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Helping kids be the best

Teacher of the Year winner Sherrie Lee impressed judges with the way she intensely relates to her first-grade students.

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Mount Vernon Elementary first-grader Alexander Cevallos works with Sherrie Lee, who has been named Pinellas County Teacher of the Year for 2001.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- Sherrie Lee sat at a table across from 7-year-old Nickolas Baker. She leaned toward him as he carefully printed his name at the top of a sheet of paper.

"Today's question is "What is your favorite animal?' " she said. "Take a second to think about it."

The boy grinned. "A monkey," he answered.

"Can you tell me that in a complete sentence?" Mrs. Lee asked.

Nickolas paused for a moment. "My favorite animal is a monkey," he said.

Mrs. Lee asked him to write the sentence on his paper. When he got to "monkey," she helped him sound out the letters. He wrote the new word correctly.

"I'm very proud of you," she said, watching his smile broaden. "You have an upper-case letter at the beginning of your sentence and a period at the end. Let's put a sticker on that one. That's excellent."

The scene unfolded last week in Mrs. Lee's classroom at Mount Vernon Elementary School, 4629 13th Ave. N. It was typical of what the first-grade teacher does from the time the first bell rings at 8:40 a.m. until the dismissal bell sounds at 2:40 in the afternoon.

It was a good example of why she was named Pinellas County's 2001 Teacher of the Year last month.

"When we came in to observe Sherrie, she was on the floor with the little ones," said Bill Heller, dean of the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. He was one of three judges who went into the classrooms of the 10 finalists. "They were very engaged. It was clear she had a relationship with each student."

Mount Vernon principal Valerie White described Mrs. Lee as committed, dedicated, nurturing, enthusiastic and eager to make a difference. She also commended fourth-grade teacher Deena Rustmeyer, who was a Top 20 finalist for the award.

"Just because we're a D school doesn't mean we don't have outstanding educators," Mrs. White said, referring to Mount Vernon's low statewide rating two years in a row. She said Mrs. Lee's award brought the staff together. "It's great recognition for our school and it's well-deserved."

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
A sign of teacher appreciation from a student is paper-clipped in Sherrie Lee's class at Mount Vernon Elementary. Mrs. Lee was selected as Teacher of the Year from among 10 finalists.
In addition to recognition for Mount Vernon, the award carried some advantages for Mrs. Lee. She received a gold ring from Herff-Jones, $1,000 from Cigna HealthCare, a crystal apple trophy, a gift basket from Pinellas County businesses, $100 from the Pinellas County Teachers Union -- and a 2001 Ford Taurus.

Autoway Ford of St. Petersburg agreed to provide the car, valued at nearly $20,000, in exchange for the use of vacant School Board property. According to Superintendent Howard Hinesly, the value of the car exceeded the value of the lease.

"My daughter said I won because God knew we needed a new car," Mrs. Lee said.

A Pinellas County teacher for eight years, Mrs. Lee earns $35,700 a year. She said she will have some additional responsibilities as teacher of the year, including opening her classroom for observation. She also will be expected to speak at educational functions, including a round-table discussion in Orlando in July.

Mrs. Lee, 39, said individualized instruction makes her classroom different from a traditional classroom. She creates a cooperative learning system by dividing her students into four teams. Team members cluster together and share information. She said the arrangement allows her to work with students in small groups or spend time working one-on-one with students who need extra help. It also makes the children responsible for their own learning.

"Some students are very bright, very capable," she said. "Others are below their grade level. That's why I've chosen open-ended programs for them that allow them to work at their level."

She explained that the school district defines six stages of literacy for kindergarteners through second-graders. By the end of first grade, students should be at Stage 3. They must be able to write a story with at least two simple, logical and structurally correct sentences using capital letters and punctuation.

But Mrs. Lee said her expectations for her students exceed the county's. She spends part of each day teaching a writing workshop, which has enabled several of her students to achieve Stage 4 writing. They have learned to write stories with simple beginnings and endings and three complete thoughts, using at least one sentence of elaboration.

She begins the writing workshops with a group lesson. She reads an older child's essay and asks her students to identify the writing stage. Learning to evaluate others' work in a respectful manner, she said, teaches them to evaluate their own.

[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Mount Vernon Elementary first-grader Aaron Butler works on a writing assignment Thursday with Sherrie Lee who has been named Pinellas County Teacher of the Year for 2001. Her teaching philosophy? "It's about showing them how to be the best they can be," she said.

After the group lesson, they break into teams and spend 15 minutes writing, either on a subject of their choice or using a prompt she has provided. She plays a classical CD to help them concentrate. When a timer goes off, they spend 10 minutes discussing their stories. Then they gather on the floor around the "author's chair." They take turns reading their stories aloud and call on each other for evaluation.

