ABOUT THE FINALIST
Name: Donna Taheri
Years at school: Six years at Howard
Years in education: 34 years
Education: Bachelor of science in family and consumer science from the University of Montevallo; master of science in secondary education from Alabama A&M University; certifications in school administration and guidance and counseling curriculum from Jacksonville State University.
FUN FACT: Taheri has lived most of her life in Alabama, where her husband lives in their family home. She moved to Chattanooga so her youngest child could attend Girls Preparatory School and chose to stay and continue teaching at Howard.
Standing in an apron before her class of mostly high school seniors, Donna Taheri's goal is to make sure her students can cook more than ramen noodles when they start college this fall.
Taheri invited a nutrition expert to show students how to make skillet lasagna, to cook with limited kitchen utensils, and to shop smart on a budget.
Tyson Jones, an 18-year-old senior bound for King College in Bristol, asked for the lesson.
Taheri, who's been an educator for 34 years, is director of the teen learning center at the Howard School of Academics and Technology, located at 2500 South Market St. One of her duties is coordinating programs for teen parents to help them be successful at home while working toward a diploma. She also spearheads a service learning program geared toward preparing students to thrive in college and the workforce.
Her goal with all of her students is to get them to see beyond the semester's end - encouraging them set goals and make a plan for reaching them.
"I really try to take a personal interest and try to give them a doable life plan," she said.
For her teen parents, "we want them to be the very best parents they can be, but want them to graduate from high school and meet their full potential," she said.
One of those students, 17-year-old Ronnie Porter, is enlisting in the Marines and will ship off to basic training in the fall after he turns 18. He's spent the semester doing service work at Battle Academy.
"She's probably more passionate about the job than other teachers," Porter said of Taheri. "We have a lot deeper learning experiences than most of the regular classes."
Other faculty and staff have taken notice. Cynthia Smith nominated Taheri for the award.
"She realizes that all children and youth have different abilities and unique circumstances in life but each student deserves to be regarded as equals among peers and educators," Smith said.
Howard Principal Paul Smith says much of Taheri's leadership is behind the scenes. "She really leads with a servant's heart but a champion's attitude," he said.
Paul Smith recalls a former student named Jimmy Bibbs who learned while in high school he had a rare form of terminal cancer. Taheri visited him in the hospital and took his family meals.
"She made sure she was there to get that kid across that stage for graduation," Smith said.
Taheri, who worked in Alabama for 28 years, came to Chattanooga when her daughter wanted to go to Girls Preparatory School. The pair moved an hour from Rainsville, Ala. Taheri said she wanted to continue working and chose Howard over other offers.
"I had this incredible sense of peace," she said. "I love what I get to do here."
Eventually she bought a small house in North Chattanooga, then her daughter graduated and went off to High Point University in North Carolina.
But Taheri stayed in Chattanooga rather than returning to her family home in Rainsville.
"I can't see myself not doing this," she said.
After Taheri's students leave her class, she sticks with them.
When her cooking class ended, she was set to drive to Middle Tennessee State University to pick up a former student who didn't have a ride home to Chattanooga at the semester's end.
"My nest is empty, but this just keeps me going," she said.
Contact staff writer Ansley Haman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6481.