Cleveland Heights High School art teacher Nancy Rich-Drehs was one of three educators presented with a Cleveland Institute of Art Excellence in Teaching Award, presented at a ceremony on May 12 during CIA’s 2023 BFA Celebration.
The other recipients include Michelle Kane of Mentor High School and Amber West from Olmsted Falls High School. Each recipient received a $500 prize and a certificate designed by CIA alum Julia Milbrandt. Their names will also be inscribed on a plaque on campus, joining last year’s inaugural class – Sarah Curry at Charles F. Brush High School in Lyndhurst, Dayna Hansen at Lakewood High School and Dan Whitely at Orange High School in Pepper Pike.
Educators who are considered for the award are identified by CIA based on connections made throughout the recruitment cycle and are selected for the award based on the outcomes of their students’ portfolios, and their commitment to providing access and opportunities for students to show their work and consider the best art colleges in the country, according to a news release. Three winners are selected each year.
Yvette Sobky Shaffer, CIA’s vice president of enrollment management and marketing, created the Excellence in Teaching Award, inspired by her former institution before she came to the Cleveland-based art and design college, she told the Cleveland Jewish News.
“I feel like its really important for colleges to embrace their thought leaders, and honor them, as well as make sure the community is made aware of the great work that is happening throughout all the high schools in our area,” she said. “What we’re looking for is a consistent legacy of college-bound culture. So, someone who really makes an effort with (their) students to consider arts college as a viable option.”
All three recipients fit the criteria, Sobky Shaffer said. But what set Rich-Drehs apart from other possible recipients, she added, was her dedication to supporting her students and their ambitions.
“Nancy really hits the mark,” she said. “She creates a safe space for her students in her classroom. She facilities conversations and brings in great colleges. She takes students on tours of both art institutions and colleges. Then, the work her students are producing is a great balance between the technical expertise the student will need to have but also still honors their vision.”
When she first heard of the honor, Rich-Drehs told the CJN she thought it was a “prank.” She’s been a teacher in the district since 2004.
“It was nothing I knew about beforehand,” said Rich-Drehs, who lives in Lyndhurst and attends Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood. “I found out in April and really thought it was all a prank. I had never heard about the award or even applied for anything. So, that made it even more of an honor - to be selected. I was really shocked.”
The ceremony was a “wonderful” experience, Rich-Drehs said. She said her principal, Alisa Lawson-McKinnie, and her husband, were also in attendance, which was “so nice.” The group got a tour of the campus facilities, which Rich-Drehs said she was “in awe of,” even as the product of an art school herself. She earned a BFA in metals and a minor in industrial design from the College of Creative Studies in Detroit and a master’s degree in art education from Case Western Reserve University.
While she was the one presented with the award, Rich-Drehs said she feels the honor is a credit to her students’ successes.
“I love my job and my students,” she said. “I love seeing them thrive. I love seeing them think outside the box and take that next step. I don’t think I am doing anything special. I am just doing something I love, and have wanted to do since I was a little girl. ... I go to graduation and prom every year and cry. I started teaching at the (Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District) in elementary, and when I moved to high school, it was like seeing my babies grow up.”
Awards like this only solidify the importance of art education in primary and secondary school, both women told the CJN.
“For me, being able to elevate (art education) in our community and say ‘hey, this is important,’ that’s why we do what we do,” Sobky Shaffer said, adding many professions one might think are non-artistic use art skills.
“If you look at (today’s careers), it is all art, creativity and thinking outside of the box,” Rich-Drehs said. “Art surrounds us every day. And when kids come in saying they can’t draw, I beg to differ. It’s about bringing that creative aspect out of a child.”