TAMPA — Students shrieked as a black stretch limo pulled up to Cleveland Elementary School early Thursday.
Waiting in front was fourth-grade teacher Megan Allen, who last month was named Hillsborough's Teacher of the Year. The limousine ride is one of the perks for being named the county's best.
And her students were about to share her prize.
"It's like flying in space," said Hector Rivera, 10.
"Watch," Allen said, pointing to the ceiling lights. "They change colors."
Allen circled the block with groups of fourth-graders until everyone had a ride. They sang a bumpy version of the SpongeBob SquarePants theme song that ended in a debate about why his pants are square anyway. They waved at dogs, at a man jumping rope in front of a house and anyone else they saw.
Cleveland principal Peter Russo hired Allen, 30, to start at the school in August. In her job interview, he said, she talked about her students' accomplishments and not about herself. Her peers at the school nominated her for the award, sponsored by the Hillsborough Education Foundation.
"Obviously, she shines," Russo said.
Now Allen vies for state Teacher of the Year.
"I'm very lucky to have a job I love," she said.
In class, Allen tells corny jokes and sings songs to teach students the difference between mean, median and mode. She sometimes dresses like a ballerina or a fairy cat mother.
"Which is embarrassing," said Tiana Bass, one of her students. "And she drinks coffee, she says, 'to get my caffeine going.' "
She started a green team at the school to focus on the environment. In class, her students are raising butterflies and making rocks. She has a butterfly garden at home, less than a half-mile from the school. She often rides over on her moped.
On Thursday, she drove a black Lexus — another prize for the next year.
In class, Allen separates best friends Tiana and Kayla Porter, both 9.
"We get in trouble," Kayla said.
"She talks too much about boys," Tiana said.
Nuh-uh, said Kayla.
Uh-huh, Tiana replies.
Allen understands. "I don't sit next to my friends at workshops because I like to talk, too," she tells the girls.
But in the limo, the girls ride side by side.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.