Williams College Announces Four Recipients of Olmsted Awards for Secondary School Teachers

Media contact: Gregory Shook, director of media relations; tele: 413-597-3401 email: [email protected]

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., May 1, 2019—Williams College will award the annual George Olmsted Jr. Class of 1924 Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching to four outstanding high school teachers on Saturday, June 1, at Ivy Exercises.

The recipients are Mitch Hahn, an English teacher at Guilderland High School in Guilderland Center, N.Y.; Shima Khan, an English teacher at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Mass.; Liam Leapley, a special education teacher and Program for Accelerated Credit Recovery in Education (PACE) teacher at West Haven High School in West Haven, Conn.; and Kurt R. Meyer, a mathematics teacher at the Thacher School in Ojai, Calif.

Each year, Williams seniors nominate high school teachers who played influential roles in their lives and learning. A committee of faculty, staff, and students choose winners from among the nominees. Recipients of the award receive $3,000, and an additional $5,000 is given to each recipient’s school. The Olmsted Prize was established in 1976 with an endowment from the estates of George Olmsted Jr. and his wife, Frances.

Mitch Hahn, Guilderland High School, Guilderland Center, N.Y.

Leonard Bopp ’19 looks back on his experience in Mitch Hahn’s AP English class as “the single most seminal education experience” of his academic career. Hahn taught classes at different curricular levels with enthusiasm, committing himself to the belief that all students’ voices matter. Bopp says that Hahn devoted most of the class time to “studying the art of crafting an argument,” with the implicit lesson that “words matter, and words have power.” Bopp adds that Hahn was committed to fostering community in many ways beyond teaching. He has done this through his work with Guilderland High School’s FOCUS program, running a day camp for children with disabilities. As Bopp said, “Mr. Hahn believed that every member of a community had something to contribute, that every member of a community should be valued; his commitment to this idea shows in every aspect of his teaching.”

Since 2002, Hahn has taught English at Guilderland High School. He teaches AP English Language and Composition, 11th grade regents English, and 11th grade honors English. From 2002 to 2007, he taught a10th grade alternative education program called FOCUS. Since 2002, he has been the director of Camp Colonie, a unique, six-week outdoor summer school and day camp for a neurodiverse population of children, ages 5 to 21.

Hahn emphasizes the importance of reciprocity in the classroom, saying, “I try to create a classroom where students don’t merely work for a grade but work to learn, understand, and think critically.” He does this through classroom discussion as his main form of instruction, facilitating conversations in a safe environment where the students can exchange their opinions and ideas.  B. A. Finsel, Instructional Administrator for ELA, Social Studies, Reading, and Library at Guilderland High School said, “He truly is a giant whose shoulders have held up countless students over 17 years, helping them to realize their full potential and preparing them for future success no matter their path in life.”

Shima Khan, Wellesley High School, Wellesley, Mass.

Korinna Garfield ’19 speaks of Ms. Shima Khan as “the strongest and most perceptive woman I have ever met.” She said, “What distinguishes Ms. Khan from this pool of applicants is her dedication to improving inclusivity in Wellesley High School, so that all students feel celebrated rather than alienated as a result of their differences.” She recalls Khan’s validation of Garfield’s experiences with mental health, as well as fostering a classroom environment that facilitated deep connection amongst the students.

Since 2012, Khan has taught English for 9th and 12th graders at Wellesley High School. She is currently teaching two different courses she helped create and has continued to develop over time. The first, titled Diverse American Voices, focuses on the documentation of the experiences of minorities throughout American history. The second, titled World Literature, features works of literature from around the globe with hope of pushing students to value their own voices and stories, while fostering a global perspective on universal themes.

Since September 11, 2001, Khan’s focus in life has been to shift biases. At that time, she decided to start wearing a hijab to break Muslim stereotypes and set a positive example for her students. In doing so, she seeks to create a culturally sustaining classroom in which students can develop their unique identity. Khan said, “I want to allow my students to see a Hijabi woman of color in a space they consider safe, no matter how hard that might prove to be for me.”

Liam Leapley, West Haven High School, West Haven, Conn.

In her time as Liam Leapley’s teaching assistant, Alice Obas ’19 said, “While the Olmsted Prize is for nominating former teachers, and I was not a part of the PACE program, I feel that I learned and was taught more from Mr. Leapley than my AP and Honors classes taught me out of a book.” PACE is a Tier 3 Intervention program led by Leapley at West Haven High School. At-risk youth in grades 8 through 12 engage in outside of the box approaches to education in order to reignite students’ interest in learning.

Since 2000, Leapley has been a special education teacher and has led PACE from 2009 to present. He designed and implemented PACE at West Haven High School, including behavioral plans and integrations of school-wide curriculum. As a way to provide life-skills to the program, PACE incorporates a community based work experience program.

The students involved in PACE are shown that learning transcends the classroom, and how to succeed as members of their community. Leapley said, “Every child can move forward, but you must be willing to work with them no matter where they begin and at which pace they move.”  His commitment to inclusivity means that PACE is a program that is constantly evolving in order to meet students where they are. Obas said, “Mr. Leapley has not only upheld the values of equity and inclusion during his teaching career but has also instilled those values in his hundreds of students, and in me.”

Kurt Meyer, The Thacher School, Ojai, Calif.

Emma Rogowski ’19 looks back on Kurt Meyer’s classes “as some of the hardest and best I have taken.” She remembers his ability to make difficult mathematical concepts tangible, and teaching students to learn for the love of it. Rogowski recalls his fierce dedication to students outside of the classroom, as he made himself available to students every evening for extra help or general wisdom. She said, “I came to college ready to engage deeply with the material, no matter the subject area because this way of studying and thinking is universally applicable.”

Meyer has taught mathematics at the Thacher School since 1984, and will be retiring in June 2019. He helped to establish the Teach the Teachers collaborative, a program designed to teach teachers from across California how to support the state academic standards and how to best utilize the technology they had accessible in the classroom. As dean of faculty, Meyer initiated a teacher observation and development program, in which teachers offered each other feedback on their pedagogy and content. He has also, for the last 10 years, lead the Environmental Action Committee that has helped Thacher achieve multiple top honors and national recognition for reducing the school’s carbon footprint.

With a belief that trust is the basis for a successful relationship between student and teacher, Meyer reflects on his 45 years of teaching in saying, “My students are my teachers.” In teaching, he has found that the main goal is to find the connection that students themselves make between what they understand and what they want to learn. As Rogowski said, “The belief in myself that Mr. Meyer instilled in me is something that has been invaluable in my most challenging classes at Williams and something I know I will carry forward after graduation.”


Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.