Educator of the Month: Cindy Zeller

EOM-headshotPrincipal Chris Salyers of The Learning Center in Lexington calls Cindy Zeller a “superstar teacher, a pillar of the school.”

Which is fascinating when you consider that Zeller freely admits that she hated school as a child and started her career as a horse trainer.

She and husband trained trotters that ran at Red Mile and other harness race tracks around the country.

They still own and board horses on their 17-acre farm, and Zeller rides at least once a week. But after eight years as a trainer, Zeller returned to college to get a teaching degree.

“When my son entered a Montessori program I saw that learning could be fun,” she said. “Plus I wanted to make a contribution to try to make the world a better place.”

After 15 years as an art teacher at Tates Creek Middle, Zeller was selected in 2009 to help launch The Learning Center, a school for eighth-12th graders who struggle in a traditional classroom setting.

The school, in north Lexington, started with 50 students and has grown to 170.

School counselors recommend students to the Center, students who are struggling for a variety of reasons – family tragedies, homeless issues, bullying, anxiety, depression and learning differences.

Many of these kids just don’t fit in. They are called unique.

“We embrace unique,” Zeller says cheerfully. “We get to know the students as individuals and give them individualized instruction.”

Most of that instruction is hands-on in her art and pottery classes. The school has a kiln and wood shop where students create art out of found objects and reclaimed wood.

Students currently are repurposing land to create a monarch way station for butterflies.

Many of these projects involve the community and are funded by grants that Zeller has secured.

Zeller works side by side with students, which builds connections and fosters school loyalty.

“Our attendance rate is very high,” she said.

Former student John Columbia was helping Zeller prepare for the first day of school last month and spoke about what the school meant to him.

“I made connections here I didn’t make anywhere else,” said Columbia, who volunteered at the school every day last semester after his job at a tax office ended in April.

“This school is a confidence builder because students are accepted. That’s why I’m here to help Mrs. Zeller.”

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