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5 finalists named for Duval County’s 2020 Teacher of the Year

The 2020 Florida Blue Duval County Teacher of the Year will be named Jan. 17

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Five Duval County school teachers were named finalists for the 2020 Florida Blue Duval County Teacher of the Year on Wednesday.

The finalists include Leena Hall (Raines High School), Michael Ham (Gilbert Middle School), Renee McNulty (Jean Ribault High School), Carol Thomas (Dinsmore Elementary School) and Leslie White (Leadership Academies at Eugene J. Butler).

Area selection committees convened by Jacksonville Public Education Fund selected the finalists from the more than 180 teachers nominated by their schools for their results in the classroom and their commitment to their students.

"These teachers are outstanding educators in the classroom, helping students achieve their goals to be successful in college, career and life," said Rachael Tutwiler Fortune, president of the JPEF. "But they also stand out because they are teacher leaders, making an impact beyond their classrooms."

JPEF has built the Eddy Awards, Duval County's Teacher of the Year Awards, into a yearlong professional learning and celebration experience to help retain great teachers in public schools. Last year, 88% of teachers surveyed said they were more likely to stay in the classroom as a result of their experience through the Eddy Awards.

The selection committees are made up of teachers as well as representatives from Duval Teachers United, the Duval County Parent-Teacher Association, Duval County Public Schools and the community. The volunteer committee members reviewed the teachers’ applications and observed a select group of the teachers in their classrooms to make their selection for the finalists.

One of the five finalists will be named 2020 Florida Blue Duval County Teacher of the Year at the 29th Annual Eddy Awards Gala on Jan. 17 at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront.

More on the 5 finalists

Leena Hall teaches 10th-grade language arts at Raines High School in Northwest Jacksonville, where she has helped her students improve their reading proficiency by 29%. She serves as department chair, helping to create professional learning communities among the teachers at Raines, and supporting first-year teachers. She has also participated in Duval County’s Innovative Educator Program.

“My sole purpose is to be a facilitator in releasing the human potential in every child.”

Michael Ham teaches sixth-grade math at Matthew Gilbert Middle School. His mission as a teacher is to raise expectations for his students and show them that they can achieve great things. In his first year, he taught lower-performing sixth-grade students, and started the year with frank conversations about what had allowed them to reach sixth-grade math without having mastered grade-level skills. That year, 100% of students in the lowest quartile had grown significantly. In his second year, he challenged his students to take on an advanced curriculum. As a result, the school offered a seventh-grade Algebra I class for the first time in nearly a decade. He is actively involved with the Teach for America Alumni Board and JaxPrism, an LGBTQ+ advocacy board for Teach for America and City Year alumni.

“In a world so full of negative discourse and hate-filled language, it can be easy to forget what ‘every student’ means. It’s not just the ones from backgrounds like ours or the ones that look and sound like us. It is every child who walks through our classroom doors no matter the identities, experiences, or baggage they carry in with them.”

Renee McNulty is a veteran 25-year educator who teaches geometry at Jean Ribault High School in Northwest Jacksonville. She has helped her overage students go from 0% graduation ready to 91% graduation ready, and seen double-digit gains in math proficiency with her students. She uses a multi-sensory approach to teaching with music, movement and color, and dances for joy when her students learn a new math skill. Last year, when six students were at risk of failing math and failing to graduate, she opened her home on the weekends to tutor them.

“I dare you to love your kids. If you don’t love them, you’ll do all kinds stuff wrong. You’ll expect them to meet you at your level, instead of meeting them at theirs. You’ll be blind to their physical and emotional needs, thinking what they need is to learn what you’re teaching. You could even make the mistake of focusing more on the lesson plan on a piece of paper than on the very real people who just walked into your room.”

Carol Thomas teaches first grade at Dinsmore Elementary in Northwest Jacksonville. Over the 2018-2019 school year, her students’ average scale score for math had increased 58 points and reading increased 81 points. She has served as the grade level chair for five years, bringing best practices and exchanging tips with teachers across her school. She also hosts a model classroom in her school, which allows new teachers to come observe her instructional and classroom management skills. At the district level, she helped create an instructional video that taught teachers across the district how to implement a new phonics program.

Thomas is a passionate believer in teaching her students to have a growth mindset. Her life story has been an example of this. She worked in a daycare center at minimum wage until a woman at the Jacksonville Children’s Commission encouraged her to go back to school to become a teacher.

