1. The Education Gradebook

Hillsborough gives top award to teacher who likes to check in with students, parents

TAMPA — Parents who get phone calls from Maria Torres-Crosby are often nervous at first.

Then they realize Torres-Crosby, a sixth-grade English teacher at Memorial Middle School, is just checking in.

"I want students and parents to know that I recognize the extraordinary things that their students are doing," Torres-Crosby wrote in an essay on the way to being chosen as Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year.

Torres-Crosby, who received the good news Tuesday evening, listed her many national and state certifications, the teacher training sessions she attends and leads, the assemblies she organizes at school and the work she has done to fine-tune her skills.

She also described her classroom, decorated with pictures of her family and pets, and the quarterly newsletter she sends out to make sure parents stay engaged.

"My goal has always been to provide our students with the best education I can offer," she wrote. "It is my belief that every student has the ability to learn and the right to be taught."

Torres-Crosby, 47, has been with the school district since 1996.

"Words cannot express my gratitude," she told those gathered for the annual awards ceremony at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

"Teaching is a gift and I believe I've been blessed to recognize this gift all these years," she said. "I really feel that I don't deserve this because I get paid to do something that I love."She joined Jefferson High School welding teacher Pedro Castrejon and Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy secretary Terranique Ragins in taking top honors at a ceremony.

Castrejon, 31, was named Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year. A former Jefferson welding student himself, Castrejon combines vocational instruction with life coaching by helping his students learn how to dress, order from a restaurant menu and fill out citizenship paperwork.

Ragins, 42, earned enthusiastic reviews as Instructional Support Employee of the Year for her work as the principal's secretary at Franklin.

In addition to her core duties, she was instrumental in organizing a bus mentor program in partnership with the bus drivers, to cut down on behavior problems on the way to school and make sure students are prepared when they arrive.