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A "special' teacher earns a top honor

Westchase Elementary School kindergarten teacher Susan L. Mikolajczyk burst into tears, and four banquet tables full of her family and friends burst into cheers, as she rose Thursday to receive the honor Hillsborough County 2006 Teacher of the Year.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia announced the selection of Mikolajczyk on Thursday night before a crowd of 1,600 who gathered at the Tampa Convention Center for the Hillsborough County School District's 21st annual Teacher of the Year award ceremony.

Mikolajczyk emerged the winner from an initial field of 211 that had been whittled down to 10 finalists. She will next contend for state Teacher of the Year.

She thanked her principal, colleagues, family and especially the "funny, silly, smelly, noisy" students for making her the educator she has become.

"You make my life better every day because I am your teacher," she said.

One of them, first-grader Margaret Ingham, said her former teacher deserved the honor.

"She's really special to me," Margaret said. "She respected that each one of us was different, and she loved us all in the same way."

A teacher for the past 17 years, Mikolajczyk has established violin classes using the Suzuki method for kindergarteners and other students at Westchase. She often dresses up and performs in class to help students learn.

Along with another Westchase teacher, she has begun an outreach program to Just Elementary School to help with reading and writing and to mentor other teachers.

Before the announcement, Mikolajczyk talked about what the award might mean to her.

"It's a very important honor to represent your county," she said. "I believe so very firmly in kindergarten."

Her passion runs so deep that it touched others in her family, especially daughter Jennifer, who lives in Boca Raton.

"I'm a kindergarten teacher because of her," she said. "I had to do what she does."

Mikolajczyk, 54, of Odessa, graduated from the University of Tampa in 1974 and has taught kindergarten for the past 16 years in Hillsborough County public schools. She has been a teacher at Westchase Elementary since its opening in 1998.

She is known at Westchase as "the Queen of Kindergarten" because of her ability to reach each child and her willingness to help other teachers.

Westchase principal Joyce Wieland, who joined the school a year ago, remembered Mikolajczyk as one of the first teachers to welcome her to the school and invite her into the classroom, where the kindergarteners sang to their new principal.

"Right then I knew I had a special teacher," Wieland said, adding that Mikolajczyk gets no time off for her award.

"The children will want to see her," she said. "We are ready to celebrate."

Mikolajczyk received $2,000 cash, tickets to cultural & sporting events, a $1,000 scholarship from Nova Southeastern University, a limo ride to school, a Teacher of the Year ring, one year of basic cable, a cruise to the Bahamas with hotel and a 1-year lease on a Lexus courtesy of Lexus of Tampa Bay.

The other finalists were: Beverley Jarrett, a social studies, economics and psychology teacher at Gaither High School; Sharon Cutler, a science and math teacher in the gifted program at Lawton Chiles Elementary; Paulette English, a kindergarten teacher at Hunter's Green Elementary; Carla Sparks, a journalism and digital design teacher at Tampa Bay Technical High School; Tecca Kilmer-Almskog, a physical education teacher at Turkey Creek Middle School; Jonathan Watson, a seventh-grade geography teacher at Mulrennan Middle School; Robert Jones, a fourth-grade teacher at Northwest Elementary; Jennifer McCrystal, a third-grade teacher at Valrico Elementary School; and Meredith Scribner, chorus teacher at Giunta Middle School.

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