Fourth-grader Jacob Yauilla stood on the stage, his presence a testament to his teacher's success.
When he started to speak, the expression and emotions of his introduction hinted at a personality that flourished with her guidance.
Jacob is one of the reasons why Cassandra E. Davis won the Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator Award from the Hillsborough Education Foundation last week. She has helped him transition from special education to self-sufficiency, her "special hero" and "little trooper."
Davis, an Exceptional Student Education specialist at Seffner Elementary School, had been nominated for the award in years past. Last year, her assistant principal said, she declined the nomination to let someone else earn recognition.
So this year, Davis was instructed to enjoy the attention.
"She's just always, always here," said Seffner Elementary assistant principal Rosanne Mennie. "For everyone."
To Davis, diversity means bringing together different parts of the school: general education and exceptional students, lower grades and upper grades. She has devoted 27 years to this, all at Seffner Elementary, first as a teacher and now as program coordinator.
Davis, 49, loves the flexibility needed to work with students with emotional and behavioral disorders, the challenge of having to try creative means to capture their attention.
"I can do more." That, she said, was the inspiration for working with students with special needs.
It encouraged her to spread her love for reading, co-creating Boys Booked on Barbershops, a program to stock hair salons with books. She never says "no," taking on safety patrol, greeting buses and making rounds just to see classes.
On Monday, the community she worked so hard to cultivate turned out on the Seffner Elementary lawn. Rows and rows of students, big kids and little kids, held handmade banners high and cheered her as she stepped out of a limousine, provided for the day as part of her award.
They plastered the walls of the school and the door of her office with signs: "Congratulations, Mrs. Davis."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.