Top 10: Meet the finalists to become Pinellas County’s teacher of the year

Published January 26 2018

Every year, the Pinellas County school district’s Outstanding Educator recognition program gives us a telling glimpse inside classrooms all over county.

Among the 10 finalists are a "warm demander" who finds ways to push her elementary school students and at the same time nurture them, a high school English teacher with an "infectious personality" that "spills over to all of her students," and a middle school music teacher who juggles six ensembles and a theater class, while organizing an annual dinner theater and leading a countywide organization of like-minded colleagues. The stories go on.

This year’s finalists possess some common traits: They connect with their students and take extra time to do it, including weekends in many cases. They show energy. And they care about their schools, getting involved outside the classroom.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: A look back at last year’s finalists

One of them will receive the ceremonial mantle as the district’s top teacher for 2017-18, but all 10 will share the spotlight Wednesday during the annual "Evening of Excellence" celebration at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. A VIP reception will start at 5:30 p.m. and the awards show at 7, followed by a post-show dessert reception in the Mahaffey lobby.

The event is presented by the Pinellas Education Foundation. General admission tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door, and $5 for teachers, seniors and students. Those prices include the dessert reception. Tickets are available by calling the Mahaffey box office at (727) 893-7832.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Remember last year’s winner?

According to the school district, a panel of judges determined the finalists based on multiple criteria and a different set of judges selected the winner in a second round of scoring.

The winner will receive the traditional limo ride to school Thursday morning.


Bear Creek Elementary

Fourth-grade teacher

Education: Bachelor’s, elementary education, St. Petersburg College

Years with Pinellas Schools: 8

"She caught my attention almost immediately. … Ms. Black possesses the ability to reach some of our most troubled and/or struggling students with simple, yet profound, nurturing instincts and empathy coupled with complete professionalism. Likewise, her student academic record of accomplishment demonstrates her ability to accelerate and challenge some of our most struggling learners. … On most days, her classroom is busy with students working on rich standards-based tasks, yet fully engaged in deepening their own knowledge and understanding. … She is the epitome of a ‘warm demander’ who is constantly working to develop relationships with students to achieve mutual respect, maintain high expectations, and builds empathy through her actions and words." — Willette Houston, principal


Tyrone Middle

Sixth-grade math teacher

Education: Master’s, instructional leadership, Robert Morris University

Years with Pinellas Schools: 4

"She is routinely known for transforming scholars who dislike math into scholars who love going to math class. … She hosts her own segment on Twitter each Friday, Failing Forward, for educators all over the world to reflect back over their week to acknowledge failures and grow forward from them. … She spends her time on the weekends with scholars. She spends her time before and after school with scholars. She simply avails herself to scholars all the time. … When I am having a low moment during the day, Jessie’s classroom is one of my choices to go and be uplifted. … The challenges of working in an urban school are not for every teacher. Some get burned out fast. Some lose sight of why they started teaching in the first place. Some find their calling and success in other neighborhoods, with other kids. But not Jessie Boyce. She chooses to stay." — Robin Mobley, principal


Boca Ciega High

Language arts teacher

Education: Doctorate, curriculum and instruction, University of South Florida

Years with Pinellas Schools: 10

"Rarely does one encounter an individual as unique as Jennifer Denmon. … She works diligently with all of her students to ensure that graduation is a timely event and that students have a clear vision as to post-secondary opportunities. … Dr. Denmon recently graduated with her Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction and teaches graduate and undergraduate courses at the University of South Florida, Tampa and Baldwin Wallace University. She also presents at several conferences. … Dr. Denmon takes the initiative and co-sponsors our Student Government Association. She works extremely closely with our students to create a fantastic homecoming week, including dress-up days, a homecoming parade, crowning the king and queen at the game and the homecoming dance. She possesses an infectious personality and abundant creative energy that spills over to all of her students." — Michael P. Vigue, principal


East Lake Middle School Academy

Social studies teacher

Education: Master of Arts, social studies education, University of South Florida

Years with Pinellas Schools: 13

"Sarah DeTurk makes civics come alive and her students can’t get enough of her class. … She continues to improve her craft by analyzing her data … She has pinpointed what students were not understanding and has already started pulling small groups in her classes. … Sarah holds many leadership positions within the school. She serves as department leader as well as a member of the East Middle School magnet certification team. … She holds study sessions for her students before every major test. In fact, her very first session at 8 a.m. on a warm May morning of 2015 was a lesson in both civics and math. … We were all amazed when 80-plus students showed up that morning and we had to find another location. … Parents talk about how their students come home and frequently talk about what they learned in civics. … That is when you know you have an amazing teacher." — Karen Huzar, principal


