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Vroom, vroom to a classroom

For Pinellas County's teacher of the year, dedication pays off where the rubber meets the road.

By LORRI HELFAND and LEON TUCKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001


Sherrie Lee hopped into her 11-year-old Ford Explorer on Thursday and, as she does most weekday mornings, set off on the 30-mile trek from her Palmetto home to St. Petersburg's Mount Vernon Elementary School, where she teaches first grade.

As she headed over the Sunshine Skyway bridge, Lee heard groans from her Explorer, which had recently begun to leak oil. She wondered how much longer the vehicle would last.

Her concern vanished Friday, when she was named Pinellas County's 2000-01 Teacher of the Year and was awarded a 2001 Ford Taurus -- marking the first time the district has ever included a car as part of the annual prize.

The sedan was donated by Autoway Ford of St. Petersburg. It's worth about $19,500 plus tax, which the school district plans to cover.

Lee, 39, said she was surprised that she won -- and blown away by the prize.

"Whoa," she said. "I have, like, 170,000 miles on my Ford Explorer."

Like last year's winner, Lee also received a gold ring from Herff-Jones, $1,000 from Cigna HealthCare, a crystal apple trophy, a gift basket and $100 from the Pinellas County Teachers Union.

During the awards luncheon Friday, Lee stood on the stage at the Harborview Center in Clearwater with other finalists for the award when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw her name on a card.

Moments later, Superintendent Howard Hinesley called her name.

"I was shocked. I couldn't believe it," she said.

The car award, which officials say probably won't be repeated in the future, was the result of some sweet serendipity involving Autoway and its $5-million renovation.

Brian Smith, general manager of the dealership at 2525 34th St. N., said Autoway was looking for a place to store construction equipment. The dealership approached the School Board about leasing a vacant lot the district owns at 4990 28th St. N.

The lease would have called for the dealership to pay $11,000, said Ron Stone, school district spokesman. He said Hinesley proposed an alternative: Donate a car for the Teacher of the Year winner, and you can use the land.

Smith said he expects the dealership will use the land for about five months.

School Board Chairman Tom Todd said top teachers deserve top rewards. "We're never going to be able to pay, I believe, the salary they deserve -- so I wish this could become an annual event," said Todd.

But Stone says that is not likely. "As far as we know, there is no guarantee that we will be able to do this again next year," Stone said.

Although Lee was stunned by the honor, her principal, Valerie White, was not.

"Ms. Lee's the best teacher I've ever seen. When I go into her room, I get goose bumps," she said.

Fourth-grade teacher Bonita Paquette said Lee accommodates every child, no matter what their special needs may be.

And according to Carol Dinsdale, who teaches emotionally handicapped children, Lee is so dedicated that she spends much of her summer preparing lesson plans for the new school year.

Several of her former students also think she's tops.

"She was the best teacher ever. She had a lot of imagination," said Shelby Benoit, 8, whom Lee taught last year.

She and 9-year-old classmates Shanna Farmer and Cynthia Riggio have fond memories of learning about Mexico in Lee's class. The girls raved about munching on tortillas, batting a pinata and flying out of the country on a make-believe airplane.

Lee worked as a substitute teacher for Pinellas County schools from 1984 to 1986. She began working at Mount Vernon Elementary as a kindergarten teacher in September 1993. She has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of South Florida and a master's degree in education from Connecticut College.

Her fans at Mount Vernon say she's a natural teacher. And for Lee, there is no question.

"I really believe that this is my calling," Lee said. "I always know on the inside that this is what I'm supposed to be doing. God has helped me and blessed me with the gifts I have to be an outstanding educator."

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