It was a typical fall morning at Center City Public Charter School’s Brightwood campus, and WCSU alumnus Jermar Rountree, a physical education/health teacher at the school, was helping colleagues set up the gym for a science fair when the gymnasium door opened and Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser walked in. Rountree turned to the preschooler beside him and said, “That’s the mayor! Maybe we’ll get to meet her.”
Not only did he get to meet her — Bowser was at the school that day specifically to announce that Rountree had been named 2023 District of Columbia Teacher of the Year in a surprise ceremony organized by his coworkers.
“It was surreal,” Rountree said. “Out of all of the teachers in D.C. to be the winner was just amazing. It’s the culmination of me learning to become an educator at WCSU.”
Two decades earlier, as a student at Waterbury’s Wilby High School, Rountree had a dream to play football one day at Penn State. He had the physical skill, but unfortunately his grades did not meet their admissions requirements. Undeterred. Rountree knew he might need to take a stepping-stone approach to achieving his goals and kept moving forward. He pushed himself as a high school senior to take both his high school classes and classes at a local state college to try to improve his academic record.
The next step in his process after high school was to spend a year and a half at Naugatuck Valley Community College, still improving upon his grades while fulfilling his General Education requirements. It was then that collegiate football programs started to take notice.
“I was recruited by an all-male southern school and by Western Connecticut State University,” Rountree explained. “I decided to stay closer to home and enrolled at WCSU, where I was able to play football as a strong safety for two years.”
It ended up being a fortuitous choice for Rountree, because not only did he meet his friend and fellow WCSU football player Bill McDermott, he ultimately found his true calling to be a physical health-based enrichment teacher.
While Rountree enrolled at WCSU with the goal of becoming a history teacher, he also took advantage of many of the course offerings in the university’s Health Promotion and Exercise Sciences program. “The HPX classes just came so naturally to me,” he said. “I was student teaching through a work-study job at Roberts Avenue School near campus, and I asked the gym teacher if I could cover some of his classes. It was then I knew I really wanted to be a phys ed teacher.”
Rountree graduated in 2008 with a B.A. in History and began working at the Grassy Plain YMCA in nearby Bethel — first as a teacher, then as the Physical Education Director, and ultimately as the Assistant Director of the entire program. He also began a 10-year journey to obtain a master’s degree in Early Education.
His teammate McDermott was teaching middle school in Washington, D.C., and encouraged Rountree to move there to finish his master’s degree and further his teaching career. In 2012, Rountree took a job at D.C. Prep Public Charter School in Northeast Washington alongside McDermott, before joining Center City Public Charter School in 2016.
Rountree said Center City School is a Title I School in an overpopulated, poverty-stricken area. Many of its students and their families face cultural and language barriers, which he has sought to overcome by creating programs focused on fitness; nutrition; general, emotional and social health; exercise and more. He serves as the District teacher lead for physical education and health for the six charter schools in the Center City network, and has led the Physical Education Cadre at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
In her address to Rountree and his colleagues the day of the announcement, Bowser said, “Jermar Rountree — or, as his students call him, Coach Rountree — is an outstanding educator who takes time every day to check in with students and families. … He goes above and beyond to build community and equip students with the skills necessary to succeed not just in school, but in life, and we can’t wait to cheer for Coach Rountree as he competes for National Teacher of the Year.”
Bowser is the latest in a long line of women who have lifted Rountree up. He lost his mother to cancer before his senior year at WCSU and found himself homeless until his best friend’s family took him in, where he is considered their third son. Rountree said, “I was a first-generation college student. My mom really wanted to see me graduate, and unfortunately, she couldn’t. Kim Trocola gave me the stability I needed when she adopted me into her family.”
Several other women have had a profound impact on Rountree’s life. “My mentors at Roberts Avenue School, Ms. Edwards and Ms. Harris, saw how natural I was with young kids during my work-study job. They trusted me, which meant a lot. And several of the HPX instructors at WCSU lit the fire in me that I needed to pursue being a phys ed teacher. So many ladies have been behind me and pushed me.”
Jermar Rountree and his sister Tamia
Now there is another woman who is central to Rountree’s life — his younger half-sister, Tamia, a three-time Special Olympics Gold Medalist whom he has moved into his home and provides for. “I promised my mom that I would take care of my family, and I am,” he said.
At age 38, Rountree looks back now at the struggles he had to overcome as a young man and is proud of not only what he has accomplished, but also at how he has used his experiences to help the next generation of students coming from disadvantaged situations succeed. “I wake up every morning excited about what I can teach my kids at school and how I can help my sister,” he said. “What I do every day is my passion and it’s more important than a salary.”
His advice to those who are struggling with difficult circumstances and choices: “Pay attention to who is pointing you in the right direction and showing you love. There is nothing you can’t reach for if you keep your mind open. Reach for it.”
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