RUSKIN — Kelly Zunkiewicz's work at Lennard High School has led to big gains in math test scores, but her students also rave about the little things she does, such as filling their bellies with healthy snacks before big tests.
Zunkiewicz's efforts at Lennard High School haven't gone unnoticed. This week, she earned a national teaching award that came with a $25,000 prize.
As her students clapped and cheered, officials from the New Teacher Project surprised her Monday by presenting her with the Fishman Prize as one of the country's best teachers during a visit to her classroom.
"It's such an honor," she said, through a mix of smiles and tears. "It's amazing they recognize teachers for what we do every day."
The organization, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., gave the award to Zunkiewicz and three other teachers around the nation as recognition for their passion, dedication and "extraordinary success" in the classroom with high-needs students.
There are about 1,850 students at Lennard. About 75 percent of the student body is eligible for reduced-price or free lunch.
At Lennard, Zunkiewicz has increased the exam pass rate in her AP calculus class from 11 percent to 80 percent. This year, her students earned a 93 percent average on their winter benchmark exam, beating every other high school in the county, which had an average of 73 percent.
She also boosted the number of girls taking her AP calculus class, from two students to about 50 percent.
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Project representative Dottie Smith and Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia praised Zunkiewicz for her dedication to her students.
Alexandria Matatrejo, 18, credits Zunkiewicz for her prowess in math. She said Zunkiewicz is encouraging and supportive and nourishes their minds and stomachs. Zunkiewicz often supplies her students with food before big tests.
"She is a very dedicated teacher," said Matatrejo, a senior in the AP calculus class. "She definitely goes above and beyond. We're all the product of her hard work."
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Principal Craig Horstman has known Zunkiewicz since she walked onto Lennard's campus fresh out of Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio, seven years ago. He knew the young teacher was special.
She had classroom presence, got along with students, knew math and had a good relationship with staff and administration. Over the years, he watched her grow into a leader. During the 2010-2011 school year, she earned Lennard's "Teacher of the Year Award."
"She's top-notch," Horstman said. "I would put her against anyone in the nation."
Zunkiewicz, 28, divides her time teaching pre-calculus and AP calculus and working as a math coach for other teachers.
She tutors students at lunch and after school. Horstman said students don't forget the time she spends with them.
"Every year," Horstman said, "there's a mention of her during the salutatorian or valedictorian speech. They mention her name as someone who inspired them, pushed them and encouraged them."
Zunkiewicz is unsure what she will do with the money but definitely plans to share the prize with the school.
Long-term, she might create a scholarship fund for students interested in teaching. In the immediate future, she said, "We are going to have a party!"
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Zunkiewicz got the teaching bug from her mother, Lauri, who retired as a first-grade teacher in Ohio two years ago. She chose math because so many of her friends despised the subject.
"I knew it didn't have to be that way," she said. "I knew they didn't have to hate math."
At Lennard, she holds students to high expectations and tells them they are in charge of their work.
Zunkiewicz's parents, Eddie and Lauri, hopped on a plane as soon as they heard she earned the award. In order to surprise her, they camped out in a hotel all weekend.
Zunkiewicz kept her emotions in check as Fishman Prize officials and county school leaders surprised her in her classroom. Things quickly changed when she saw her parents. She hugged them, laughed and cried.
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Horstman said the award is a perfect way to close out the school year. He knows this honor will make everyone on campus a little prouder to be a Longhorn. His school can now boast of a big win.
"I think it's excellent for her, excellent for our school and our school district," he said.
But Horstman does have one worry and it is amplified in light of this award. Now everyone will know Zunkiewicz is a great teacher.
"I'm always afraid she's going to transfer to another school," he said. "Any principal would love to have her."
Zunkiewicz said Horstman shouldn't worry because Lennard is where she wants to be.
"I love these students," she said. "I cannot imagine working anyplace else. My place is here with them."
In addition to the $25,000 award, Zunkiewicz will take part in a six-week summer residency program with the other winners. They will meet with leaders in the education field and help write a paper on effective teaching that will be shared with other educators.
Monica Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.