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Forest Ridge hails its new stars

Students and staff pile on the praise at the school, home to the new Teacher of the Year and Support Person of the Year.

By PAULETTE LASH RITCHIE
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 4, 2003


LECANTO -- When Lorraine Gonzales, newly named Citrus County Teacher of the Year, returned to Forest Ridge Elementary School on Monday, she alternated between receiving hugs from students for her achievement and giving hugs to students who were trying to deal with Saturday's space shuttle disaster.

In her classroom, one student broke into tears as Gonzales tried to help the children understand what had happened.

Earlier, as she walked down the hallway, Gonzales was hugged in congratulations by children and co-workers. Substitute teacher and school volunteer Kathy Hite asked the sudden celebrity for her autograph.

One of Gonzales' students, Travis Schaak, 10, asked her, "What did you make? Teacher of the Year for the country?"

Another student, Richie Perry, encouraged her to take this honor as far as it could go. "If you win Teacher of the United States," he said, "I'll give you my whole wallet and everything in it."

Elsewhere at Forest Ridge, health room assistant Tessa Patterson, 37, also had her hands full Monday.

Patterson was named Support Person of the Year on Friday at the same ceremony where Gonzales picked up Teacher of the Year honors. The ceremony was presented by the Citrus County Education Foundation and the Citrus County School District.

Not only did Patterson have to care for sick children in the clinic, deal with her own feelings about the shuttle explosion and begin to prepare for the next step in the Crown Region Support Person of the Year program, she also has something else on her mind: She's getting married in two weeks.

Patterson will become Tessa Wagner on Feb. 15 when she marries Forest Ridge's head custodian, Scott Wagner.

Gonzales, 47, is a fifth-grade teacher and has been an educator for 24 years, 13 of which have been in Citrus. She has been at Forest Ridge since it opened three years ago. Prior to that she was a fourth- and fifth-grade technology teacher at Lecanto Primary School, where she was named Teacher of the Year in 1998.

Patterson has been working in the district for five years and has been at Forest Ridge for three. She cares for ill children, dispenses medication and deals with emergency situations. She is also president of the Forest Ridge PTA.

Gonzales said she was thrilled to go to work each day "because the students make every day full of learning and excitement. I have a great bunch of kids. They are warm and loving and enthusiastic."

The other part of the joy of her job, Gonzales said, is her co-workers. "When Renna Jablonskis started the school, she put together people who are really child-focused. We're not co-workers," she said, and then started singing, "We are fam-il-y," to the tune of the Sister Sledge hit.

Patterson practically echoed Gonzales' feelings about the warmth of the school. "Mrs. J. gathered together a group of people here and put this family spirit in us that's just wonderful. With her love and inspiration, we did it. And Mrs. (Teretta) Charles has just stepped right in and continued that spirit."

Charles became principal when Jablonskis replaced retiring Bonnie Hardiman as director of student services.

Patterson looks forward to each day, she said, because "I love the children. They're amazing. I feel like I'm their mom, all 809 of them."

During the weekend, Gonzales and Patterson got together to consider a way to share their recognition with their co-workers. They made small pink and white slips of paper and glued spray-painted puzzle pieces on them. The papers said. "From our heart to your heart. We're all a piece of the puzzle. That's what makes Forest Ridge so GREAT! Love you, Lorraine and Tessa."

Charles was delighted that both of the honored employees came from her new school.

"How proud we all are of their success," she said, "But, as they both have said to us, they are examples and representatives of the whole staff and of the success this staff experiences on a regular basis."

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