Some of Nicolette Barone’s TikTok videos are pure entertainment: Strutting into Oak Park Elementary School, for example, to Shania Twain’s “Feel Like a Woman.”
Other times, she is interviewing students about their best fifth-grade memories or reminding them to round out decimal numbers when estimating the total.
Either way, her fresh approach resonates with children in an East Tampa school that has been in danger of shutting down on more than one occasion. Serving a largely mobile community in a neighborhood laced with highway ramps, Oak Park improved its state test scores dramatically in recent years and Barone, 28, was part of the solution.
Barone was named Teacher of the Year for Hillsborough County on Thursday, an honor that puts her in the running for the state’s top teaching award.
“When my students have bought into believing in themselves, anything is possible — and they know it too,” the fifth-grade math and science teacher wrote in her contest essay, which provided detailed descriptions of the goal-setting, small group instruction and peer tutoring that are her core strategies.
“I build their confidence and try to turn their extrinsic motivation into intrinsic determination,” she said.
Barone joined the school district in 2016 and has been at Oak Park for four years. The school, which was graded an F in 2018 and 2019, is one of two that Superintendent Addison Davis fought to keep from closing when he arrived in 2020. The school now has a B grade from the state.
Smiling through tears after the announcement, Barone thanked her own childhood teachers, her mentors and supervisor in Hillsborough County and her parents. She said, “This is for every student I have ever taught, who deserves someone in their life to be successful, who can see what hard work can manifest into, what dreams look like when they come true — but most importantly, what happens when you take a chance and believe in yourself.”
Honored along with Barone were Muhammed Conteh, a Plant High School JROTC instructor who was named Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year, and Chinovia Shedrick, an exceptional student education assistant at Memorial Middle School who was recognized as Instructional Support Employee of the Year.
Conteh, 48, builds confidence and camaraderie among students through special interest clubs in anime, e-sports and the step team. He operates a study hall before school and collaborates with the school psychologist so he can reach out to students who otherwise feel left out.
Shedrick, 44, is three classes from earning the bachelor’s degree she will need to become a teacher. She looks for ways to support her students and coworkers, including a yearly Thanksgiving meal for one of the classes she serves.
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“Many students here have never experienced a traditional Thanksgiving meal because of situations beyond their control,” she wrote in her contest essay. “I wish that all students could have this. But I do my best to show a group of students each year that I appreciate their efforts, and family is what we are while at school.”
The winners were selected from 668 nominees in an event held annually at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Tampa, in partnership with the Hillsborough Education Foundation.
Other finalists for Teacher of the Year were: Rebecca Oakeson, a pre-K exceptional student education teacher at Kingswood Elementary; Elizabeth Hawley, a media specialist at Dowdell Middle; Josette Daley, a third-grade teacher at Forest Hills Elementary; and Elizabeth Osborn, an Advanced Placement psychology teacher at Alonso High.
Finalists for Diversity Educator of the Year were Mary Valesano, a third-grade teacher at Burney Elementary; Sherly Gervias a climate and culture resource teacher at Sumner High; and Lynda Taylor, an exceptional student education teacher at Gaither High.
Finalists for Instructional Support Employee of the Year were Pamela May, a secretary at King High, and Donreece Brown, an exceptional student education paraprofessional at Lopez Exceptional Center.