Vanessa Ko has two types of students.
The children in her classes at Palm Harbor Middle, and fellow educators in the districtwide training she gives on the college prep program, Advancement Via Individual Determination, known as AVID.
Ko, 35, received a standing ovation from many of them Tuesday night as she was named the 2017 Pinellas County Outstanding Educator of the Year during a ceremony at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. The recognition from the school district and the Pinellas Education Foundation comes with $2,000, a vacation for two and the traditional limo ride to school this morning, among other prizes.
"It's such an amazing experience to be able to be with all those other educators, because we've been enjoying this journey together," Ko said, referring to the other nine finalists for the award.
Ko began her career in the Pinellas school system 13 years ago at Palm Harbor Middle, teaching math and AVID classes. Along the way, she has become a district pioneer for the AVID program, which, according to the district, aims to "close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society."
She has met with her students' families at sporting events and recitals to coordinate AVID tutoring sessions on the weekends. After one year of working with them, about 95 percent passed the Florida Standards Assessment math exam, with about 25 percent scoring at the highest level.
"Ms. Ko believes in us when we don't believe in ourselves," said her eighth-grade student Charles Stevens, 14, who introduced her on stage.
Outside the classroom, Ko hosted summer AVID training sessions for teachers throughout the district.
"I love what I'm doing in the classroom with my kids, but I get to impact other classrooms with other kids with these teachers," she said Tuesday night.
She also served as mathematics department chair at Palm Harbor Middle for five years and took new teachers and college interns under her wing.
Palm Harbor Middle principal Victoria Hawkins called Ko "a self-starter … with a nurturing heart" who can handle any situation.
"She has no problem 'making her practice public' and sharing her vast amount of knowledge," Hawkins wrote in Ko's recommendation letter.
Also Tuesday, the Education Foundation's "Fan Favorite" award went to Karen Cangemi, the reading and literature coach at High Point Elementary, who dominated in an online contest, receiving 1,500 of the 4,800 votes cast. Cangemi, 49, will receive $500 and the chance to throw out the first pitch on Education Night at a Tampa Bay Rays game, among other prizes.
The other finalists will receive $500 from the foundation, an autographed copy of Wonderlust, the photographic art essay by Dick Jacobs, and special recognition at the Rays' Education Night.
The other finalists were William Black, a fifth-grade teacher at Anona Elementary; Alison Blanco, a math teacher at Osceola Middle; Kali Kopka, a kindergarten teacher at Leila Davis Elementary; Angela Pitts, a kindergarten teacher at Azalea Elementary; Brandon Rader, a social studies teacher at St. Petersburg High; David Reid, a curriculum technology specialist at East Lake Middle School Academy; Zanetta Robinson, a language arts teacher at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle; and Michelle Zajac, a third-grade teacher at Curlew Creek Elementary.
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.