A trio of surprise patrols fanned out across Hillsborough County on Tuesday to recognize 13 finalists, out of 650 nominees, for the district’s Excellence in Education Awards. Patrol members – district leaders, business partners and special guests -- brought streamers, giant signs and some incredible news to campuses as they greeted finalists for three awards: Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year, Instructional Support Employee of the Year and Teacher of the Year.
• Christine Campbell is a school social worker at Van Buren Middle School in Tampa. Campbell has spent seven years in the district as a social worker. She prides herself on her daily work to “remove barriers which negatively impact overall student achievement,” by looking at attendance, behavior and course performance. Campbell said she’s humbled to be a finalist for this award. “Honoring and respecting diversity is very important. We all come from many different backgrounds, different facets of life. Having the ability to come together and honor one another and work as a team is an amazing thing. It’s about what can we do as a community, a family, a unit, a team.”
• Jonathan Collier is an exceptional education teacher at Spoto High School in Riverview. Collier has been teaching and at Spoto High for three years. He started the school’s Special Olympics team in 2014 as a way to teach athletes about teamwork, perseverance and camaraderie. In the classroom, he builds a culture emphasizing respect and responsibility. “Making sure everyone is included and has a place in my classroom and the community. Not everyone sees the work, so this award means a lot, because it means what I’m doing is appreciated,” Collier said. “I build rapport with my students by being approachable, non-judgmental and having empathy for the challenges they face in their education and at home.”
• Alicia Fojaco is an exceptional education specialist at Sessums Elementary in Riverview. Fojaco has been an HCPS teacher for seven years. She started a program called Growing Leaders, along with the on-campus deputy, in an effort to close the achievement gap within the minority student population to give them a reason to attend school. Participants work on the school garden, develop positive relationships and set and achieve personal goals. Fojaco also initiated an autism Professional Learning Community and is a part of the Exceptional Student Parent Network. She’s honored to be a finalist for this award. “Every student is important. We have to make sure we’re meeting everyone’s needs,” Fojaco said.
• Meredith Mullen is the magnet lead teacher at Lockhart Elementary Magnet in Tampa. Mullen has been an HCPS teacher for five years. She recently challenged students to create a multicultural garden to promote diversity and learn about other countries. “I believe it is important to provide our students with experiences that they may not otherwise have in their lives,” Mullen said. She organized a weekly Girls in STEM group with a group of high-risk girls to empower the young women to consider professions in engineering. “By educating our students about different cultures and professions, I am giving them tools to be lifelong learners,” Mullen said.
The award recognizes educators who show a commitment to meeting the needs of minority students and is named after Ida S. Baker, a teacher and the first African-American woman to become a high school principal in Lee County. She later went on to become a deputy superintendent for the Florida Department of Education. Baker was known as a pioneer, advocate and role model for minority students.
• Cindy Nunez is a kindergarten paraprofessional at Claywell Elementary School in Tampa. She has worked in education for 32 years. “Kids are everything to me, they make my day,” she said. “I wake up each morning and can’t wait to come to school. They are my sunshine.”
• Leonard Snead is the head custodian at Lockhart Elementary Magnet in Tampa. This year, he worked tirelessly before, during and after Hurricane Irma, then found himself and his team unexpectedly thrust into preparing the campus to accept the Lee Elementary family in just four days. And he did it all with a smile.
• Talina Ugarte is a bilingual paraprofessional at Muller Elementary Magnet in Tampa. "I am really proud to represent my school, Muller, and I really enjoy teaching the students and helping all of our families as well,” she said.
• Miriam Velez is a bilingual paraprofessional at Dover Elementary School. “Being fluent in Spanish and English makes it easy for me to bridge the communication gaps that exists between our school and a majority of our families,” she said in her application.
• Bonnie Bresnyan teaches exceptional student education at Lewis Elementary School in Temple Terrace. “It’s such an honor, out of all the teachers, because there are so many great teachers,” she said. Bresnyan helped each of her young students pose for a photo with Ronald McDonald before someone reminded her to take one too. “Our hive is unique in that we are “differently-abled,” multi-aged and multi-grades, yet we all have one thing in common: We love to learn and have fun doing it!” she wrote in her application.
• Jennifer Jackson teaches seventh-grade science at Stewart Middle Magnet in Tampa. “She’s cool because she teaches us so much stuff and it’s fun,” said one student, Archie. “She likes to add a lot of activities, which is easier for everyone,” added first-period classmate Delylah. In her application, Jackson noted her frequent use of online lab simulations and a 3D AV Rover, which allows students to watch science-based clips in 3D.
• Lisabeth Leist teaches Algebra II at Steinbrenner High School in Lutz. What’s her favorite part about teaching? “Them,” she’ll respond, pointing toward a classroom full of students. Some insight into her teaching strategy: “Each day I revise, I tweak, I dwell, I notate. What worked? Why did it work? Which students were most affected? What happened to my low performing students learning goals? Did I meet my high achievers needs? Were they interested? Did they like this lesson and why? One student, Jillian, said she didn’t like math until she arrived in Leist’s class this year.
• Nicole Meyerson teaches fifth grade at Carrollwood Elementary School. Student Izzy said, “She says that we’re all the smartest.” Classmate Nicholas: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen here get mad at this class … unless we do something stupid.” Classmate Steven: “She really likes to help us a lot. She thinks about all of us.” Meyerson said she tries to be an example to students and colleagues. “Inspiring others is a passion of mine,” she wrote, “and I feel that to create a climate of respect you have to earn it first.”
• Alexa Trafficante teaches at Gorrie Elementary School in South Tampa. Students described Trafficante as funny and patient. She helped develop a kindness campaign at her school and her students collected shoes for children in Kenya and raised money for hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico. Both her mother and sister joined the prize patrol to honor Trafficante, but the teacher said real credit lies with the students. “Thanks for making me look good,” she told her fourth graders.