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Teach of the Year surprised by honor

Debra Wichmanowski was struck speechless when she heard her name called Friday morning as Pasco's Teacher of the Year.

But her husband had a ready response.

"Yeah!" shouted Chip Wichmanowski, grabbing his camera to take photos of his wife receiving her honor from state Education Commissioner Doug Jamerson. He snapped a picture, shook his fists and shouted some more.

"We're going to Las Vegas!"

As part of the honor, Mrs. Wichmanowski gets to pick from three vacation choices. Apparently, her husband, the principal at Calusa Elementary School, had made the decision, and Mrs. Wichmanowski said Las Vegas sounds fine to her.

"I know I probably should say something real intelligent right now, but I wasn't prepared for this," Mrs. Wichmanowski said shakily as she tried to regain her composure. "This is the greatest honor I've ever had and probably will be the greatest honor I ever have."

She teaches educably mentally handicapped students at Marchman Vocational Center in New Port Richey and now will vie for the state Teacher of Year award. She created a program that takes her students into the real world to learn daily skills like shopping at the grocery store and eating at restaurants.

Mrs. Wichmanowski's inspiration runs deep. Her cousin, Preston Andrews, is mentally handicapped, but she always focused on his intelligence and warmth rather than his problems.

Because of him, Mrs. Wichmanowski decided when she was in the fourth grade to teach others like Preston. Her work fits closely with one of Jamerson's prime objectives _ to provide the skills and resources for success to every single Florida student.

Besides opening the envelope containing Wichmanowski's name, Jamerson gave the keynote talk at a breakfast to honor Pasco's 44 teachers of the year, chosen by their peers at each school. The nominees then are reviewed by a committee of the Pasco Schools Foundation, a separate support group that raises funds and otherwise helps the district.

Before making its final selection, the committee chose three finalists: Wichmanowski; Debra Pelc, an art teacher at Bayonet Point Middle School; and Sharyl Robison, who teaches intermediate pupils in a "continuous progress" class at Woodland Elementary School.

"Many people think a teacher's job is easy," Jamerson said. "They get summers off. They only work to 3 p.m." (The assembled teachers chuckled at that.)

The truth, though, is that teachers reach out to our youth and are in a unique position to help children succeed in reaching "the American dream."

"The rest of us should step back into the classroom and say, "Thank you' to our teachers more often," Jamerson said.

Scholarship and fellowship programs must be created to help and encourage bright students who want to become teachers, he said.

Under the state's education reform law, teachers take the lead, making decisions about their classrooms and having more input, he said. "Teachers can no longer be bystanders in the process of reform," Jamerson said, adding that they must avoid the tendency to "cower in conservatism" seen by other professions faced with change.

"These 44 teachers we honor today are more important to the education process," he said, "than all the money we could funnel in."