Meet the 10 finalists for teacher of the year in Pinellas County


Some common themes emerge when principals talk about the 10 finalists for 2017 Outstanding Educator of the Year in Pinellas County public schools. • They are multi-taskers, filling many roles beyond the ones listed in their personnel files. • They are leaders who have the respect of their colleagues, and often take on the task of training them. • And they take the initiative, an important quality as schools are asked to do more with the same or less money.

As for experience, these finalists range in their service to the district from three years to 25 years.

One of them will receive the ceremonial mantle as the district's top teacher, but all 10 will share the spotlight Tuesday during the annual "Evening of Excellence" celebration, which this year will be held at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. A VIP dinner will start at 5:30 p.m. and the awards show at 7.

Recognition also will be given to business partners of the school district and to the Free Enterprise Hall of Honor Inductee.

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 a dessert reception in the Mahaffey lobby after the show. Tickets are available by calling the Mahaffey box office at (727) 893-7832.

The winner, chosen by superintendent Mike Grego and top administrators, will receive the traditional limo ride to school the next day.

Here is a look at the finalists, and what their principals said about them on the nomination forms:

William Black

Anona Elementary

Fifth-grade teacher

Education: bachelor's in elementary education, St. Petersburg College

Years with Pinellas Schools: 3

"His willingness to go the extra yard, and take an extra moment not only to support the students in the classroom, but also to support peers, is well recognized here at Anona. … He takes on numerous roles, including opening up the classroom for student interns to observe, other educators to visit and families to become involved.… Mr. Black's students regularly produce strong learning gains on district and state assessments.… He visits classrooms to collect ideas, and shares his insights with colleagues.… He was instrumental in leading the startup of Anona's Science Extravaganza night by reaching out to local businesses and agencies and inviting them to be part of the evening. Mr. Black is so much more than a teacher. His energy, drive and passion to the Anona Community are undeniable."

— Ann Welsh, principal

Alison Blanco Osceola Middle

Teaches math and AVID, a college prep support program

Education: bachelor's in exceptional student education, St. Petersburg College

Years with Pinellas Schools: 4

"Mrs. Blanco is a true leader when it comes to advancing student learning. She not only inspires her students to achieve high report card grades, but she also pushes the students to achieve at high levels on local and state assessments. … She uses instructional methods that require students to be active, moving, and academically engaged. … As a math and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher, she uses AVID strategies in her classroom to the fullest extent. She uses tutorials in math class as a way for students to examine their reasoning and to revise their knowledge. … She has been a volleyball and track coach at OMS for five years, (and) is a sponsor for our National Junior Honor Society program. … Outside of the school, Mrs. Blanco is a youth leader at her church. … She stops at nothing less than the best." — Susan A. Arsenault, principal

Karen Cangemi High Point Elementary

Reading/literacy coach

Education: bachelor's in elementary education, University of South Florida

Years with Pinellas Schools: 25

"Karen has taken the initiative to become not just a reading coach for our school, but to also train others across the district. … On top of that she identifies and then supports exemplar teachers and pushes them to step out of their comfort zone and open their classrooms to others, and even conduct professional development sessions for their peers across the district. Karen is always willing to support a teacher, but her value comes in building relationships with everyone and instilling a confidence in their content area they never knew they had. The level of collaboration that she has created … is something that must be witnessed to be understood. … She assists students with data tracking and goal setting and has even been known to dress up from time to time as the "Istation Fairy" to go into classrooms and celebrate student's growth." — Michael J. Feeney, principal

Vanessa Ko Palm Harbor Middle

Teaches math and AVID, a college prep support program

Education: bachelor's in mathematics, University of Florida

Years with Pinellas Schools: 12

"She has an innate ability to inspire everyone that she comes in contact with in the school system. Miss Ko has taught mathematics for 12 years at Palm Harbor Middle School and has taken on the position of Math Department Chair for five years. Additionally, she trained for and started the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program at PHMS. … She is a self-starter who invariably understands how to handle any situation from the outset and knows how to implement any task at hand quickly, effectively and with a nurturing heart. She carries an impressive workload while assisting the administration when needed. She is always eager to volunteer for new challenges and is extremely professional. That is why we have selected her to also be a mentor to new and struggling teachers. … Above all, she possesses integrity." — Victoria E. Hawkins, principal

Kali Kopka Leila Davis Elementary

Kindergarten teacher

Education: bachelor's and master's degrees in elementary education, University of Florida