Ricky Diaz, 7, sat in the author's chair last week and read a story about his dog, Spud. He told the class Spud is as brown as a tree. He told them he chases his ball as fast as a race car.

The students decided that Ricky's story was a Stage 5.

"What makes it a Stage 5?" asked Mrs. Lee.

They explained that it had a beginning, a middle and an end, elaboration and two similes.

After the writing workshop, the children went back to their groups to work independently. Mrs. Lee asked seven of them to join her at the table. They learned six new words by identifying spelling patterns they had already encountered. They also looked for small words in the larger words, using a strategy Mrs. Lee calls "chunking it out."

She said that because learning to read and write is so important for first-graders, she tries to bring some element of those subjects into everything they do. When they are working on art projects, for example, she asks them to add a sentence of narrative to their creations.

Mrs. Lee also has integrated reading and writing into her social studies lessons. She takes her students on simulated trips to other countries during the year. She lets them decide which countries they want to learn about and then asks them to list what they think they already know. Next, they make a list of things they want to find out.

For their trip to Kenya, she outfitted them with pretend passports, assigned them seats on an imaginary airplane, and taught them how to say hello and goodbye. They are keeping a diary of what they've learned in folders they've decorated with pictures of lions and zebras.

But Mrs. Lee's ingenuity doesn't come without a price -- in time as well as dollars. She rarely leaves Mount Vernon before 4 p.m. and she routinely spends at least an hour every night preparing lessons after her two daughters, Jessica, 10, and Samantha, 2, are in bed. She estimates she spends another six to eight hours on planning and paperwork on weekends.

She's lost track of how much of her own money she has spent on teaching materials. She figures it exceeds her annual $100 stipend by at least $600.

Her dedication is paying off as far as her students' parents are concerned. Kimberly Santiago said she has noticed a difference in her 7-year-old daughter, Rachele, since she started first grade.

"She seems to be more confident and a lot more excited about reading," she said. "She reads everything in sight, even road signs.

Crystal Ferrentino said her 7-year-old daughter, Ariel, helps her write out their grocery list and has started reading to her 4-year-old brother.

Both parents were impressed with the way Mrs. Lee communicates with them. Mrs. Santiago said Rachele regularly brings home notes assessing her work. Mrs. Ferrentino said Mrs. Lee often talks to her about Ariel's progress when she comes to pick her up from school.

Mrs. Lee said she's only doing what comes naturally to her.

She doesn't even remember when she decided to become a teacher. She said she always knew she wanted to work with children. After graduating from Lakewood High School, she received a bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida. She moved to Connecticut with her husband, David, and completed a master's degree in education from Connecticut College. She taught in Connecticut for six years. She and her husband moved back to Florida in 1993 and she started teaching at Mount Vernon.

Her goal since she began teaching has been simple: to help children reach their dreams. But for her, it goes beyond academics.

"It's about helping them become more confident, to feel good about themselves," she said. "It's about showing them how to be the best they can be."

She thinks that all children can achieve if they have a positive, respectful attitude and if they are motivated to learn. A firm believer in the school district's commitment to character program, she weaves its components of honesty, respect, responsibility and self-motivation into everything she teaches.

Above all, she said, she strives to inspire her students to become lifelong learners. She says she's one herself.

"I'm continually improving," she said. "I learn as I teach. I research, learn and share."

* * *

Pinellas County's 2001 Teacher of the Year, Sherrie Lee, offers these tips to parents interested in preparing their children for first grade.

1. Instill in your child the love of learning and the importance of doing well in school.

2. Limit the amount of time your child watches television and plays video games.

3. Spend time having conversations with your child to enrich vocabulary and challenge him or her to think.

4. Read with your child as often as possible.

5. Be your child's greatest fan. Praise his or her efforts and accomplishments.

Pinellas County finalists

Forty-nine teachers were nominated by other teachers, parents, volunteers and business and community leaders this year for Pinellas County Teacher of the Year. The field was narrowed to 20 semifinalists and then to 10 finalists, who were visited in their classrooms by a team of three judges.

Here are the 10 finalists:

Sara W. Dubbeld, an English teacher at Gibbs High School

Deborah Green, a teacher of profoundly mentally handicapped students at Paul B. Stephens Exceptional Center

Cynthia Heinlien, an English teacher at East Lake High School

Sherrie Lee, a first-grade teacher at Mount Vernon Elementary

Kathleen O'Neil, a library information specialist at Forest Lakes Elementary

Michael Percifield, a math teacher at Clearwater High School

Christine Rose, a second-grade teacher at McMullen-Booth Elementary

Barbara Schuler, a fifth-grade teacher at McMullen-Booth Elementary

Robert Sinibaldi, an adapted physical education teacher at Walsingham Elementary

Dara Zakrzewski, a fourth-grade teacher at Cypress Woods Elementary

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