Ruth Moonesinghe
Photo by Sally Kilby

Northwestern University in Illinois asked its 2019 graduating seniors for the names of one former high school teacher who had a major impact on their lives.

From 130 nominations, five were selected by the university to receive a Distinguished Secondary School Teacher Award, according to its website. Northwestern’s Office of the President sponsors the award.

Ruth Moonesinghe, a 16-year South Pasadena High School (SPHS) mathematics teacher, is one of the five. She is the only recipient who is not from a high school in the Midwest.

Joanna Wan, a 2015 South Pasadena High School graduate who will earn her degree from Northwestern next month, nominated her. Wan is majoring in economics and political science at the school, she said by phone May 9. She was a student in Moonesinghe’s calculus class.

Northwestern University is located in Evanston, Illinois, outside Chicago. The school is ranked #10 in national universities by US News & World Report, according to the publication’s website.

After graduation, Wan will take a position as an investment banking analyst in New York City with Morgan Stanley, a financial services company.

Honoree Moonesinghe, who says her last name is pronounced moon-ne-sing-her, has been invited to attend Northwestern’s graduation ceremonies. She and the other four teachers will be honored at a special ceremony June 20 and recognized at the commencement ceremony June 21, according to the university.

“The school is flying my guest and me to the ceremony,” she said during an interview in her SPHS classroom May 7. “I wear a cap and gown. I attend several events over three days, including a formal dinner with the president.”

She will also receive $5,000, and SPHS will also be given $5,000, she said.

This is not Moonesinghe’s first award. She has been chosen by her students for numerous honors, including the prestigious SPHS Hartsough Award for exceptional teachers.

Other universities have also recognized her. She received an award for “inspiring commitment to educational excellence” from Johns Hopkins University. Moonesinghe was awarded its Sarah D. Barder Fellowship to attend an all-expense-paid conference. In 2017, she said Stanford University honored her. She said she has also received recognition from MIT and the University of Chicago.

“All awards have come from student nominations,” she said.

When asked why she believed she was chosen for this award, she said, “I read the biographies of the four other teachers who were selected. They all had high expectations of their students and helped them to succeed.”

The SPHS students in her class last week agreed that she has high expectations. “When it comes to work,” said 9th grader Samantha Molina, “it’s high demand.” 

“She’s strict with her standards,” added another student. 

“Do I help you succeed in all that?” their teacher countered. They nodded.

In fact, Moonesinghe said that 99 percent of her students attain a five, the highest possible score on the College Board testing company’s Advanced Placement calculus exams. Achieving a score of five counts as a semester of college calculus.

But Miss Moon, as she is known by some students, offers more than top academic success.

“My family has been highly influential in my life,” she said, describing her early years growing up in Sri Lanka after her father died when she was two, “especially in instilling in me that we have to serve people.”

In 2007, she started “Calculus for a Cause,” a fundraising effort that benefits charities worldwide. It began with an effort to raise funds for devastating Southern California fires taking place at the time.

Since then, she said in an essay submitted to Northwestern as part of the nomination process, “it has evolved into a fundraiser where my students, the best [in math] in this school, exchanged their skilled math tutoring during finals for donations.”

This semi-annual program helps high school students prepare for their math finals. Students are asked for a donation of $20 for a packet of materials and one-on-one tutoring. Scholarships, however, are available.

This semester’s tutoring session is scheduled for Tuesday, May 28 from 2 to 7 p.m. in the practice gym, according to the school’s calendar on its website.

“We have raised $95,000 to date for global causes,” she said in her Northwestern statement, “including Haiti, Nepal, the Philippines, and—most recently—for the community at Paradise, California, which was devastated by recent fires.”

Wan, the former student who nominated Moonesinghe, said that she “influenced me tremendously outside of the classroom.”

“She engages her students in a lot of activities,” Wan said, “such as the biannual charity fundraiser.” Wan served as a tutor as well as an organizer in the program.

Wan also followed her teacher’s lead. While in high school in South Pasadena, she spent two summers in China (where she is from) interviewing rural farmers for microloans.

Wan gave another example. “She also hosts events where her former and current students can gather and just talk about college and careers,” she said of her former teacher. “That has a tremendous impact on students.”

Of the lessons she teaches, she said in her essay, “it is more than the straight fives [AP scores], it is seeing the kids adopt my mantra: I have a talent, I want to use it and I enjoy it by serving others.”

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Sally Kilby, a South Pasadena resident, was City Clerk 2000-2013. Prior to that, she worked in health care as a nurse, medical librarian, advertising copywriter, writer and journal editor. She is involved in various community organizations. Her two grown children attended South Pasadena schools and work at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena.

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