1. The Education Gradebook

5 vying for Hillsborough's Teacher of the Year award

Schools are filled with heroes.

They might coach a student to write that winning entrance essay to Harvard.

They might calm an explosive situation involving a single parent, or figure out a way to cut the school-wide number of discipline problems in half.

On Feb. 16, the Hillsborough County School District and the Hillsborough Education Foundation will recognize three such heroes with their annual awards to the Teacher of the Year, Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year, and Instructional Support Employee of the Year.

For the next three Sundays, the Tampa Bay Times will share excerpts from the letters submitted by these employees, or in some cases their supervisors, that moved them to the finalist stage, beginning with today's look at the finalists for Teacher of the Year.

In their words, they describe a passion for both teaching and learning while meeting student needs that are sometimes as basic as a winter jacket.

Elisabeth Denisar-Babin

Dowdell Middle Magnet, Clair-Mel

Eighth-grade language arts teacher

"I remember sitting in a faculty meeting hearing that our school was going to exceed 2,000 referrals. My first thought was: 'That's impossible; someone has to stop this!' Then I asked myself, 'Why not you?' With the approval of my assistant principal we began a transformative schoolwide journey soon to be called our Peace Initiative to change the culture of our school from "fist first" to one that was caring and community-centered. Schoolwide peace lessons were built into early-release days. I created our first lesson called "Peace by Piece" with input from other teachers. Students examined artwork created from the Embracing Our Differences organization, explored quotations by important peacemakers and crafted personal definitions for peace. …

"Does this really make a difference in the lives of our students? You bet it does. When we looked at the discipline and attendance rates comparing last year and this year we see that our referrals are down by almost 50 percent and our attendance is up in all of our grades."

Katy Cortelyou

Kenly Elementary, Tampa

Intensive reading intervention teacher

"I have a passion for working with at-risk readers. This passion has been the driving force behind my own professional growth. For instance, after becoming a National Board certified teacher in 2001, I earned my MA in reading. Currently, I am nearing the completion of my doctoral degree in Curriculum and Instruction. My dissertation topic is focused on the exploration of teachers' knowledge and the teaching of at-risk readers. …

"Many examples of superior teaching performance do not come packaged as an award. Teachers informally measure their impact over days, weeks and years and after thousands of interactions with students, families and colleagues. Informal recognition comes when a teacher finally reaches that child who seems "unreachable" or when a student grasps a challenging skill or when a family sends an unexpected note of gratitude. I expect nothing more than these affirmations. It is for this reason that I am deeply humbled by the awards I have received."

Sue Creekmore

Kingswood Elementary, Brandon

Fourth-grade teacher

"As a lifelong learner I find it imperative to stay current on trends and research in education. I actively engage in district in-service courses which span a broad spectrum of curriculum as evidenced in my in-service record. As an in-service district trainer, I offer 10 courses for teachers and paraprofessionals. As you might expect, I personally gain a wealth of valuable strategies and information from the professional conversations that take place during the courses I present. …

"My school enjoys great cultural diversity. We truly have children from every region on earth attending school at our site. What a perfect example of what makes America such a unique nation. What a wonderful opportunity for applying my knowledge garnered from district in-service courses. We ask our students daily to take educational risks. I let my students know that I am willing to venture into courses that involve educational risk-taking. Learning stops when you feel comfortable."

Christine Danger

Robles Elementary, Tampa

Science teacher

"In the high-poverty Renaissance school in which I teach, students must be convinced that they are smart, lovable, and capable because they often do not believe that they are. I make sure that my words and actions always convey to students that they are valuable, important, capable people who are worthy of care and respect. I insist that other teachers also treat our students with the respect that they deserve. In order to foster excellence in education and contribute to the continuous improvement of student learning and the school environment I find out what my students care about, what makes them wonder and want to know, then use it to help them to learn what they need to know. …

"Students may not remember that I improved their academic skills or that they scored above the district average on standardized tests. They will remember how I made them feel. When my former students visit me they tell me I made them feel smart, made them want to pursue careers that they were not previously aware of, and I made school fun. I know that when I make my students want to learn and provide them with rich opportunities, they all succeed."

Yolanda Whitehead Driskell

Hillsborough High, Tampa

Algebra teacher, basketball and volleyball coach

"Although there are many formulas in mathematics, I find that there is no formula for fostering excellence, but it does require effort at all levels. My desire is to instill a passion for thinking, learning, and excellence in all my students. One area that I am continuously learning, researching, and implementing in my classroom is student engagement. Learning starts with engagement. Students need to connect the mathematical context covered in the classroom to their lives and experiences. …

"When it is their time to be with me, they get my full attention. I am there for them. They learn from me and my reactions. The day I received the call that I had breast cancer, I had an athletic contest that night, which I was not going to miss. The coach for the opposing team was my coach in high school. I shared with him the news, and he was shocked that I was standing before him. I didn't tell my players until the next day, and we cried together. We had a great season. When they honored me at a game we dedicated to breast cancer awareness was when I learned that my players were inspired at how I handle adversity."