Fort Pierce teacher wins state's top prize

Associated Press
Published July 21, 2004

ORLANDO - A Fort Pierce reading specialist who created "Book Buddies," a community outreach program for her students, was named Florida Teacher of the Year on Tuesday.

Kerri Ann Walukiewicz was honored during an awards ceremony televised statewide. She teaches seventh-grade reading and language arts to low-scoring students at Forest Grove Middle School in St. Lucie County.

"I am proud to be a teacher in Florida and I am honored to represent all of you," Walukiewicz told other teachers after accepting the award.

Walukiewicz, an eight-year veteran, started a community outreach program called "Book Buddies" two years ago. It lets her students choose books and read them to first-graders at an elementary school. She also has created an afterschool curriculum geared toward minority boys who have struggled in the classroom.

Walukiewicz, a graduate of Lake Weir High School in Marion County and Florida Atlantic University, said she became interested in teaching in high school when she "shadowed a teacher and absolutely fell in love with it."

The five finalists for Teacher of the Year were chosen by the Department of Education from the state's pool of 130,000 public school teachers.

In addition to Walukiewicz, the finalists were Karen Pierce, a kindergarten teacher from Orange County; Charlene Mauro, a marine biology educator from Santa Rosa County; Janet Glancy, a veteran English teacher from Collier County; and Janice Gilchrest, a fourth-grade instructor of Polk County.

Walukiewicz received a check from Burdines-Macy's for $10,000. The other finalists received $5,000 each. The winner and finalists each receive $1,000 for their school.

Gov. Jeb Bush, speaking to the teachers hours before the awards ceremony, praised their work as "tremendous."

"I get inspired by being with them," Bush said of the teachers.

Bush told the teachers that the Department of Education was kicking around ideas to try to get parents more involved with their children's education.

Teaching "is made a lot more difficult when parents are not engaged in their children's education," Bush said after meeting with the teachers. "We're looking at some ideas to encourage and to really, forcefully make the case that parents need to be involved."