MARK Ippolito, confirmed sports fanatic and head English teacher at Kadina High, has been nominated for the National Teacher of the Year Award by the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARL). A true believer in the importance of sport in education - particularly rugby league - Mark said he was "absolutely thrilled" by the nomination.
"It's a reward for years of coaching and it's all down to the fantastic people I work with," he said.
The award is intended for teachers who've "demonstrated exceptional support of rugby league… by integrating league-related teaching material into their programs."
It provides $2500 to the winning teacher and a $500 equipment pack for their school.
Mark certainly meets its philosophical requirements. A teacher for 13 years, he grew up in Bondi Junction, in walking distance of the Rooster's home ground.
"I've seen my share of a million games," he chuckles.
His early love of the game translated into teaching.
"My first posting was to Walgett. I was there for three years and the real breakthroughs came on the sporting field. I saw that at Cobar and Richmond River too. If you're coaching a team, you're halfway there."
When he came to Kadina High three years ago, the first thing he noticed was that the school had no rugby league teams, "yet every kid had a football in their hands.
"Two former Australian captains, Adam Gilchrist and Craig Foster (in cricket and soccer), came out of this school, so we had that tradition, but it had fallen away. The more footballs I saw around the school, the more I knew I had to do something about it."
Along with concerned parents, he formed PACE (Parent Community Engagement), whose acronym has now been swapped for the bigger mouthful of CAKE (Country Rugby League and Kadina Engagement).
"It's mainly for at-risk Indigenous kids. They respond fantastically to it. One kid I just spoke to has gone from multiple suspensions to only two lately. Anecdotally, attendance has markedly improved."
The program's been running for two years, earning the kids NRL accreditation through refereeing and coaching clinics. Once they've received accreditation they go into public schools - Goonellabah Public, Lismore Heights Public, Bexhill Public and Clunes Public, where the kids referee and coach younger players.
The ARL sends ambassadors - former Australian players and league stars among them - to give coaching clinics and support. It was through this relationship that ARL development officer Kel Minchin selected Mark as a nominee for the One Community Awards.
The ARL is flying Mark down for the awards, to be held in Sydney at the Town Hall on September 24, fittingly kicking off the 2012 Grand Final Week.