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Teaching is a calling for them

The 10 finalists were picked from 14,500 teachers countywide. One will go on to compete for the state Teacher of the Year.

Published December 13, 2005

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Valrico Elementary School third-grade teacher Jennifer McCrystal, center, is congratulated by her husband Michael, left, and daughter Mary Kate after being surprised in her classroom Monday. Bill Hoffman, right, president of the Hillsborough Education Foundation, gave her the news.

TAMPA - Carla Sparks, a journalism teacher at Tampa Bay Tech High School, figured the superintendent was coming for a visit.

At Giunta Middle School, chorus teacher Meredith Scribner assumed the special assembly was for a surprise dignitary. At Valrico Elementary School, third-grade teacher Jennifer McCrystal guessed the visitors had something to do with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

All three teachers were wrong. At several Hillsborough schools Monday, the little white lies some teachers were told turned into big news that made them laugh, cry and float above the clouds.

Each was told they are among Hillsborough's 10 Teacher of the Year finalists. That's out of 14,500 teachers countywide.

"That's awesome," said Northwest Elementary School teacher Robert Lionel Jones, 30, as his fourth-grade students applauded. "I don't know what to say."

A team from the Hillsborough Education Foundation made surprise visits to each of the finalists Monday. One of the 10 will be named the county's top teacher during a Feb. 23 banquet at the Tampa Convention Center. The finalists were chosen by a committee of teachers and administrators from across the school district.

Principals described their winning teachers as dedicated, organized, innovative and in love with their students.

"What he does is touch the lives of children," Darlene Carter, the acting principal at Northwest, said of Jones. "He is so great with the kids."

Jones said he became a teacher nine years ago to serve as a male role model to children who may not have one in their lives. Jones played a big part in reinvigorating the school's Dads Club and getting more men involved with the school.

"I think he's the best teacher ever," said 11-year-old Carmen Perez. "I've never had a boy teacher before. I didn't know how much fun they can be."

At Giunta Middle School, principal Scott Fritz marched all 1,050 students into the gymnasium for a special assembly to announce Scribner's finalist status.

"This is just a shock of my life," said the 12-year teaching veteran, who has directed choruses that have performed at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and at Walt Disney World. "I just thought the governor was coming or something."

Fritz said Scribner, 34, is a great teacher because her career is more than just a paycheck. Within hours of interviewing for the job at Giunta, Scribner had written the new school's alma mater and sent it to Fritz.

"Teaching is a calling for her," Fritz said. "Every child has a voice with Meredith Scribner. If we need anything done at school, she is the first to volunteer and she never wants recognition."

After the announcement at Valrico Elementary School, Jennifer McCrystal's daughter, fourth-grader Mary Kate McCrystal, cried while hugging her mother.

"What's the matter?" McCrystal said.

"I'm happy," said the 9-year-old, who has wanted her mother to be recognized since she was in kindergarten.

McCrystal, who has been teaching for 14 years, calls her class "the Friendship Company" and has encouraged her students to volunteer and raise money for the poor.

"You're so lucky to have such a wonderful teacher," the foundation's Mary-Helen Keen told McCrystal's class.

"I'm the lucky one," McCrystal said.

Each of the finalists will receive $500, two scholarships and other gifts.

School Board member Jennifer Faliero delighted in the surprise announcements.

"This is just one way of showing the teachers how much they're appreciated," she said.

The other finalists are Beverley Jarrett, 55, a social studies, economics and psychology teacher at Gaither High School; Susan Mikolajczyk, 53, a kindergarten teacher at Westchase Elementary; Sharon Cutler, 50, a gifted science and math teacher at Lawton Chiles Elementary; Paulette English, 44, a kindergarten teacher at Hunters Green Elementary; Carla Sparks, 49, a journalism and digital design teacher at Tampa Bay Technical High School; Tecca Kilmer-Almskog, 34, a physical education teacher at Turkey Creek Middle School; and Jonathan Paul Watson, 30, a seventh-grade geography teacher at Mulrennan Middle School.

Hillsborough's Teacher of the Year will receive $1,000 and a one-year lease on a new Lexus. The winner also will compete for state Teacher of the Year.

--Melanie Ave can be reached at 813 226-3400 or

[Last modified December 13, 2005, 01:30:24]

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