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Bonnie Bresnyan, Miriam Velez-Hernandez and Christine Campbell win Excellence in Education awards

January 17, 2018

With inspirational stories and just a little bit of dancing, Hillsborough County Public Schools and the Hillsborough Education Foundation honored 650 outstanding educators and recognized its Teacher of the Year, Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year and Instructional Support Employee of the Year.

Congratulations to district Teacher of the Year Bonnie Bresnyan, a special needs teacher at Lewis Elementary School in Temple Terrace. She danced across the stage of Carol Morsani Hall when her name was called. Miriam Velez-Hernandez, a bilingual aide at Dover Elementary, was recognized as Instructional Support Employee of the Year. Social worker Christine Campbell of Van Buren Middle School received the Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year award.

“We have all, unfortunately, heard the expression, ‘Those who can’t, teach.’ Well how far from reality is that statement?” Bresnyan said, rallying the crowd of educators and special guests at the Excellence in Education Awards. “I say, those who want to make a difference, those who want to shape the future, those who want the best for children. These are the people who teach. These are the people who work in schools.”

Finalists were introduced by current or former students. Bresnyan’s presenter was David Soto.

“In first grade, I could barely hold a pencil, read a letter or write my name,” said Soto, now a junior at the University of South Florida. Soto hopes to teach adults with learning disabilities, and plans tell him what Mrs. B told him long ago: “Be the best you can be.”

Bresnyan compares her classroom – of kindergarten and first grade students she describes as “differently-abled,” – to a bee hive. “All the bees can and are expected to contribute in some way to making the honey,” she wrote in her teacher of the year application essay. “Each bee has a role within this hive.”

Bresnyan has taught at Folsom, Sulphur Springs, Shaw and Lewis elementary schools. She’s also done extensive training for other teachers within the district because “we retain 95 percent of what we learn when we teach it to someone else.”

Iron sharpens iron, she wrote, quoting the old maxim. But she had different types of elements on her mind Tuesday night – Earth, Wind and Fire, as she sashayed across the stage to their party anthem “Let’s Groove Tonight.”

The other Teacher of the Year finalists were:

  • Nicole Meyerson of Carrollwood Elementary, whose student presenter convinced the audience to give Meyerson a standing ovation thanks to a quote from “Wonder,” a book they read in class: “You can’t blend in when you’re born to stand out.”
  • Alexa Trafficante of Gorrie Elementary; described by her student as kind, funny, active and smart. “Every day I was excited to come to school. Every. Day,” she said.
  • Lisabeth Leist of Steinbrenner High School, an enthusiastic, dedicated and passionate teacher whose positivity and teaching style helped her presenter get on track in math class.
  • Jennifer Jackson of Stewart Middle Magnet: She goes “the extra mile to keep all that boring bookwork to an absolute minimum,” the student said, "and provides ample opportunities for hands-on learning." 

Awards followed a reception prepared by talented culinary students from Jefferson¸Leto, Sickles, Steinbrenner and Strawberry Crest high schools. Event emcee Ernest Hooper, a Tampa Bay Times columnist and editor, compared the winning educators to scrapbookers.

“Each and every day,” Hooper said, “you give those students indelible images that they place in their mental scrapbooks in their hearts and minds, images they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

Superintendent Jeff Eakins congratulated all the Excellence in Education winners.

“If you are sitting here today, your peers have noticed that you go above and beyond every single day and you do this to help your students and families,” he said. “Your commitment and your dedication can be seen everywhere in our schools and in our community.”

“From the bottom of my heart,” he added, “I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you.”

The first award went to Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year Christine Campbell of Van Buren Middle School. Sixth grader Ja’Ri Gray said Campbell went above and beyond to help his family in difficult times, and has done the same for many others at the North Tampa school.

“Most importantly, I would like to thank our students and families for allowing me the opportunity to be of service,” she said. Her application details efforts to carefully track Van Buren students’ attendance, behavior and course performance - ABCs commonly known as “key performance indicators." She also identified an extensive list of community partners who are helping at the school, including McDonald’s for hosting a monthly spirit night that allows the school to raise more for field trips and other needs.

“I make it a daily priority to maintain a servant’s heart when working for our students and providing supports,” she wrote.

The other Ida S. Baker finalists:

  • Teacher Jonathan Collier of Spoto High School, credited for building self-esteem in students and almost never missing a day of work.
  • Teacher Alicia Fojaco of Sessums Elementary, “a friendly face” whose presenter said helped to keep him calm and focused.
  • Magnet lead teacher Meredith Mullen of Lockhart Elementary; her presenter said Mullen cooked Thanksgiving dinner for her family after her brother died and that she truly puts the “heart in Lockhart.” 

If you’ve ever needed something in Dover, chances are you know Instructional Support Employee of the Year Miriam Velez-Hernandez. While her job title is bilingual aide, a quarter-century in the community has turned her into someone known for the expression Hay bandito. That doesn’t exactly translate as “we’ve got to help,” but has come to mean it.

That could mean spotting something not quite right at the car line and helping a family secure a car seat. It might mean working on a program called Dream Come True to provide a Walt Disney World vacation that would otherwise be out of reach. It might mean helping a family racing against a ticking cancer clock to help plan a wedding, then working with the Mexican Consulate so the grandparents could make it for the ceremony.

Or it might mean helping a homeless 7-year-old named Carlos Penilla find his path in life, all the way through high school and technical college. Penilla presented her and thanked Velez-Hernandez on behalf of so many who have been touched by her kindness.

“I’d like to thank my Dover family for the opportunity to participate in the academic growth and challenge as well as the success of our students,” Velez-Hernandez said. “To my bilingual team, for their support and love always, and to all the other nominees, who also are deserving of this award. I share it with you.”

Those other finalists:

  • Cindy Nunez, a kindergarten aide at Claywell Elementary, whose now graduated student presenter thanked her for countless extra hours of work, for always waking up with a smile on her face, and for living up to the mantra of “Though she is little, she is fierce.”
  • Talina Ugarte, a bilingual aide at Muller Elementary Magnet, who helped her presenter learn English, keeps her non-English-speaking parents (and many others) informed about their children and is constantly bombarded with students running to give her hugs.
  • Head custodian Leonard Snead of Lockhart Elementary Magnet; his fifth-grade presenter scored one of the biggest applause lines of the night by noting Snead “always answers when someone calls him on the walkie.” He followed it up with the biggest laugh of the evening, describing how beautiful the Lockhart campus is. “If your school is dirty, don’t try to steal him from us.”
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