WASHINGTON (WJLA) - It's easier to get into Harvard University than Two Rivers Public Charter School in Northeast D.C. Each year, only a few dozen slots open up for new students.
Math teacher William Day is one of the reasons the school is so attractive to District families.
"He's just one of those who is so easy to talk to," said Madison Williams, an 8th grader at the school.
"In his first year here, I would open up the building at 6:15 a.m., he'd be there waiting," said a Two Rivers staff member.
Mr. Bill, as the kids call him, focuses on connecting with students, on understanding the root causes of their attitudes, and on making math relevant to their lives. His approach not only solidifies his popularity with the students, it has helped them achieve some of the highest scores on the CAS standardized tests among DC public schools.
"Your 8th graders last year had 83% proficiency? That is incredible," marveled Mayor Vincent Gray, who handed Mr. Bill an oversize mockup of a $5,000 check.
"Wow," Day said, as he smiled through his mod tortoise shell-rimmed glasses at the standing ovation the children and staff at Two Rivers gave him.
"I have 500 hard-working role models. You coming to school ready to go and working so hard, that's what inspires me," he said to cheers.
Inspiration is an ongoing theme in Day's nine-year career as a teacher. His first teaching experience in the District was at Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy on Capitol Hill. He was awed by the school's model for experiential learning and the ability of some students to "hit public policy essays out of the ballpark." But there the mathematician encountered a problem he was not yet equipped to solve: how to engage the uninspired student who would come to class, but immediately put his head down on the desk?
So Day left teaching to return to the classroom himself. He earned a Master's Degree at the University of Washington, learned techniques to get kids questioning, investigating, and debating math problems, the aspects of the subject he and his fellow mathematicians enjoyed most.
He also studied the underlying factors that block children from understanding concepts he believes every child is capable of mastering.
"Every kid can learn meaningful mathematics," Day likes to say.
But oftentimes parents' own perceptions about their experiences with math classes hold their children back.
"I tell parents, be honest. If it was difficult for you, don't say it was easy. But never say it's not worthwhile because children echo what important people in their life say," said Day.
Day's students clearly took pride in their teacher's accomplishment, smiling at the many news cameras, hugging and high-fiving him. Day's fiancee, a lawyer in the District, gave him a congratulatory kiss and told reporters, "It's been amazing to watch him. Many nights he stays up until 1 a.m. searching for new techniques. If I had had a math teacher like Bill when I was a student, I would've gone into the sciences instead of liberal arts."
Mayor Gray capped off the ceremony with a pat on Day's back. "Mr. Day, this is your day!"
"This is really tough to accept when there are so many brilliant teachers in D.C.," said Day, who dipped his head humbly. "Teacher of the Year doesn't mean you are the best, it means you are trying to embody the best qualities you see in the teachers all around you. All teachers are works in progress."