Efforts to share stories about inspiring teachers in the early stages of planning Saturday’s Great Newtown Reunion reunited one former Newtown student with a teacher who had deeply impacted her life.
In the wake of 12/14, Kandice (Cohen) Castellino, a Head O’ Meadow, Newtown Middle School and Newtown High School alumnus, realized how vital it was to acknowledge the amazing educators she learned from throughout her time in the Newtown school system. One teacher in particular stuck out in her memory.
“Mrs Koonce was exuberant,” Ms Castellino said of her seventh grade general science teacher at NMS.
She remembers the 1995-96 school year with Nancy Koonce fondly, recalling enlightening discussions instead of cookie cutter lectures, her teacher’s vast knowledge of all sciences, from geology and biology to physics, and their class’s awe at National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) initial hope to colonize the moon by 2007.
“The perfect word to describe her is ‘bubbly,’” Ms Castellino said.
But she recalls more from her science class than their discussions on the potential existence of extra-terrestrials.
“It was in her classroom that I fell in love with science,” Ms Castellino said. “I never had many female science teachers, and she inspired me to pursue a science technology engineering math, or STEM, degree.”
Ms Castellino did just that, and graduated from Lehigh University in 2005; she now lives in the South. Inspired by her seventh grade teacher, Ms Castellino’s senior project had been on NASA.
“Families move to Newtown because they want to raise their child in a tight-knit community where their children can get an excellent education,” Ms Castellino wrote in a testimonial. “Cultivating our creativity is held second to none.”
Holding Mrs Koonce’s infectious passion about science close to her heart, Ms Castellino continues work in the field of science. She currently leads incentive programs all over the country, advocating for a more energy-efficient world.
A Gratifying Decision, A Profound Impact
The events of 12/14 in her former hometown left Ms Castellino devastated for the town that brought her many blissful childhood memories. It also moved her to reach out to the teachers that defined her so significantly.
“Would she remember me?” is the question Ms Castellino remembers thinking after feeling inspired to find Mrs Koonce’s phone number on an online search. But those fears quickly evaporated when she learned that her beloved science teacher remembered her well, and they quickly began catching up on the last 15 years of their lives.
“Calling Mrs Koonce was one of the most gratifying decisions I’ve ever made,” Ms Castellino shared.
Mrs Koonce, who had taught in the Newtown school system for 15 years, retired in June 2007. She was equally as touched by their conversation.
“Hearing from Kandice was wonderful,” Mrs Koonce shared. “She has evolved into an amazing young woman.”
They were still keeping in touch more than six months later. A few weeks ago, they were able to meet for lunch.
“Talking to Mrs Koonce, it was no like no time had passed at all,” Ms Castellino said. “It was seamless, comfortable, and natural.”
According to Mrs Koonce, it wasn’t very hard to inspire someone so eager to learn.
“Kandice was the kind of student every teacher hopes to have,” said the retired teacher. “She was self-directed and cheerful.”
Ms Castellino and her teacher spoke fondly about Newtown for most of their lunch, and their conversation reinforced her belief in the vitality of thanking Newtown’s teachers for their passion in the classroom and their dedication to their students.
“Eighteen years after being her student, it was amazing to be able to give Mrs Koonce a hug,” Ms Castellino said. “I got to thank her for the profound impact she made on who I am today.”
The Great Newtown Reunion is set to take place this Saturday, July 27, at Fairfield Hills. While she will not be able to attend, Ms Castellino is hoping that the event will allow other students the opportunity to thank the teachers who have changed their lives.