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Mission Possible: A Day of Celebration for Polk's Teachers and Staff

October 16, 2017

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Polk County Public Schools staged its first-ever districtwide Day of Celebration on Monday to honor the work of more than 9,000 teachers and school-related employees.

“We made history today. Never before have we brought this many Polk County Public Schools employees together at the same time, at the same location,” said Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd. “What made today’s event even more special was that we did it to celebrate the impact our employees make in our schools and our community. Today was a very proud day for Polk County Public Schools.”

The two-hour event at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland included a keynote address by Donna Porter, a teacher, and DJ Batiste, a former gang member inspired by his time as Porter’s student. As they have at events across the nation, Porter and Batiste spoke about the transformational difference educators can make in their students’ lives.

The program also included remarks by Byrd, who recognized several hundred custodial, food service and maintenance personnel who worked during the preparation for and recovery from Hurricane Irma. More than a dozen Polk County Public Schools locations were activated as shelters from the storm.

“As we stood by, wondering when our schools would reopen from the damage, it was this group of people who left the damage at their own homes to make sure our facilities were properly functioning again,” Byrd said from the podium at centerfield.

“Irma left us anxious and weary, but somehow this core group of individuals found the strength to serve. Without your quick response and dedication, the reopening of the schools probably would have occurred much later,” Byrd said.

Byrd also led the attendees in recognizing schools that raised their letter grades during the 2016-17 school year.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, an alumnus of Polk County Public Schools, joined Byrd on stage. He thanked teachers and school-related employees for being valued partners in keeping Polk County safe, and creating a better quality of life for residents.

Dr. Ruth Reimer, principal of Scott Lake Elementary, represented the Association of School Based Administrators and delivered the mission of the “Mission: Possible”-themed event.

“Over the summer, my fellow principals and I got together and said, ‘You know what would be great? An event where we bring everyone together to celebrate education and the impact we make in students’ lives. Now look where we are,” Reimer said.

“Removing barriers to education. Equipping our children to succeed. Instilling in them the belief that they truly can do anything they put their minds to. And supporting them, guiding them, and putting their dreams within reach. That is our mission,” Reimer said.

Rounding out the slate of speakers were MacDill Air Force Base Staff Sgt. Vernon Fowler, who spoke on the importance of teamwork in accomplishing missions of all kinds; Suncoast Credit Union CEO Kevin Johnson, and RP Funding President Robert Palmer. Suncoast and RP Funding were among the numerous sponsors who made the event possible. Other sponsors included Aramark, Association of School Based Administrators, Bank of Central Florida, City of Lakeland, Fifth Third Bank, Florida Teachers, Gessler Clinic, Kelly Services, Legoland Florida Resort, Leonard’s Photography, MIDFLORIDA Credit Union, Ox Construction, Polk State College, Rodda Construction, United Way of Central Florida and US Foods.

Also contributing to the day were the Kathleen High School marching band, which performed prior to the start of the program; Winter Haven VFW Post 4289, which provided the presentation of colors; and the Polk County Public Schools Teachers Chorus, which performed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” United Way President Alan Turner and Jeanette Crowley, senior coordinator of strategic partnerships for the school district, spoke about United Way’s current campaign. Elbert Elementary teacher Robert Clark served as emcee.

As intended, the event left attendees inspired and with a deeper sense of unity.

“This is going to change the lives of our students because it’s going to change the hearts of our students,” said Gina-Lou McKinney, who teaches at Crystal Lake Middle.

“The story was really inspiring. It helps you reconnect with why we’re doing what we’re doing. I feel like it will help me refocus when dealing with those difficult students,” said Amy Powell, an art teacher at Brigham Academy.

Groundskeeper Abner Alicea said even after the excitement of the event fades, the impact it had for employees will endure.

“It’s broken the routine of our culture -- how everyone has come together today, that’s never been seen,” Alicea said. “The teachers and staff need to be united as one. This is a first step toward creating that culture.”