Left to right: Walter Kase Teaching Excellence award winner Steven Schlabach
and WAIS eighth-grader Cindy Vargas, the school’s Character Without Question
An in-district charter school that offer international studies, WAIS by definition is a diverse campus. And Schlabach heeds the call to help students get along and appreciate one another’s strengths. He starts with assemblies during the first week of school where he has students create and display a World Observances calendar. Mix It Up Day involves students meeting and making new friends then discussing and journaling those experiences.
For all that and more, Schlabach was recognized with a Walter Kase Teacher Excellence Award during the Anti-Defamation League’s annual luncheon on May 6.
“Diversity is at the heart of (Westchester Academy),” Schlabach said. “It’s culture is open and accepting to all.”
Schlabach said that it was hard to put his feelings into words.
“It’s such an honor to be recognized for something we do every day,” he said. “We don’t do it for recognition, but it’s nice,” adding that the award is especially meaningful because of its namesake.
“Mr. Kase was an amazing gentleman,” said Schlabach. “The fact that he chose to tell his story … thank God he did.”
Those who heard Walter Kase’s story about respect, compassion and the freedom of education were rarely the same, with most heeding Kase’s directives to never take people or things for granted. Kase survived the Polish ghettos and extermination camps during World War II but lost most of his family members.
“Tell those close to you that you love them and appreciate them,” Kase often told students. “We all make time for so many mundane things that too often we neglect to show love, respect, and appreciation to those who make our lives worth living.”
Kase died earlier this year, adding a certain poignance to this year’s awards, now in their 17th year.
Schlabach was introduced by WAIS eighth-grader Cindy Vargas, the school’s Character Without Question winner.
“He’s an amazing person,” she said. “He’s a great role model and someone I look up to.”
School Director Jennifer Collier said that Schlabach goes “above and beyond” every day, and is always there for everyone who needs him. She said he set up a site online where anyone can anonymously report bullying or other situations.
“It’s amazing what we’ve accomplished” through the site,” she said.
Founding School Director Pam Butler said that when she interviewed Schlabach to join the school, she could “see immediately what kind of person he was.”
“I just left him alone and let him do his thing,” said Butler. “He’s one of the best hires I ever made.”
Walter Kase was born in 1929 in Lodz, Poland, and was just 10-years-old when the Nazis invaded Poland and began rounding up Jews into ghettos, then into labor and extermination camps. Kase lost most of his immediate and extended family but lived to see he and his father liberated in 1945, only to watch his father die a few months later from the effects of starvation and malnutrition.
Reunited in Poland with his mother, the two came to the United States in 1947 to start a new life. Kase taught himself English and finished school, got married and became a salesman for a costume jewelry wholesaler. Retiring in 1990 after a successful career that included a partnership in an import company, Kase discovered a new passion in telling his story to middle and high school-age students.