Pinellas Central Elementary

Second-grade teacher

Education: Bachelor’s, elementary education, St. Petersburg College

Years with Pinellas Schools: 11

"From the second a scholar meets Mrs. Herman, they know they are special and they are smart. … She is especially aware of, and sensitive to, the different ways that kids learn. … She hooks with humor and has the reputation of being able to make even the saddest scholar smile within 10 seconds. … Mrs. Herman is constantly "thinking out loud" with great enthusiasm in her voice. She models learning and explains how she came to understand information and how to think through problems. This important narrative teaches the kids how to express their thinking, which is a very difficult concept for many. … The same positive attitude Mrs. Herman has with her scholars is evident when she works with her colleagues. … She is always there to support her scholars, their families, her colleagues and the school." — Cara A. Walsh, principal


Countryside High

Science teacher

Education: Education specialist degree, science education, University of Florida

Years with Pinellas Schools: 14

Ms. McNicol fosters excellence in education as the teacher of the only biotechnology program in the Pinellas County School District. She attends immersive trainings to stay abreast of laboratory techniques and any changes in the biotech field. Ms. McNicol uses these summer trainings as an avenue to build a support network of fellow teachers throughout the state since there are no other local teachers for collaboration. … She also builds real life experiences into the curriculum and is building a network of area industries to serve as shadowing opportunities for the students. … She has open lines of communication with the students and their parents as well as former students. … The strength and self confidence needed to be the sole teacher in an ever-evolving program such as biotechnology is indicative of the reason I am proud to recommend Ms. Ann McNicol as Teacher of the Year. — Gerald M. Schlereth, principal


Carwise Middle

Music teacher

Education: Bachelor’s, music education, University of Florida

Years with Pinellas Schools: 15

"Mr. Obara’s responsibilities include directing the wind ensemble, symphonic orchestra, symphonic band, beginning band, beginning orchestra, jazz ensemble and co-directing the music theater class. … He currently serves as president of the Pinellas County Music Educators Association, (and) has an impressive history of leading successful ensembles and productions, as well as many superior and excellent awards from the Florida Bandmasters Association over the years. … He created our music theater department, which has grown from an after-school club to an actual school class with the highest standards. … Each year, Mr. Obara presents a full dinner theater production, complete with student actor-servers and themed table decorations. The dinner theater has become a tradition that the community and school look forward to every spring." — Robert Vicari, principal


Bay Point Middle

Math teacher

Education: Master of Middle Grades STEM Education, University of South Florida

Years with Pinellas Schools: 5

"Ms. Katie Swango has the unique ability to see and strive for excellence in her students … (and) she is not afraid to take risks in an effort to challenge them to the full range of their educational knowledge. … She has been, and continues to be, very innovative within her classrooms. Ms. Swango does gender tutoring, uses all quadrants of her classroom when students are learning in a collaborative manner, does class projects with a genies concept (out of the box thinking) and does before-school, student-led academic tutoring. … On weekends you can find Ms. Swango driving from field to field and various locations within Pinellas County as a cheerleader for her students. I have sat side-by-side with her on a Saturday morning or Sunday evening as we cheer students’ names as they participate in football, soccer, swimming, cheerleading, gymnastics and other experiences outside the classroom." — Jason Shedrick, principal


Ridgecrest Elementary

Gifted teacher

Education: Master’s, Technology and Innovation in Education, Harvard University

Years with Pinellas Schools: 17

"In my twenty-five years working in public education at eight different schools … Mrs. Wellings rises to the very top as the most brilliant and inspiring educator. Her exemplary performance and positive impact make her a true change agent, leader and ambassador to the profession. … Visit her classroom and you observe students actively engaged in challenging and stimulating activities that cultivate a growth mindset. The past two years, Jeanne has spearheaded a pilot program compacting the mathematics curriculum by allowing all of her students to complete both fifth- and sixth-grade mathematics in one year. Her class data are among the best in the state. … She actively seeks and participates in school improvement initiatives, which have had a profound impact on our school. A true champion for children, she often states, ‘I am in the business of providing children with opportunities.’" — Michael Moss, principal


East Lake High

Language arts teacher, AVID coordinator (AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a college prep support program.)

Education: Master’s, English Education, Teaching Composition, Florida Studies, USF St. Petersburg

Years with Pinellas Schools: 7

"Mrs. Wiseman goes over and above to provide her students with additional resources, including field trips, personalized learning opportunities and cross-content learning experiences. She has even contacted a former professor of hers to meet with her students to individually answer their questions regarding post-secondary academics. Mrs. Wiseman is a natural leader. As her direct supervisor, I rely heavily on her as the AVID coordinator. She also has assisted with student scheduling, the school improvement plan, FAFSA Night, Discovery Night, College Application Week and in-house trainings, providing valuable AVID strategies to our staff. I am always impressed with the level of mutual caring and respect demonstrated between teacher and student in Mrs. Wiseman’s classroom. … She creates a safe and comfortable climate in her class, which is conducive to learning." — Carmela Haley, principal