The 15 semifinalists for the 2024 VyStar Duval County Teacher of the Year were announced this week. The semifinalists include veteran teachers and educators who are earlier on in their careers. Their backgrounds and experiences vary as well, but one thing they all have in common is their love for teaching.
Five of the 15 will go on to compete for the title of Duval County Teacher of the Year, and the winner will be announced on Jan. 20, 2024 at the annual EDDY Awards.
Here are the 15 semifinalists:
Marissa Hein, Alimacani Elementary
Ms. Hein realized her true passion was teaching when she was working for the Central Intelligence Agency and coaching high school athletics in the evening. Deciding to follow her passion, she changed careers, working first as a paraprofessional in a classroom for students with intellectual disabilities. Today, Ms. Hein is a Varying Exceptionalities (VE) teacher for Exceptional Student Education (ESE) students whose job is to provide meaningful academic and social/emotional support in the inclusion classroom to ensure the success of students with disabilities.
She is an educator who takes the initiative to help classroom teachers outside the ESE environment and is constantly working closely with her team of fellow educators and service providers to create meaningful lessons and behavior plans. She wants to make every student successful in their first year at school and instill a love of learning that stays with them for life.
In addition to her classroom duties, she is the lead for the Leaders of Tomorrow program and is a coach with Girls on the Run.
She says she is inspired by “the unrelenting dedication” of her fellow teachers. “We challenge each other to go above and beyond to ensure that every student is receiving the support they need to succeed in school.”
Kimberly Sedgwick, Arlington Heights
Ms. Sedgwick is a third-grade math and science teacher at Arlington Heights Elementary School who says, “Education is not just a profession; it is a calling that ignites a fire within my soul.” She said she is inspired by “the profound impact we have on the lives of our students, the opportunity to foster a love of learning, and the change to be a beacon of guidance and support on their path to success.”
She’s been teaching for eight years and serves as a mentor and coach to her fellow teachers. She supports her colleagues by helping them develop their teaching skills and fostering a sense of belonging and professional development in the school community.
While grades are one measure of success, Ms. Sedgwick also defines student success by developing essential life skills and the nurturing of a growth mindset. She prioritizes creating an environment where students feel empowered to take risks, learn from their mistakes, and develop resilience.
She said the greatest evidence her success as a teacher lies in the journey of each student who enters her classroom and emerges transformed. She says: “Education is not just a profession for me; it’s a vocation that allows me to make a difference, one student at a time. It is a journey that keeps me passionate, curious, and deeply committed to the noble pursuit of knowledge and personal growth.”
Jazline Clark, Arlington Middle School
Ms. Clark is an 8th grade English Language Arts teacher at Arlington Middle School. She’s been teaching for four years and gives back to her fellow teachers by serving as one of the school’s new teacher mentors. She is also the English Language Arts co-chair and the 8th grade ELA lead teacher, as well as the 8th grade hall representative for the Shared Decision-Making Committee.
At Arlington Middle School, she makes students facilitators of their own learning, sharing with them the metrics and data on how they’re doing, not just individually, but as a class and a grade level. She said, “This creates healthy academic competition amongst my students across class periods and drives their hunger to outperform peers!”
Ms. Clark said she is, “grateful and proud to be able to call myself educator to each of my diverse learners that I teach. I hope to be a critical figure in each of my student’s lives down the line when they become adults, are in their careers, or become renown to the world.”
Katrice Shorter, Atlantic Coast High School
Ms. Shorter is a biology teacher at Atlantic Coast High School where she is the lead instructor for the school’s new Medical Academy in partnership with Mayo Clinic. In her 18 years of teaching, she’s taught a multitude of subjects including math and science, chemistry, and anatomy and physiology.
In addition, she is the JV and Varsity Cheer coach, step team sponsor, and founding advisor for the HOSA (Future Health Professionals) chapter at Atlantic Coast High School. In the seven years she’s led HOSA at Atlantic Coast, her students have advanced to the state level competitions each year with last school year being the first time that any Atlantic Coast HOSA students advanced and attended the international competition and conference in Dallas, TX.
Within her classroom she fosters an environment of academic excellence, instilling in them that failure is not an option and that they can achieve whatever they work hard towards.
Ms. Shorter believes every child possesses the ability to learn and that every child deserves a champion. She is inspired to be that champion for them and thrives when they succeed. She says: “It is my students who inspire me! I understand that for some, those 90 minutes spent together, every other day, may be the only time an adult has encouraged them, smiled at them, said ‘Good Morning!’, asked them if they’re all right and truly meant it.”
Leonard Smith, Fort Caroline Elementary
Mr. Smith is a behavior interventionalist at Fort Caroline Elementary School where he is building healthy, positive relationships. He is seen by his fellow teachers as a leader and is often sought out for his advice on improving classroom culture and managing minor infractions.
He’s been teaching for nearly a decade and the impact of his work can be seen in the students’ success. The school saw a decrease in disciplinary infractions and an increase in reading and math scores in the last school year and the improvements have continued into this year.
