Florida Times-Union | by Emily Bloch | December 1, 2020
From 175 nominees to 15 semifinalists and now just five finalists, Jacksonville’s top educators range from a math teacher who went viral, to a teacher who focuses on literacy, to a fifth-grade teacher who almost quit.
Kenneth Ford, a math and science teacher at Carter G. Woodson Elementary School, attributes his life and career to his own eighth-grade teacher, who helped him integrate back into the classroom after treatment for leukemia. That story helped form a connection between him and Duval Schools Superintendent Diana Greene, whose own son battled leukemia.
When Ford considered quitting teaching last school year, his principal suggested Greene speak with him one-on-one.
“I gave him some tough love,” Greene said. “I said, ‘let’s get it together. You cannot quit.’ And look where you are today.”
On Tuesday, Ford was named one of five semi-finalists for the 2021 VyStar Duval County Teacher of the Year.
“I can’t wait to tell my students,” Ford said. “I proudly teach my band of misfits every year. I’m pumped to continue the school year.
Duval County’s Teacher of the Year initiative is hosted by the Jacksonville Public Education Fund. For the last 30-years, the non-profit has hosted the EDDY Awards to name the winner and has run the EDDYs Experience — a yearlong professional development program for the honored teachers. Semi-finalists, finalists and the ultimate winner are selected by community committees, which are comprised of a group of teachers, Duval Teachers United representatives, PTA members and more.
According to the education fund, the committee members review initial applications and eventually observe a group of teachers in the classroom as part of the decision-making process.
This year’s finalists are:
- Kenneth Ford – Carter G. Woodson Elementary
- Kimberly Parker – Lake Lucina Elementary
- Jim Schmitt – Mandarin High
- Jameea Jackson-Gaines – Richard Lewis Brown Gifted and Academically Talented Academy
- Nadine Ebri – Southside Middle
Kimberly Parker wiped away constantly-flowing tears upon hearing she was a finalist.
“All I’ve ever done is love children for 30 years,” she said. “I work with Title I schools. Kids brought me fruit today and usually, they can’t even get transportation for themselves. My heart is so full right now.”
Parker specializes in helping to turn schools around through literacy. She has 32-years of teaching experience and currently teaches first grade virtually at Lake Lucina Elementary School.
“I give them a backpack full of love, hope, guidance and tools necessary to be successful,” she said.
Kelly Coker, a Duval County School Board member who represents District 1, where Lake Lucina Elementary is located, called Parker a “blessing” to the district.
Jim Schmitt, a teacher at Mandarin High School, was recognized for his work developing a writing program for at-risk students. Schmitt wrote a $10,000 grant for a student-work program and took a leadership role for teacher collaboration when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. When named a finalist, Schmitt, who has 27-years of teaching experience, seemed taken aback.
“I’m a little overwhelmed,” he said. “I’ve been spending so many years teaching, it’s really special.”
“You are seen, you are recognized”
At the finalist announcement watch-party, which took place over Zoom, Rachael Tutwiler Fortune, the president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, reminded teachers that they are seen — even when they don’t feel like that’s the case.
Finalist Jameea Jackson-Gaines spoke to that sentiment.
“I know as teachers, sometimes we feel unappreciated, or that the work we do goes unnoticed,” she said. “I’m excited to share the stories of my students.”
Jackson-Gaines teaches first grade at Richard Lewis Brown GIfted & Academically Talented Academy. She serves in a number of leadership roles including as the teacher liaison for her school’s PTA as well as in a teacher mentorship program she founded that helps new teachers across Duval County set up their first classrooms. Jackson-Gaines says teaching is a work of the heart.
“I don’t do it for the accolades,” she said. “Let’s do it with grace, passion, but most of all, let’s do it with love.”
To Jackson-Gaines and the other Duval County teachers, Fortune responded, “You are seen, you are recognized, you are appreciated — especially this year. Each and every one of you deserves the top teaching honor.”
Greene added that semi-finalists wouldn’t walk away empty-handed: all 15 semi-finalists received a pair of tickets to last weekend’s Jacksonville Jaguars game against the Cleveland Browns. Semi-finalists also received a classroom grant to spend however they’d like, courtesy of Florida Blue.
Nadine Ebri, an algebra teacher at Southside Middle School, was recognized for her innovative lesson plans using technology. Earlier this year, Ebri was included in incoming First Lady Jill Biden’s Jacksonville education panel. But before that, she was viewed at least 17 million times online.
In 2016, Ebri went viral for her video using rap and dance to teach students long division. “If there were more teachers like this, more kids might love math,” a writeup from the New York Post said at the time. The video’s fame allowed Ebri to speak at teaching conferences about using culturally relevant instruction to close the opportunity gap among students.
Ebri said her love for technology became critical this year to help students connect during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m so excited and grateful,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
EDDY Awards will be broadcast
Out of the five finalists, the Teacher of the Year will be selected and announced at the EDDY Awards in January. Rather than its usual gala, the awards will take the form of a small luncheon to accommodate COVID-19 safety. Still, Fortune said, there’s a silver lining.
For the first time ever, the awards will be broadcasted live on WJXT/News4Jax with Morning Show anchor Melanie Lawson emceeing in an hour-long special so the finalists’ support groups can watch even from afar.
“We want to make our teachers feel like celebrities,” Fortune said. “After everything they’ve done for our kids, they deserve to have a moment when the community comes together and celebrates them.”
The ceremony will be streamed on Jan. 27 at 12:30 p.m. on channel 4.