“I am an overcomer! I always teach my students that they, too, are overcomers! I lead by example and teach my students to be confident, to have a growth mindset, to love themselves, and to persevere.”

Leslie White teaches science and biology at the Leadership Academies at Eugene J. Butler. She uses data to differentiate her instruction based on students’ achievement level, allowing her to work more closely with students who need extra help. She promotes critical thinking by using the ACE strategy, which prompts her students to “answer,” “cite evidence,” and “expand.” She also works with her students to set personal goals, which helps them not only in her class but also throughout their education.

Outside the classroom, she is the leader of her school’s science department, has led a district training for eight-grade science teachers and participated in the Innovative Educator Program.

“Becoming a teacher has been the most challenging and rewarding experience in my life. On those tough days, I find motivation in my students, who inspire me daily by their passion, curiosity, and self-confidence. I am so proud of each of them, and grateful to be a part of their story.”

More on other semifinalists

Jennifer Chapman is a 25-year veteran teacher who teaches fifth grade English language arts at Englewood Elementary on the Southside – 23 of those years at Englewood. She holds the distinction of being named a high impact teacher for the past three years, and has been honored by the School Board for her results. But she also knows these scores aren’t what matter to students – she prides herself on how many of her students come back to visit her to share memories of the fun they had learning in her class -- reading Charlie and the Chocolate factory and dressing up as Oompa Loompas and a chocolate party. As the instructional technology lead in her building, she helps other teachers use technology to improve their practice.

“I am amazed at the resilience of children and their families. I have worked with families who were in refugee camps, lost their homes, their jobs, all that they know. These parents entrust me to care for, teach, love, raise, and mentor their children. It is hard to explain the conviction and desire that you feel to honor these parents, to do better, to research, learn, try, and try again."

Petrice Dunbar teaches 4th-grade math at Brentwood Elementary in Northwest Jacksonville. She was in the mortgage business for 22 years before becoming a teacher. She works with her students to set goals and understand their own data and learn independently and in collaboration with their peers. She tutored twice a week for seven months to help her students master grade-level math – and the turnout to her tutoring sessions was so high that she had to ask two colleagues to help. As a result, 80% of students were proficient in third-grade math in 2018-2019. Dunbar also serves as a model teacher for novice teachers and FSCJ students.

"All students are capable of exceeding their potential when they are held to high expectations and beliefs, as well as maximized time in learning. With me serving at a Title 1 school where there are many challenges, students are motivated, excited and committed to attend school every day to be challenged and be successful. My students know that I believe in them. The energy and love they receive daily cultivates the belief in themselves."

Erin Erickson teaches third-grade English language arts at San Mateo Elementary School in Northeast Jacksonville. Her impact in the classroom is clear through her students’ test scores: they achieved 75 percent proficiency in reading last year, well above her school’s average and the district’s average. Outside her class, she has served in several leadership roles in her school, including presenting to school-wide staff on positive behavior management, leading the shared decision making committee, and organizing parent nights.

"Building a sincere relationship with each child beyond lesson, pencil and paper is critical. An individual relationship helps create trust which allows each student to feel safe taking academic risks, to reach higher, while knowing that if they fall short we will work together to help ensure their success.”

Marie-Andree Escriba is a K-5 art educator at Fishweir Elementary School in West Jacksonville. She believes in using art to open conversation and develop critical thinking skills. In her class, students discuss difficult topics like slavery, ecology and social injustices. Her impact as a teacher is evident in her students’ artwork: she starts and ends the year with a self-portrait assignment, and students can see how much progress they’ve made.

"When arts are included into the core curricula, it raises student engagement and achievement. Every student needs to feel appreciated, loved and challenged in the classroom for them to thrive. The arts can help students reach their full potential by varying instruction and creating exciting learning experiences.

Ashleigh Haug is a fourth-grade math and science teacher at Henry F. Kite Elementary School in Northwest Jacksonville. She is passionate about using data to ensure students are growing and learning, and she checks in with students daily through an “exit ticket” that tells her how students feel about how much they learned that day: “I could teach this,” “I’m almost there,” I need a lot more practice,” or “I am completely lost.” Her students have made a year and a half of learning growth in just a year of instruction.

Her work goes beyond the classroom. She participated in the Duval County Innovative Educator Cohort, which has allowed her to bring tools like Microsoft Teams and Skype in the Classroom to her school. She also has worked to improve parental involvement through an app called Class Dojo, and led a community supply drive for books, headphones and math games.

