Fil-Am teacher raises a ‘shark’ and environment consciousness in classroom; receives national award

By Cecile Caguingin Ochoa

Filipino teacher Jennifer Suzara-Cheng receives national Award in Massachusetts.

Filipino teacher Jennifer Suzara-Cheng receives national Award in Massachusetts.

San Pedro, CA- Jennifer Suzara-Cheng, an immigrant from Camarines Norte recently received an “Outstanding Green-o-vation” award from Green Schools Inc. for integrating environmental conservation education in the classroom. Green Schools Inc., a nonprofit organization awards students, teachers and administrators from across the nation for their contributions to the environmental movement.

Suzara-Cheng, who came to this country 11 years ago, teaches honors and AP biology courses at San Pedro High. She amusedly recalls that she’s known in Ateneo de Naga where she taught for 13 years as “Reyna ng Karagatan” (Queen of the Sea) for her consuming interest in marine biology.

Other award recipients have come from the following states: Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Rhode Islands, Maine, Texas, New Hampshire, Michigan and California.

Maureen Aylward, director of students and schools at Green Schools Inc., said it is important for teachers to get students out of the classroom and into interactive environments.

“Teachers who do this are rare,” Aylward said. “But it’s very important for the students and the STEM curriculum.” The 2015 Green Difference Awards were held at the Massachusetts State House on Tuesday, May 26th.

The Camarines del Sur native will represent the public sector educators as a speaker on “Green Schools Alliance: Accelerating Change Through a Diverse School Network” to be held on October 15-18 at the 2015 North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) conference in San Diego.

“I’m lucky to hold a job of a teacher, always excited to start a working day with something to teach on the environment to my eager students,” she said.

She raises environmental consciousness in the classroom by either bringing in experiments from “the outside” to indoors or getting her students out in the beaches, oceans, marshlands, among others. She gave an example of an experiment such as raising a shark indoors.

“Creating ocean awareness through hatching a bamboo shark in the classroom, then raising it, maintaining water salinity, temperature, nitrate was a big challenge,” the Ateneo de Naga graduate cited.

“The sense of responsibility and ownership developed by the students was heartwarming. This baby shark became famous in the school, students who were not even in my class would come and visit at lunch,” she continued.

“I try to look for opportunities to take students out on field trips to expose them on the realities outside the classroom. I always tell my students that learning should never be confined within the walls of school and the entire world is their learning area”.

Not only is Suzara-Cheng a trailblazer in environmental protection here in the States, her family, the Suzara’s, trace their patriotic roots to her great grandfather General Vicente Lukban, one of the heroes of the Philippines-US War of 1901. Her grandfather was the first governor of Camarines Norte, Fernando Suzara.

And if her maiden name Suzara rings a bell; yes, she is related to Jinky Suzara, her aunt, who became a household name in Manila the 70s for marrying heartthrob Gary Lewis of Gary Lewis and the Playboy.

Suzara-Cheng ( middle) receives the Green-O-vation award from Robin Organ (left), Executive Director of Green Schools,  with members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, 14th Bristol District.

Suzara-Cheng ( middle) receives the Green-O-vation award from Robin Organ (left), Executive Director of Green Schools, with members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, 14th Bristol District.

San Pedro High School is a unique public high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), with two campuses: Flagship and the John M. and Muriel Olguin Campus. Located in the city of San Pedro, Los Angeles County, the Flagship campus is divided into four different SLC’s (Small Learning Communities), one of which is Global Environmental.

Since her college days, Jennifer has been fascinated with environment and preservation. Her college thesis was about “Inventory of Marine Macroscopic Seaweeds in Camarines Sur.”

She believes studying seaweeds brings in primal knowledge about the ocean and cycle of life. “We know that when seaweeds are healthy, the ocean is healthy and that means less pollution in these areas. – these serve as habitat for small organisms and gauges marine pollution.” She graduated from Ateneo De Naga with a Degree in B.S. Biology and a Master’s Degree in Education. She taught there for 13 years before immigrating to the U.S. in 2004. She is married to mechanical engineer Alex Cheng for 29 years and they have three adult children, two of whom are college graduates with math or science degrees and another one in college.

Her classes in San Pedro are all hands on. She said had made arrangements with school administrators to request for substitutes to take care of her other classes, so she can take students out on field trips.

“Every fieldtrip requires preparation, guidelines and expectations; students are briefed what to do so they know the proper behavior and safety procedures.

Her students take videos of the trips and experiments. The videos provide a glimpse of the excitement and engagement of students on well-run fieldtrips that can never be captured inside the classroom”. A sample of this video trip can be accessed through the following
url of the wetland experiment:
“My students not only learn from me but they also learn from each other and we all learn from guest speakers invited to share their expertise. My SLC Global environmental program presents speakers from environmental careers, which allows students to be engaged and gain understanding of the real world. This has led to summer internships, job shadowing and OJT. Most juniors and seniors experience a change of attitude regarding the connection between grades and jobs”.

She says her school is very conducive to environmental learning because it is only a mile away from the Pacific Ocean. “You can say it is a school with a view,” Suzara-Cheng laughed as she mentions that students can look out of their classrooms and see the beach.

On Earth Day last year, Suzara-Cheng and her classes received the following awards: EARTH Hero Award from California Safe Schools; Certificates of Congressional Commendation; Certificate of Recognition from City of Los Angeles; Certificate of Recognition Los Angeles Board of Education; Certificate of Recognition California Legislature Assembly; and Certificate of Appreciation from United States Environmental Protection Agency.
( An earlier version of this story appeared in, a content partner of TheFilamLA)
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