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Hillsborough's top educators, in their own words


Out of more than 200 schools, six finalists have been selected in the yearly contest for Hillsborough Teacher of the Year.

The winner will be announced Thursday evening at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. As part of the selection process, the teachers were asked to write essays about their work, their beliefs and their goals.

The six Teacher of the Year finalists discuss their approach to teaching and getting their students — and parents — involved.

Luis D. Alvarez, director of bands, Leto High School:

"When I was hired at my school there was very little parent involvement. We had five parents in our booster organization, very low attendance at our concerts, and a lack of encouragement from parents for students to be involved in our music program.

"Having such a large Hispanic population, part of the solution to this was to make our music program and our events more accessible to our Spanish speaking parents. We began printing all of our documents, making phone calls, and posting on our parent Facebook page in English and Spanish.

"The effort to reach these parents really paid off. We immediately saw a growth in attendance at parent conferences, concerts, and other school events. We now have more than 30 parents in our booster organization and have more volunteers for events than we have slots. These parents understand how crucial the arts are for a well-rounded education."

Karen Barmore, art teacher, Gorrie Elementary:

"It is important for students to experience actual art whenever possible so each year I arrange multiple museum trips. Students have the opportunity to visit the Dalí Museum, the Morean Arts Center, St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Art, and the Chihuly. I incorporate the museum's exhibits into the next day's curriculum.

"Since family involvement is important, I have partnered with the Tampa Museum of Art over the past three years to organize a family night. Families participate in scavenger hunts, hands-on activities, docent-led tours, and experience all the museum has to offer, followed by a picnic afterward in the adjacent park.

"I believe students should be recognized for their art so I submit their work to as many national, state, and county exhibitions as possible."

Patrick Boyko, social studies, Jefferson High School:

In the Holocaust class students are randomly split into three groups and remain in them all semester. Every assignment involves writing and the students create a fake persona during this time period. Each writing assignment involves using the lesson just learned and incorporating it into your journal, and by the end of the semester they have written over 48 pages of historical fiction.

"In my 'war' class, students not only learn the curriculum — they participate in it. In my tour de force I have created a diplomacy game lasting the entire semester, where empires war, trade, ally themselves, create leaders, have jobs, and soon learn the intricacies of why countries don't simply fight all the time.

"I have a kinesthetic lesson where students volunteer to wear all the gear a U.S. soldier would have worn on D-Day, and then the students would race across the football field, not only feeling the weight of the gear but also the enormous length of the beaches. I treasure the fact that when my old students come back and see my new lessons that they are jealous of the new class, and I explain to them that if they ever come back and are not jealous, then I need to find a new profession."

Reagan Lawrence, fifth-grade language arts, Hunter's Green Elementary:

"I find an overwhelming joy in being able to connect with not only the students in my classroom, but all students in my school environment. My passion to reach all children to make them feel important, loved, and worthy of learning is so crucial to student success.

"By having troubled students from other grade levels visit my room for a reward for hard work and behavior on Fridays, to taking my planning time to talk to students in the office who need extra motivation, or checking in on students during lunch to see how their day is going creates an environment where students feel comfortable.

"Taking the time to work with students after school, and creating a study group during my lunch shows my commitment to students and their learning."

Amanda Morin, seventh-grade civics, Walker Middle Magnet:

"I promote a classroom environment where all students find success through collaborative efforts. These efforts include heterogeneous pairs or groups, modeling positive interactions and measuring success, not failure, in the students' pursuit of academic achievement.

"For example, students work together to tackle complex texts during teacher-created close reading lessons, resulting in 72 percent of my students making gains in the 2012-2013 school year.

"Beyond the classroom, I am the club sponsor for Model United Nations in which students become aware and active global citizens. Through this club, students engage in rigorous encounters with complex text and issues that face the governments and citizens of the world. Solutions are found through extensive research."

Leronya Vaughn-Dunmore, fifth-grade social studies, science and mathematics, Sheehy Elementary:

"Science literacy needed to be addressed aggressively at my school. Our annual state assessments yielded results below our district's average. I was compelled to apply for the district-wide Robotics Program on behalf of my school because I believed there were fundamental principles embedded in robotics or STEM learning that would stimulate learning and positively impact literacy in science.

"After receiving a response from a representative of the robotics program, I was initially taken aback when we were not selected as a member. We had an overwhelming number of kinesthetic and tactile learners who would benefit from hands-on and project-based learning. I immediately responded to the setback by personally sponsoring the robotics program …

"I solicited and obtained tremendous support and participation from parents as they became impressed with the exposure and academic progress of their children. I coordinated a trip to the University of South Florida's Engineering EXPO. This invaluable experience provided students with the awareness of how science, technology, engineering and mathematics affect our everyday lives and enlightened them about various STEM careers."

In addition to Teacher of the Year, the district Thursday will honor its Instructional Support Employee of the Year and its Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year.

The instructional support finalists are:

Alice Fessler, the principal's secretary at DeSoto Elementary

Amy Peters, a paraprofessional at the Willis Peters Exceptional Center

Elizabeth Hemmert, a secretary at Claywell Elementary

Jennifer Velt, a teacher assistant at Broward Elementary

The Ida S. Baker finalists are:

Evan Davis, a history teacher at Armwood High School

Jeff Ditman, a social studies teacher at Gaither High

Julia Sarmiento, a dropout prevention specialist at Shields Middle

Kathleen Wasserman, a varying exceptionalities teacher at Franklin Boys Preparatory School

Melisa Toothman, an English teacher at Plant High School

Marlene Sokol can be reached at or (813) 226-3356.

Hillsborough's top educators, in their own words 02/14/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 14, 2014 3:22pm]
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