“Many of our children come from arduous situations such as homelessness, foster care, poverty and circumstances that are no fault of their own, and our school comes together to support every family we encounter. Until coming to Kite, I have never been so inspired not only as a teacher, but as a human being, to see the work that the people in this school do for the community and vice versa.”

Brandi Heath as a reading coach at Oceanway Elementary in Northeast Jacksonville, she works with teachers across her grade levels to help them be effective reading instructors. She is inspired to support teachers because she remembers how hard it was to be a first-year teacher, and that mentors helped her stick with it. Through the hard work of teachers at her school, reading proficiency has increased 19 percentage points since 2015, and the bottom quartile of students have grown from 42% to 56% proficiency in reading. Within the last few years, she has served the school in leadership positions for Response to Intervention, Girls on the Run, Technology, Reading Committee, the School Advisory Council and as the school’s faith-based partner liaison.

“I’ve been the teacher whose student wasn’t completing homework because her mother couldn’t read it. Those experiences could have broken me, but I chose to use them to remind myself I can do anything; to tell others that they’re not alone. My message would be, tell your story and surround yourself with educators who bring out the best in you, so that quitting isn’t an option. Our students depend on us.”

Virginia McAllister has taught for 35 years, now teaching ESE services to third- and fourth-grade students at Don Brewer Elementary School in Arlington. She dreamed of being a teacher ever since she saw her aunt teaching special needs students in a New York City classroom when she was young. She teaches in eight classrooms each day in addition to supporting the students designated to work with her. She works hard to involve parents in her students’ education, maintaining open communication through annual individualized education plan meetings, conference calls, daily planner notes and specialized student contracts send home regularly. She also serves as the ESE lead at her school.

“Be passionate in all that you do and advocate for your students. You may be the only one advocating for them in life. Admit to your students when you make mistakes and try to learn from them as much as they learn from you. Teaching requires hard work and dedication every day, but the rewards are truly worth it!”

Susan Morgan Leu teaches students with exceptional needs in first, second and third grade at John E. Ford Pre-K through 8th Montessori School in the urban core. When she started working with her students last year, 100% were failing or below expectations, but by the end of the year 80% had become proficient in reading and mathematics. She also serves as a mentor teacher and directing teacher for student interns from the University of North Florida, Florida State College at Jacksonville and Edward Waters College.

“As an ESE teacher, I get to see the biggest advancement between how my students enter my classroom, and how they are performing when they leave. Many of my students have never experienced success in school. I show them that they can learn and be proud of their accomplishments. I give them a step toward independence.”

Madge Nanney is a 30-year veteran educator who teaches sixth and seventh grade accelerated science at Darnell Cookman Middle-High School in the urban core. She loves watching her students grasp difficult concepts like photosynthesis and cellular respiration, and she builds strong relationships across grade levels, as they progress from middle to high school. Outside of the classroom, Nanney led a group of science teachers to write the accelerated middle school science course after she learned of a lack of rigor for gifted and academically talented students. The course went on to be adopted across the state. She also mentors other teachers, and creates a relationship of mutual trust by sharing her shortcomings as well as her triumphs.

“When I tell people that I teach middle school science the most common reactions are, ‘You must be so patient.’ ‘I could never do that.’ …. Beyond teaching the content benchmarks, middle school teachers must provide a classroom that promotes equity, kindness, and safety. Being a middle school is a daily balancing act—meeting both the educational and emotional kids of our children.”

Charmelita Royster teaches Algebra 1 at Bridge to Success High School, a special program for students who are overage and face barriers to graduation. She believes deeply in giving every student a chance at success, especially those who have been neglected or feel lost at home or at school. She tells the story of a student who was at risk of not graduating if the student didn’t pull up his grade in math. Over winter break, she stayed in touch with the student to ensure he finished his assignments and prepared for his graduation exam so that he was able to graduate. His mother said that no one had ever worked as hard as Royster did to help him.

Outside the classroom, Royster has worked to implement the Florida state standards, to deliver professional development to other teachers, and to mentor new teachers.

“When I see students who initially did not believe in themselves and wanted to quit, then over time they begin to show progress, it makes it all worthwhile. When students’ academic confidence grows, so does their self-esteem, and this allows them to open up and work harder. That is inspiration for me.”


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