Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF) is excited to welcome four new staff members to our team. Each new member joins JPEF with an extensive background in education and unique experiences in the classroom and beyond. We invite you to learn more about Zak and how he developed his passion for ensuring excellent education opportunities exist for all students in Duval County.
Tell us a bit about your story. How did you come to be involved in this work?
I was born and raised in Jacksonville. After high school, I worked as a youth counselor at the Naval Air Station Jacksonville. During this time, I was working in a before and after school program with students in grades K-5. I loved the work and found myself longing to work with young students as a my career. Simultaneously, I began my bachelor’s degree work in Elementary Education at the University of North Florida (UNF). In 1999, I graduated from UNF excited to begin my career as an elementary school teacher.
I began my career as an elementary educator teaching at West Jacksonville Elementary School. I was fortunate during my 10 years at West Jacksonville to work for Dr. Sylvia Johnson. As our principal, Dr. Johnson expertly led the faculty, staff and students to make great changes in that school and community. During my tenure there, I was also given the opportunity to work as a professional development facilitator with teachers across the district and state.
After my time at West Jacksonville, I transferred to Mandarin Oaks Elementary. I spent three years at Mandarin Oaks working for Patti Carson, continuing to work with teachers as I expanded my reach to teachers across the country. It was at this time that the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (FCR-STEM) at Florida State University contacted me about joining their team as an Assistant in Research. I graciously accepted this offer, and I was able to remain in Jacksonville working remotely for the six years I spent at FCR-STEM. During my time at FCR-STEM, I was fortunate to work on a number of projects including the development of the Mathematics Formative Assessment System (MFAS) and a large scale randomized controlled trial research study of a mathematics professional development program.
During this time, I continued my education and enrolled in a graduate program at UNF. I graduated with a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education in 2006 and served as an adjunct professor in mathematics and science education at UNF for four years.
I also made a deliberate effort to become active with local, state and national education organizations. I was a founding member and President of the Duval Elementary Mathematics Council (DEMC). DEMC is still active today as a local organization that represents elementary mathematics educators in Duval County. I also served as the President of the Florida Mathematics Presidential Awardees Association (FMPAA), the President of the Florida Council of Teachers of Mathematics (FCTM), and as a panel member on the Editorial Board of Teaching Children Mathematics (an elementary mathematics journal published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics). I have also been fortunate to work with thousands of teachers across the country as a professional development facilitator and keynote speaker at local, state, and national conferences.
Through these experiences, I’ve learned that you have to love this work. You have to love it with every fiber of your being. The work can be insanely challenging and many times it feels like your work can go unnoticed. So, I found that reminding myself daily that I’m doing this work because I love it was helpful in continuing to make strides forward.
I’ve also learned to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. If you would have asked me 15 years ago where I would be professionally, I would have never dreamed that I would have had the opportunity to work as a mathematics education researcher at FCR-STEM or would be the Director of Advocacy and Program here at the Jacksonville Public Education Fund. I feel so blessed to have to have these experiences, and I attribute much of this to taking advantage of opportunities that were presented to me throughout my early career.
Who is the teacher, school leader or community member that inspired or helped you to reach this moment in your professional life?
There is no doubt that Marita Eng (1973 Duval County and Florida Teacher of the Year) had the biggest influence on my professional career. When I met Marita, she was working for the district as the mathematics supervisor, and I was in my first year of teaching. Marita encouraged me to work with her in leading a series of two-week mathematics professional development experiences for teachers across the district.
During the planning and implementation of those workshops, Marita reinvigorated my love for mathematics and mathematics education. She also encouraged me to be active in my local and state professional organizations and consistently challenged my understandings of both pedagogical and mathematical concepts. In 2005, Marita nominated me for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the Nation’s highest honor for a math or science educator. She mentored me through the application process, and I was awarded the Presidential Award in 2006. This launched my career in mathematics education and fueled my desire to elevate and empower other great teachers.
What makes you particularly excited to join JPEF at this moment in the life of the organization?
I have been lucky to work as a volunteer and ex-officio Board member for JPEF over the past seven years. I’ve admired the great work they have have during this time. However, as JPEF transitions to a new strategic plan with a concerted effort on attracting and retaining great teachers here in Duval County, coupled with a new superintendent search, it is an especially thrilling time to be a part of the organization. I’m so excited to be working with such an incredible team of community members that are working to improve teaching and learning in Jacksonville.
As the new EDDY coordinator, I have the distinct honor to work with and learn from the 170+ school-based teachers of the year. I am optimistic that we are going to transform the EDDY awards experience into to an ongoing event that not only celebrates the accomplishments of these incredible educators, but also serves as a community building experience that empowers and elevates each and every school-based teacher of the year. These teachers represent the very best in Duval County, and we are excited to explore ways to leverage their knowledge and expertise in transforming the teaching and learning of all of our teachers here in Jacksonville.
Jacksonville Public Education Fund believes in the power and potential of great people to drive positive change. To learn more about our team, visit our staff directory.