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Meet the 10 finalists for Pinellas Teacher of the Year

The winner for 2019-20 will be announced Wednesday during the Pinellas Education Foundation’s annual “Evening of Excellence.”
This time last year, Nicole Kenngatt, holding hands with student Lilly Crandall, was announced as Teacher of the Year. The award for the 2019-20 school year will be given Wednesday in a ceremony at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. [JAY NOLAN  |  Special to the Times]
This time last year, Nicole Kenngatt, holding hands with student Lilly Crandall, was announced as Teacher of the Year. The award for the 2019-20 school year will be given Wednesday in a ceremony at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. [JAY NOLAN | Special to the Times]
Published Jan. 23
Updated Jan. 24

Ten educators from schools throughout Pinellas County are in the spotlight as finalists for the district’s 2019-20 Teacher of the Year award.

They come from elementary, middle and high schools. Most have taught in the district for more than a decade, though one has made a big impact in just five years since graduating from college.

They teach reading and music, art, science and more. One is focused on getting struggling readers to graduation. Another uses guest speakers and field trips to inspire students to look beyond school and toward their futures.

Their principals, in nominating documents, describe them as leaders who are willing go above and beyond for their students.

All of them, along with 131 others also nominated for the honor, will be recognized Wednesday, during the Pinellas Education Foundation’s annual “Evening of Excellence" at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

One will be named Teacher of the Year — a title that comes with prizes and appearances this year, plus a limousine ride to school the next morning.

The foundation will also recognize Courtney Titcomb, a first-grade teacher at Azalea Elementary, and Olivia Crawford, a language arts teacher at Largo Middle, as “Emerging Teachers of the Year." The award is new this year and honors teachers who are in their second or third year of teaching and have “demonstrated excellence through representation of the district’s core values," according to award criteria.

RELATED: Plumb Elementary’s Nicole Kenngott named Pinellas County’s 2018-19 Teacher of the Year

The Evening of Excellence begins with a reception at 5:30 p.m., followed by the award show at 7 p.m. Longtime Tampa Bay Rays broadcaster Dewayne Staats will emcee the event, which sold out last year.

Admission is $10 in advance and $12 at the door. Contact the Mahaffey Theater box office at (7270 893-7832 or visit to purchase tickets.

Let’s meet the finalists:


Ponce de Leon Elementary

Tina Angles [Pinellas County Schools]

Fifth-grade ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) teacher

Education: Associate degree, St. Petersburg Junior College; bachelor’s degree, University of South Florida

Years with Pinellas schools: 18

What principal Traci Bergman says: “She is a true teacher leader who is always seeking ways to better herself and her students, striving for the highest levels of success. She has been a part of two turnaround efforts at two different schools and has taken time to celebrate but also to reflect on what worked and what needed to be refined."

In the teacher’s words: “Last year was my first year at Ponce de Leon as an interventionist ... The strongest evidence of my success is that we needed a 71-point gain on the (Florida State Standards test) and we made a 102-point gain.”


Elisa Nelson Elementary

Susana Carter [Pinellas County Schools]

Fifth-grade gifted teacher

Education: Master’s degree, University of South Florida

Years with Pinellas schools: 10

What principal Hema Adhia says: “Her daily actions inspire her team and all teachers at our school to not only prepare students for the next grade level, but for life skills through building their confidence and leadership skills.”

In the teacher’s words: “I have heard teachers say that they do not need to learn anything new because they have been teaching for a long time. I disagree with that philosophy because with time comes a new generation of students who have different learning styles, home lives and technology available.”


Anona Elementary

Cheri Connolly [Pinellas County Schools]

Art specialist

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Lenoir-Rhyne College

Years with Pinellas schools: 19

What principal Ann Welsh says: “Ms. Connolly is relentless about her own education and desire to be the very best teacher to Anona’s students. This commitment to her own growth translates to incredible student engagement, exceptional learning and a classroom where every child is successful."

In the teacher’s words: “Building relationships with each of my students and respecting each personal voice are key to their successes. I continually strive to create an environment of not only rigorous learning experiences, but one in which every child feels validated in their pursuit of creative expression.”


74th Street Elementary

Staci DaSilva [Pinellas County Schools]

Fifth-grade teacher

Education: Bachelor’s degree, St. Petersburg College

Years with Pinellas schools: 5

What principal Jessley Hathaway says: “Her philosophy of education is grounded in the fact that she knows all students can and will learn, if you build a relationship with them. She firmly believes that she can improve society through public education for all students.”

In the teacher’s words: “I aspire not only for 100 percent student success, but for students to feel successful in their educational journey. My mission is to prepare students for college and career, but more importantly life.”


Osceola Fundamental High

Deborah Guinn [Pinellas County Schools]

Reading teacher

Education: Two master’s degrees, Auburn University

Years with Pinellas schools: 19

What principal Michael C. Bohnet says: “Ms. Guinn is a prime example of a superior teacher, spending each moment of her day working to meet the individual needs of every one of her students. ... She has a growth mindset that not only focuses on strengthening her pedagogy every day in her own classroom, but stems into the school collectively.”

In the teacher’s words: “My role as a leader varies with each project or operation, however, my goal never does. My aim is to promote a shared vision of continual improvement."


