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Quest for knowledge may lead her to China

A Brooksville teacher earns a spot in a competitive summer exchange seminar.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 20, 2003


BROOKSVILLE -- When Brooksville Elementary School principal Sue Stoops handed out staff awards last year, she gave fourth-grade teacher Kathy Gates the "born under a wandering star" certificate.

"Her passport is always up to date, and she has a bag packed," Stoops explained. "She is just a dynamo when it comes to bringing new ideas to her classroom."

This summer, Gates plans to visit Asia as one of just 16 teachers chosen nationally for the competitive Fulbright-Hays Summer Seminar in China. The Fulbright program, created in 1946, is the U.S. government's flagship program for international educational exchanges.

Gates is Brooksville Elementary's first Fulbright recipient, and perhaps the first among Hernando County educators as well. No records were available to be sure.

A Hernando teacher since 1987 and her school's Teacher of the Year in 1999, Gates, 52, said she loves history and always is looking for ways to bring new and interesting lessons to her students.

"We are so impacted by FCAT," she said, referring to Florida's academic skills test, "so I try to bring in other things, so we're not totally inundated with that.

"My premise is that we're a global school and we're also a Title I school, which means we have a lot of disadvantaged kids, which means they don't have a lot of experiences. So I try to bring the world to them."

Gates, who lives in Inverness, spent last summer at Harvard University studying women of the Civil War. Before that, she went to Washington, D.C., to learn about the Constitution and how to make it relevant in schoolwork.

Just last week, her students talked with great detail about the Constitution and how it applies to things such as war protests and the Homeland Security Act.

For this summer, Gates was accepted for three programs. One is about the Founding Fathers in Virginia; another follows the explorations of Lewis and Clark in Washington state. Her first choice, though, was the Fulbright seminar, which includes trips to Beijing, Shanghai and Xi'an (the home of the famed terra cotta warriors).

She is hopeful that the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in the region will not stand in the way of her plans.

"One of my dreams was always to stand on the Great Wall of China," Gates said. "I'll be doing it with a face mask."

Children in Gates' class have their fingers crossed for their teacher. They expect her to come back with loads of goodies from China for them to see and learn about.

Stoops has added China to the school's global studies curriculum for next year, specifically because of Gates' Fulbright.

"I feel really special because she gets to see all these different places and she brings back some news for the classroom," said Brittany Hill, 10. "She's really neat."

Suzanne Hays, another Brooksville Elementary fourth-grade teacher, had similar praise for her colleague.

"Teachers at this school really admire her because of her interest in professional growth," said Hays, the 2003 Hernando County Teacher of the Year. "The great thing about Mrs. Gates is she considers herself a learner as much as her children. She sets a good example for the rest of us."

Gates recalled that others on the school staff laughed at her as she filled out the inches-thick application for the competitive Fulbright award. She knew that a rejection letter might come in the mail, but also that a big envelope with all of the acceptance information could arrive.

Like the lottery, she said, you can't win if you don't play.

"I tell these kids that everyone is gifted in something and they need to figure out what they're gifted in and reach for the stars," Gates said. "I'm reaching for the stars. All they can do is say 'no."'

Gates is scheduled to make her trip in June and July, health conditions permitting. If the program is canceled, she will have to reapply.

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education and politics in Hernando County. He can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com .

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