As a lifelong learner, Mr. Smith is passionate about creating learning moments for students and turning them into lifelong learners as well. He said the ability to impact students gives him purpose, and former students often tell him of the impact he had on their lives.
He says: “At school, I strive to be that positive role model for these children. I want them to see in me not just an educator but someone they can look up to, trust, and seek guidance from.”
Deborah Lepper, Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology
Ms. Lepper is a 21-year veteran science teacher at Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology. The daughter of two high school teachers, she never intended to go into teaching, but while teaching in graduate school she realized how much she enjoyed connecting with students and the subject matter.
As she continued in her teaching career, she realized that students would benefit from being able to take a dual enrollment science course to earn college credit while having the supports offered in a high school classroom. In 2021 she began an online course of study to earn her Masters of Science in General Biology to offer this opportunity. Along the way, she shared the challenges successes with her students as a real-life example of life-long learning.
She has a passion for learning that inspires her as an educator and her students and fellow teachers know that when she attends conferences, she’s going to bring back some knowledge to share with them.
Ms. Lepper believes in student-centered classrooms, where teachers become facilitators and guides, creating an environment where students explore, discover, and learn with guidance and support. She says: “The students of today are the leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators of tomorrow, so they need to be ready to face unknown challenges.”
Tonya Robinson-McNair, Hyde Grove Elementary School
Ms. Robinson- McNair is a first-grade teacher at Hyde Grove Elementary. This 24-year veteran teacher is known to write chants, songs, and raps or add an instrumental track to a chant to help her students learn basic facts and has had former students who have since graduated recite lyrics to her that they remember from being in her class in elementary school.
She loves collaborating with her peers and sharing ideas and activities with them. She takes an “anything for the kids” approach to education and recently worked with other teachers on an end of year celebration for students with inflatables financed by the teachers.
Prior to becoming a teacher, she worked as a supervisor at a girls’ halfway house. That experience pointed her in the direction of teaching and wanting to help children avoid the criminal justice system. She says: “My ultimate goal in education was to invest in the whole child regardless of differences but to show a child someone loves, cares, and believes in them and their success. I try to accomplish this daily.”
Her ”babies,” as she calls them, often return to visit her and share how she impacted them, providing her with inspiration and the confidence of knowing she’s made a difference in their lives.
Alana Davis, IDEA Bassett College Prep
Ms. Davis is a sixth-grade biology teacher at IDEA Bassett College Prep, where she teaches also serves as the lead teacher for the 6th grade and team leader for the science teachers. She also serves on the school’s Sunshine Committee and Teacher Advisory Council.
She believes every student is capable of learning and strives to impart them with a love for learning and inspire critical thinking. She fosters student success by creating a learning environment that is supportive, inclusive, engaging, and uses a variety of teaching methods.
As a student, Ms. Davis said she felt like she was just another number to her teachers and vowed she would be the teacher she wished she’d had.
Ms. Davis says she’s inspired by her students’ success and making a positive impact in their lives and the lives of her colleagues. She says: She says: “Education is a powerful tool that can change the trajectory of a person’s life. As a teacher, I have the honor of helping my students acquire knowledge and skills that will serve them well in their future endeavors.”
Mariah Rucker, KIPP Impact Academy
Ms. Rucker is an 8th grade math teacher at KIPP Impact Middle School, where she is a grade level chair and 8th grade math lead. This second-year teacher fosters collaboration among the 8th-grade math team, encouraging them to share ideas, best practices, and resources in weekly meetings.
Her impact on her students can be seen in their test scores, where last year 78 percent of her Algebra students not only passed their Algebra 1 End-of-Course (EOC) exam but did so with a strong grasp of the subject matter.
Their success is a result of Ms. Rucker creating a safe and collaborative learning environment where questions are not only welcome but actively encouraged.
She said what inspires her as an educator is knowing that she’s making a difference in the lives of the students. Says Ms. Rucker: “Teaching is a profound responsibility, as I may very well be shaping the minds of the next president, scientist, or artist. The privilege of being a part of their journey, of witnessing their growth and development, is what continues to fuel my passion for education and inspires me every day.”
Jenifer Straley, Lake Lucina Elementary
Ms. Straley is not a stranger to the tile of Teacher of the Year. This is the fourth straight year the Lake Lucerne elementary third-grade teacher has been nominated by her peers.
The former fitness instructor started the “Fit and Fun” wellness group five years ago and being a founding member of the school’s Spirit Squad. She works tirelessly to provide students and her fellow teachers with special events such as a performance by the Jacksonville Symphony, popcorn for special events, and yoga for Lake Lucerne students and families.
She monitors her students’ data to ensure they are succeeding, and last year her students had 83 % proficiency on the 3rd Grade FAST Math. Her goal is to have all students happy, hardworking, and confident in their abilities.
Ms. Straley firmly believes that we all have both a teacher and a student within ourselves and is grateful to be surrounded at Lake Lucina with so many sources of guidance and inspiration who have helped her learn how to be a better teacher.
She says: “I feel that the moment in life that we stop being open to learning from others is when we become stagnant and immobile. I learned how to be successful in the classroom by watching successful, passionate people do the work.”