St. Petersburg High

Tracey Gross Keim [Pinellas County Schools]

English and special-needs teacher

Education: Master’s degree, Troy University

Years with Pinellas schools: 15

What principal Darlene Lebo says: “Mrs. Keim is an extremely creative and hardworking teacher who has dedicated her life to serving her students. She has a true passion for ensuring that all students in her classes are provided with a loving and safe learning environment so that they can reach their potentials."

In the teacher’s words: “Before arriving to the Keimdom, many struggling readers feel hopeless and restless. Through visioning, practice, modeling and celebration, confidence can be built. Make class fun! Make them want to come to class and they will. Teach, listen, laugh, cry, share. Allow anyone to restart their day at that very moment."


Leila Davis Elementary

David W. Martinez-Cooley [Pinellas County Schools]

Music teacher

Education: Master’s degree, University of Florida

Years with Pinellas schools: 13

What principal William Durst says: “Mr. Martinez-Cooley is a driven, relentless and caring teacher-leader who exemplifies excellence and the qualities needed in an editor to achieve the district’s vision of 100 percent student success. His commitment to achieving and excellence is highly respected on our staff and throughout the music education community, both in our district and state.”

In the teacher’s words: “For each of the past eight years, at least one students from the (Leila) Davis chorus has been selected to perform with the (Florida Music Education Association) All-State Elementary Chorus. ... In a typical year, Pinellas sends 10 to 15 singers from traditional public elementary schools, and for the past two years, three of those students have come from (Leila) Davis Elementary."


Bay Point Middle

Dianna Mills [Pinellas County Schools]

Science teacher

Education: Master’s degree, University of South Florida

Years with Pinellas schools: 13

What principal Dena Collins says: “You can visit her classroom any day and watch our students build body parts, create Powerpoint presentations and interactively display enthusiasm while learning. Her strength is in the relationships that she builds with both her students and teachers.”

In the teacher’s words: “I am one of those teachers who thrives on organized chaos in the classroom. It may be noisy, but the kids are learning and discovering things on their own.”


Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle

Natasha L. Reed [Pinellas County Schools]

Reading and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) teacher

Education: Master’s degree, Nova Southeastern University

Years with Pinellas schools: 14

What principal Nicole Wilson says: “Natasha Reed has transitioned from an instructional developer back into the role of classroom teacher with the desire to reach students on a personal level and be the change. ... She inspires everyone who crosses her path and is truly dedicated to growing students emotionally, socially and academically.”

In the teacher’s words: “I’ve learned that it is paramount that I foster relationships with my students. ... I have attended football games, basketball games, baseball games, band concerts, plays, dance performances, gymnastic meets and church. If they invite me; I’ll be there."


Madeira Beach Fundamental K-8

Ajori B. Spencer [Pinellas County Schools]

Band director

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Florida State University

Years with Pinellas schools: 7

What principal Chris Ateek says: “Mr. Spencer engages his students in nearly every aspect of their learning. When beginning band students are assigned their new instruments, he celebrates their success by holding a ceremony complete with big signs, balloons and streamers."

In the teacher’s words: “I take a group of students to at least one high school and one college campus annually. We talk about life after middle and high school. By interacting with students who are older, my students become reassured in the opportunities of their futures.”


  1. Chicken and vegetable dumplings with soy sauce were offered to students to test during the 2nd Annual Student Food Connection taste-testing, Wednesday, February 19, 2020 at Pinellas Technical College. Twenty-eight new food items were tested and rated.  Some will be added to next year's school menus.
  2. Patrick Suiters, 10, left, and Gabriel Stanford, 9, both fourth-graders at San Jose Elementary School in Dunedin, fill out a survey after tasting falafel tots and nuggets during the 2nd Annual Student Food Connection taste test at Pinellas Technical College. About 120 students tasted and rated 28 new food items that could be added to school breakfast and lunch menus next year.
  3. Pasco School District headquarters in Land O' Lakes
  4. The Pinellas County school system is offering driver education camps to hundreds of students like this one over the summer. The program will be held over two sessions at nine high school campuses across the county.
  5. Incoming Superintendent Addison Davis (center) and School Board Chair Melissa Snively (right) sign Davis' contract with the Hillsborough County School District after it was unanimously approved by the school board on February 18, 2020.
  6. Incoming Hillsborough School Superintendent Addison Davis (center), School Board Chair Melissa Snively (right) and the other board members pose as Davis signs his contract with the district on Tuesday night. The board unanimously approved the contract beforehand.
  7. Jarvis Delon West was arrested on child neglect charges after he didn't report an employee at AMI Kids who slammed a boy to the ground, according to police.
  8. Associate professor of biology Caitlin Gille leads the Pasco-Hernando State College faculty union, which challenged the school's public comment rules.  (Photo Courtesy of Caitlin Gille)
  9. Prekindergarten students at James B. Sanderlin IB World School in St. Petersburg, show the peace sign during an assembly in 2012. New state data show children in prekindergarten are better prepared for kindergarten than those who don't attend.
  10. Leon County fifth-grader Ingrid Hanley asks the Senate Education Committee not to adopt legislation that would get tougher on D-rated schools, during a Feb. 17, 2020, session.
  11. Nadia King, 6, is smiles for a photo. The special-needs student was taken from school Feb. 4 and placed in a mental health facility under Florida's Baker Act, and now her mother and a team of attorneys are asking why.
  12. The Voluntary Prekindergarten room is one feature of the new Bardmoor Branch of the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. The location also includes a child-care center and Preschool Academy.