Inspiring the Next Generation: 2021-22 Team Members of the Year
It takes a village. Especially when you’re serving thousands of students across Florida, and the country, virtually and amid a global pandemic. But every day, our exceptional teachers and support staff commit to putting students first and inspiring them to believe the sky’s the limit. That is why we are thrilled to recognize and honor their accomplishments with our annual awards.
Read on to see how this year’s honorees are revolutionizing online learning, making a difference, and inspiring the next generation of learners.
2023 Teacher of the Year: Mrs. Jessica Strong
As the first person in her family to graduate from high school, Mrs. Strong never imagined she would become an educator. When she enrolled in community college a few years later—armed with a little financial aid, a big book of degree options, and an even bigger desire to better understand the changing world around her—they turned to be just the tools she needed to map her path to becoming an education professional.
As a 6th grade English Language Arts (ELA) teacher at FLVS, Mrs. Strong has found inspiration in her students and helped them grow in more ways than one. Since joining the FLVS Full Time Middle School team, 6th grade ELA students have increased their average passage rate on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) by more than 10% and had the highest FSA ELA scores in the entire state of Florida during the 2020-21 school year.
And even with that student success, she sees her greatest accomplishment as watching her students’ faces light up when they shared their favorite memory of the school year: seeing a poetry assignment transform into an actual book, Megabyte Poetry: A Collection of Keystrokes. This project can even be found in the Library of Congress! Ms. Strong surprised her students by designing, editing, and secretly publishing it herself (with parent permission).
“Though the large-scale impact of an educator is incredibly important, I find the most inspiration in the little things,” says Mrs. Strong. “When a child has an ‘ah-ha!’ moment while learning a challenging concept, when a former student reaches out to request a ‘free compliment’ (an offer I extend to all my students), when someone believes in themself a little more than they did yesterday, those are moments that fill my soul with inspiration and gratitude for this path I’ve found in life.”
2022 Support Person of the Year: Neida Ortiz
“Try walking a mile in their shoes,” is a simple way to visualize and teach empathy. But for Curriculum Development, Quality Assurance Specialist, Ms. Neida Ortiz, it’s how she’s helped revolutionize accessibility in World Language courses at FLVS.
After discovering gaps within the speech-to-text software throughout the courses that could lead to incorrect pronunciations of the language content—she researched, developed, a implemented a solution within a year, called “language tags.” These updates provided a solution that not only helps users with visual impairments but also all students who may use text-to-speech software.
In addition to her role in Quality Assurance, Ms. Ortiz is also an active member of the FLVS Bias and Sensitivity Committee.
“I enjoy stepping into the shoes of all our end-users, whether it be a student, a parent, a teacher, or a potential client,” shared Ms. Ortiz. “I am in a special role at FLVS because I get to see the courses behind the scenes while they are in development. I get to be the voice, eyes, and ears for our end-users and contribute ideas to improve the user experience – with a special eye on accessibility.”
Despite her invaluable impact in her nearly 5 years at FLVS, Ms. Ortiz is hopeful that she’s just getting started.
“I’m just excited to see how technology advances and changes how we develop and implement our online courses,” she said. “I hope to be here when we launch holograms or virtual reality lessons! Wouldn’t that be awesome?”
2022 Principal of the Year: Lisa Berry
For Ms. Lisa Berry, Flex Elementary principal, FLVS is a place where teachers and students are distanced—but truly connected. It’s a place that lights the path to success. And where everyone has a chance to Grow and Glow—where “Glow” refers to where we are excelling and celebrating accomplishments, while “Grow “connects to professional development, growth mindset, and continued learning for all.
Throughout her 10 years at FLVS, Ms. Berry has seamlessly led her team in helping students find their pathways to success by developing virtual connections with students and families from across the state. From implementing online literacy and math centers to launching monthly parent nights for various topics related to student success, Ms. Berry has consistently gone above and beyond to both engage parents and get students excited about the online learning experience.
And it’s an effort that has paid off. Despite the challenges of a global pandemic, more than 90% of students enrolled in courses longer than two weeks in the FLVS Flex elementary program went on to successfully complete their courses. A success rate that families felt — with 97.9% of families satisfied with their teachers and 90.7% of families strongly agreeing that FLVS is the best learning experience they’ve had.
After reflecting on the past year, Ms. Berry had this to share: “Honestly, I just love the compassion that I see from our teachers and the way that radiates out to their students and families. Even when they don’t get to see students, they don’t get to give them the same hugs as they did in the hallway in their school. But to see the smiles on a kid’s face when you log in, and you see how happy they are to be learning even online and how they’re thriving and doing so well. It’s been amazing.”
Assistant Principal of the Year: Sheri Sico
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and school closures began, enrollment numbers in FLVS Full Time Elementary enrollment rose from 1,000 to more than 5,000 seemingly overnight for the 2020-21 school year. With an unwavering commitment to keeping students first—Ms. Sico worked tirelessly to vet, interview, and onboard more than 100 new instructors in a little more than six weeks.
But her work didn’t stop there. Ms. Sico built a rapport with all her instructors, meeting with each of them individually throughout the year to understand how best to support them.
Leading during a year with a 400% increase in student enrollments was not a small feat, but for Ms. Sico, building relationships is her favorite part of the job. She shared, “The conversations that you have with teachers and with families, you really start to get very close. And being in the virtual world kind of allows you to step into their homes, into their lives. So, you really get to learn about siblings or children, and it’s just, it’s really special.”
The Florida Department of Education celebrates thousands of outstanding professional educators and support personnel in Florida and the contributions they make to schools and districts. Learn more about the Teacher of Year program and related initiatives through the Florida Department of Education.