Years with Pinellas Schools: 3

"One parent comments: 'Her classroom comes to life through vivid storytelling and in-depth teachings. I know this because my child brings the classroom home with her when she tells me about her day. Gone are the days of scribbled drawings, basic ABCs, and milk and cookies. Kindergarteners are held to a higher standard and Miss Kopka helps elevate them to that level and beyond. In less than two short months, my child is now reading simple books, tying her shoes, putting descriptions onto her drawings and operating a computer on her own.' … Kali can flip the academic light switch for one student, comfort another with a skinned knee, redirect a child back on the right path, help a student find the strength to leverage, and maybe even unknowingly give a child the nurturance that he or she may not be getting at home." — Kimberly E. Hill, principal

Angela Pitts Azalea Elementary

Kindergarten teacher

Education: bachelor's in special education and varying exceptionalities, University of South Florida

Years with Pinellas Schools: 11

"Teaching is not what most people would call a profession where rock stars originate, but when you are an educator you know when you are in the presence of one. … Angela is not only a recognized leader at Azalea Elementary but she's also recognized as a leader across the district. … Her innovating instruction, curriculum knowledge, leadership abilities and complete focus on balancing individual education plans (and other duties) is a beautiful work of art. … She seeks input from all colleagues at every level because she knows everyone can help you grow. Everyone has something to offer. It's her pursuit of perfection and reflective nature that attracts others to her. Her personality and work ethic are a beacon of hope to others." — Mike Rebman, principal

Brandon Rader St. Petersburg High

Teaches Pre-IB world and U.S. history

Education: bachelor's in sociology and master's in curriculum and instruction, University of Memphis

Years with Pinellas Schools: 4

"Mr. Rader incorporates technology in innovative ways that provide students with a fun way to demonstrate their understanding while providing immediate feedback for him. For example, he uses a student polling app called Poll Anywhere, which allows him to poll students on any question in class to monitor for understanding in a manner that students embrace. … Brandon is involved in the National History Day competition and was instrumental in hosting the first-ever National History Day event at St. Pete High last year. … He solicited judges from the community, including members of various branches of the military, retired teachers and parents. This activity resulted in increased student performance on research and writing skills." — Al Bennett, principal

David Reid East Lake Middle School Academy

Curriculum technology specialist

Education: bachelor's in physical education, University of Akron; master's in middle grades science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, University of South Florida

Years with Pinellas Schools: 7

" 'Everyone needs a Dave' is something heard often throughout the halls of East Lake Middle School Academy of Engineering. … Mr. Reid is a master with data, and has provided each teacher with individualized data spreadsheets and charts, which target specific subject-based standards. Teachers can spend more time teaching and less time crunching numbers because he's extremely meticulous and discerning with the numbers. He's always working behind the scenes to support the teachers. We firmly believe that there is a direct correlation between our increased test scores, our No. 1 ranking in the district since our inception, and the data analysis provided to the teachers by Mr. Reid. … If there's ever an issue with any technology in the school, Mr. Reid is quick to respond and works until the problem is fixed." — Karen A. Huzar, principal

Zanetta Robinson Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle

Language arts teacher

Education: bachelor's in communication, Columbus State University; master's in professional writing, Chatham University

Years with Pinellas Schools: 13

"Ms. Robinson's lessons continually break the innovative barrier. Rarely do you find a lesson where she has relied on the basic curriculum provided to her. She studies her standards and then brings to the student a lesson that is engaging, fun, and produces a level of understanding not met by her colleagues. She uses a variety of materials — from photographs, music and video, to primary source text — to create interdisciplinary activities. … There has never been a time that she did not rise to the challenge of providing leadership to our students and faculty. … Her day-to-day interaction and attention to the lives of our students speaks to her commitment to nurturing their lives, which in turn nurtures their education." — Nicole Wilson, principal

Michelle Zajac Curlew Creek Elementary

Third-grade teacher

Education: bachelor's in elementary education, University of South Florida

Years with Pinellas Schools: 8

"Mrs. Zajac devotes an incredible amount of time to developing innovative and motivational ways to get her students' creative juices working, not only through technology but through student collaboration and real-life activities such as economic projects. … Her love for teaching is contagious, and her proactive and upbeat attitude is infectious. At all times, you can find Mrs. Zajac demonstrating her passion for teaching and learning as she shares her knowledge with teachers, administrators, students and parents. … She encourages exploration and risk-taking in a non-judgmental manner, never accepting mediocrity, but motivating teachers and students alike to continually strive to be masters of their craft. … She meets the needs of each child by finding where they are and moving them forward." — Kathy Brickley, principal