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Broward teacher captures state title

The Florida Teacher of the Year award trumpets the top performer among more than 130,000 teachers statewide.

Joseph Balchunus tells his fourth-grade students the key to life is making good choices and having good hair.

It's an ice breaker of sorts, explained Balchunus, who sports a crew cut.

Described by students as spontaneous and jubilant, Balchunus, a fourth-grade teacher at Fairway Elementary in the Broward County community of Miramar, was honored Thursday night as the 2001 Florida Teacher of the Year.

Balchunus referred to his students as "all the earth keepers at Fairway" and sent a message to them and all the students around the state: "Never give up your dreams. . . . Take care of our world."

Balchunus, chosen from among more than 130,000 teachers statewide, also tipped his hat to the four other finalists on hand at the awards ceremony, calling them, "those who toil behind the scenes."

Among those finalists were two area teachers, James Manos of Lecanto Middle School in Citrus County and Anete Vasquez of Palm Harbor University High School in Pinellas County.

The award brings a $10,000 check courtesy of Burdines. Balchunus' school will receive $1,000. The finalists each received $5,000.

Manos, who brought a large contingent with badges stating "Our Man Manos!" said there were no winners or losers.

"What has happened here is we have chosen a representative," Manos said.

Manos, 50, is the technology teacher at Lecanto Middle. In his 14 years teaching there, he has taught physical education to special education students and works at CREST School with special needs students during the summer. He formerly taught Citrus County Jail inmates in the evenings to help them earn their GEDs, coaches football and basketball, and teaches standard first aid and CPR.

Vasquez, 32, began her teaching career at Lecanto Middle School. A University of Florida graduate, she teaches ninth- and 11th-grade English in the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High School.

She came to Pinellas County in 1996 and taught at Sixteenth Street Middle School (now John Hopkins Middle), moving to Palm Harbor University in 1997.

In an announcement of her selection as a finalist, Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher noted that Vasquez is one of just 568 teachers in the state to achieve National Board Certification. He also noted that she incorporates community service projects into her lesson plans and has developed a creative approach to communicating with student and parents via the Web.

Other finalists were Susan Roark, from Chester A. Moore Elementary School in Fort Pierce, and Joli Hartzog of Roulhac Middle School in Chipley.

The State Teacher of the Year was selected by a committee comprised of business, education and community members who observed the five finalists in their classrooms.