Juana Zargon, Love Grove Elementary
Ms. Zargon is an exceptional student education (ESE) teacher at Lone Grove Elementary, where she has taught for two years.
Along with providing support to her fellow teachers by assisting with data tracking and creating individual education plans for students, she also serves as a mentor to new teachers.
She also serves as the yearbook teacher, Special Olympics liaison for the school, and is the lead for Unity Week, which encourages students to unite for kindness, acceptance, inclusion and to send a visible message that no child should ever experience bullying.
Ms. Zargon advances student success in the classroom by making sure instruction is appropriate and accessible and includes real life opportunities to learn. For example, they will have visitors from JEA, police departments and fire stations give the students applicable lessons that tie in with the government and social studies units.
She says: “The recipe for success in my class has three essential ingredients: patience, practice, and inclusion. Each of my students have the same potential for achievement and it is my goal to set them up for success before they graduate from 5th Grade.”
Ana Andenmatten, Mandarin Oaks Elementary
Ms. Andenmatten is a first-grade teacher at Mandarin Oaks Elementary School. She’s in her 17th year as a teacher and is inspired by the caring nature of her students. She brings special needs foster animals into the classroom and says her students accept them without judgement as they care for them and prepare them to go to a new forever family.
Knowing that not all parents can afford after-school activities, she created two, free afterschool clubs, the Lego club and an Animal Lovers Club that has since become a 4-H charter through the University of Florida. She also transformed an unused outdoor space into a garden oasis where the students get to plant, watch caterpillars change to monarch butterflies, sit with bunny rabbits under the trees lined with windchimes and feed apples to an adorable, rescued pet pig.
As the lead science teacher, she uses the garden to create hands-on learning experiences for her “little scientists.”
She also follows the data to track student success, which led to her students having a 33-point gain in reading scores last year.
Ms. Andenmatten is a big proponent of hands-on learning and exposing students, especially girls, to all the science options. She says: “My kids every year tell me that science is their favorite subject. They can't wait for science in the afternoons. That makes my heart swell with joy and satisfaction. I want other teachers to feel that excitement.”
Ashlyn Lupinski, River City Science Academy Innovation
Ms. Lupinski is a 5th grade English and Language Arts teacher at River City Science Academy Innovation and is also in charge of instruction for reading and writing. In addition, she also serves as the 5th grade team lead and the Middle School Girls Varsity Soccer Coach.
She was hired through the Rookie Rocket Mentor program and has since become a mentor to first-year teachers, providing them with guidance and support. She is also a member of the College Mentorship Program where she is paired with high-achieving middle school students to foster positive relationships.
As a result of planning intentional multisensory lessons adhering to the BEST standards, her students consistently perform above the state average. She collaborates with her coworkers to create well rounded multisensory lessons focused on improving vocabulary and fluency and over the years she has co-created novel studies and delved into the curriculum to provide students with rigorous activities to prepare them for testing.
Ms. Lupinski said the people she works with inspire her to be her best. “They inspire me to give my mind, body, and soul to my students’ academic and social growth each day through intentional lessons and positive relationship,” she says.
Tery Ann Torres, San Jose Elementary
Ms. Torres always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She played teacher as a child and always dreamed of having her own classroom. It wasn’t an easy path, however. She struggled to afford transportation to a high school program for future educators. In college, her father sold candy, milk, and bread in the neighborhood to help her pay for college.
Today, as a dual language math and science 4th grade teacher at San Jose Elementary School, she said those experiences – and being a native Spanish speaker in a predominantly English-speaking country – help her relate to her students, many of whom come from similar circumstances.
As a teacher, she feels it’s important to incorporate technology into the lessons, providing students with real-world, hands-on activities. She has used ideas such as interactive microphones for fluency in reading, flashlight reading comprehension, and games such as ‘trashketball’ and musical chairs for spiral review among others. This innovative approach helps students make connections to the real world and develop a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts.
And her approach is getting results. In the beginning of the school year last year, 90% of her students were performing below grade level. By the end of the year, proficiency increased from 10% to 62%.
She says, “I believe in the power of individualized teaching, I believe in the power of teamwork, and I believe in the power each student has over their learning.”
Gustavo Guzman, Terry Parker High School
Mr. Guzman, the son of Mexican Americans who spoke little English, gained an early appreciation for education. He said the craving and hunger to expand intellectually meant everything to him and he was fortunate to have high school teachers, mentors and role models who inspired him to pursue admission to Edward Waters College and challenge himself as a scholar.
Today he is a biology teacher at Terry Parker High School where he serves as a role model for his students, school, and community. He is the Site Director for the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project at Terry Parker High School where he gets to introduce minority students to leaders and opportunities in Jacksonville. He also makes sure to have a positive impact on students by providing positive encouragement on their growth as students. He says, “I love to empower students with positive affirmations based on character development, academic growth, and athletic accomplishments.”
As an educator, he makes an enormous effort to meet his students where they are and work diligently to develop a plan to get them to their next level. He also wants them to see him as their inspiration. “Teachers are life changers and I love knowing that being my authentic and ever-growing self has influenced the possibilities and life trajectory of many students,” he says.