill set but her connection with students, especially students who speak more than one language. With her credentials, she’d have her pick of teaching jobs, her colleagues say. But she fell in love with Woodlawn Middle, where nearly half the students are economically disadvantaged and academic success is hard won. Gerhold and her colleagues are working to prove that Woodlawn won’t be defined by its ZIP code.

Who is Stephanie Gerhold?

Teaching wasn’t the initial plan for Gerhold, an English and Spanish major in college. It wasn’t until she saw her friend teach English proficiency to adults that she became interested in the profession, she said. Her friend needed someone to replace her, and 20-year-old Gerhold stepped up to teach 77 Mexican migrant workers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

“Some wanted survival English — how to buy groceries, how to send money home,” Gerhold said.

Helping people communicate their needs to navigate life experiences influenced her teaching methods. Now the 41-year-old has been teaching for over 20 years.

Before joining Woodlawn Middle, Gerhold was a resource teacher for the district’s Office of World Languages for five years. Last school year, Woodlawn needed a Spanish teacher and Gerhold stepped in temporarily, or so she thought.

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“We never found a teacher, so I was there the entire year and I just fell in love with it,” she said.

At Woodlawn, Gerhold joins the county’s 2022 Middle School Resource Officer of the Year and the state’s 2024 School Nurse of the Year. The school is also home to the 2020-2021 Middle School Principal of the Year.

Rochelle Archelus has been Woodlawn’s principal for nearly a decade and has a reputation for shaping school leaders. Gerhold’s seen it firsthand.

“She has her aces in places,” Gerhold said. “She finds people who are good at what they do, she capitalizes on those strengths and she allows them the rein that they need to make executive decisions.”

Rochelle Archelus, principal of Woodlawn Middle School, has a reputation for shaping leaders. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)

It was Archelus who nominated Gerhold for Teacher of the Year, an award she earned over 171 nominees.

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Charles Herndon, a communications specialist for the school system who coordinated the event, said Gerhold is among the most accomplished educators he’s ever met, citing her National Board Certification, a prestigious credential in teaching, and the wide range of topics and grade levels she has taught, including college and adult education courses.

“If you spend more than a few minutes with her, you can clearly see how deeply she cares about teaching and learning, and about her students,” Herndon said in a statement. “She not only loves education, she lives it, too.”

In a video played during April’s educator banquet, Archelus said “she is really the glue that has helped us welcome our multilingual learners back home.”

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Gerhold came to Woodlawn just as Baltimore County’s multilingual learners returned to the schools they were zoned for after learning English proficiency at a hub in a different school. Administrators saw Gerhold, who has teaching certifications in English, Spanish, and English for Speakers of Other Languages, as the perfect person for the job.

Spanish is her passion. She started Spanish classes in sixth grade and later studied abroad in Grenada and Southern Spain. The language unites people, said Gerhold, a Montgomery County native.

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“By knowing someone’s culture, you have insight into their lives … maybe you learn a little bit about yourself,” she said.

This school year is the first time in two decades she isn’t teaching Spanish. But Gerhold, who is also the school’s department chair for World Languages, science, ESOL and Library Media Services, could return to the subject soon.

She and her colleagues are writing a new course called Spanish for Heritage and Native Speakers.

“We’re modeling it after English Language Arts so that we can improve literacy in the first language, which will then improve literacy in the second language,” she said. “My goal is to teach at least one of those sections next year.”

Dana Quainoo, an assistant principal, said Gerhold made Woodlawn feel like home to students learning English proficiency.

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“She could choose to be anywhere, but she chose to be here,” the assistant principal said. “And she chose to honor students who [for] most people, would not be their first choice.”

‘Our kids are just as capable’

The Teacher of the Year packed up her rolling cart with her laptop next to tape and a stack of papers. She zoomed down the hall, making a couple stops along the way to check on a classroom and to hug a student.

Gerhold’s passion is teaching Spanish, but she’s taken up the mantle of teaching multilingual learners at Woodlawn Middle School. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)

Her destination was a wall outside of the main office, her canvas to showcase multilingual students, who make up 13% of the school. The wall was getting covered with students’ native languages: Yoruba, Arabic, Egyptian, French and Spanish, to name a few.

Walking by was Jim Donahue, an English and theatre teacher, who chatted with Gerhold about the school guitar club he leads.

Sometimes people will ask Donahue and his colleagues about working at Woodlawn, subtly referring to what the school “used to be,” he said.

“But I’m like, ‘Come on down and see what we’re doing,’” Donahue said. “There’s so many positives.”

Gerhold decorates a hallway wall to show off the languages her students speak. (Eric Thompson/for the Baltimore Banner)

The school’s academic performance isn’t the best in the district. It was once on the state’s poor performance list, based on how students scored on the state exams. And with nearly 50% of the students considered economically disadvantaged, some students have adult duties, like taking care of their younger siblings so their parents can work, according to Archelus.

Gerhold, who spent most of her career in Title I schools, said people often assume students from those schools aren’t getting what they need. But Woodlawn is showing signs of progress. For instance, its sixth graders improved on the 2023 statewide test in English by about 10 percentage points compared to the previous school year. Quainoo said the school has also improved on the district-level exams this year, too.

“Our kids are just as capable as anybody else,” Gerhold said to Donahue in the hallway. “We’re not going to let a ZIP code define who they are or what they can achieve.”

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