Keyword for this page: Awards


The Polk County School Board has many events and programs celebrating the accomplishments and hard work of our staff, community partners and students from both the present and the past. The following recognition events are coordinated by the Department of Public Relations & Strategic Partnerships.

Hall of Fame Logo Hall of Fame

The Polk County Schools Hall of Fame was created in 1985 to recognize former students of Polk County Public Schools who have gone on to distinguish themselves in their careers or communities. Since its inception, the Hall of Fame has inducted over 100 former students. Hall of Fame members are from the arts, business, clergy, education, entertainment, government, law, military, medicine, sports or other fields.

2015 Inductees

Congratulations to Otis Birdsong, Hollis Hooks, Deric Milligan and Benjamin Stevenson!


Otis Birdsong - 2015 Hall of Fame InducteeOtis Birdsong has distinguished himself in the realm of basketball for over thirty years. At Winter Haven High School, Birdsong led the Blue Devils to the 4A State Basketball Championship in 1973 and was named the Lakeland Ledger High School Basketball Player of the Year. After high school, Birdsong had a storied career at the University of Houston. He etched his name in the record books by becoming the first sophomore in school history to register 1,000 points. As a senior, he was named a 1977 Consensus All-American after leading the Houston Cougars to the finals of the National Invitational Tournament. Birdsong was the second overall player chosen in the 1977 National Basketball Association (NBA) Draft when he was selected by the Kansas City (now Sacramento) Kings. He remained in the NBA for twelve seasons where he was selected to the NBA All-Star Team four times and scored over 14,000 career points with the Kings, New Jersey Nets and Boston Celtics. Since retirement, Birdsong has served as the director of events for Personalities & Promotions International, general manager of the Arkansas RimRockers of the NBA Developmental League, president/general manager of the Continental Basketball Association Oklahoma Calvary and was a member of the board for the National Basketball Retired Players Association. Birdsong was inducted into the University of Houston Hall of Honor, the Polk County Hall of Fame and the Florida High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame. He is a graduate of Winter Haven High School.

Hollis H. Hooks - 2015 Hall of Fame InducteeHollis Hooks  is a native of Polk County and lifelong advocate for public education. Hooks earned a degree in political science from Mercer University. Following graduation, he spent two years in Washington, D.C. as an aide to Senator Lawton Chiles before returning to his hometown of Lakeland. In 1980, Hooks joined Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. and is currently senior vice president in what has evolved over the years into Morgan Stanley. His interest in public education began when his children were in elementary school. He joined the Cleveland Court Elementary Parent Teacher Organization which then led to his serving as president of the Southwest Area Advisory Committee. In 1992, Hooks was elected to the Polk County School Board. During his term, he helped draft the district’s first strategic plan and assisted in driving an initiative to create an enhanced magnet school system to address the federal court desegregation order. Following his years on the school board, Hooks continued his interest in education, serving as a board member for the Polk Education Foundation in an effort to help raise awareness and additional private sector funding for the school system. Over the years, Hooks has remained active in the community serving on numerous boards including Lakeland Regional Medical Center Foundation, Good Shepherd Hospice, Florida Southern College Board of Overseers, Polk Museum of Art, Lakeland South Rotary and Leadership Lakeland Alumni Association. He is a graduate of Lakeland High School.

Deric Milligan - 2015 Hall of Fame InducteeDeric Milligan is the co-founder and executive director of Inheritance of Hope, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring hope in young families facing the loss of a parent. After earning a Bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan, Milligan began his career as a trumpeter in the West Point Band at the U.S. Military Academy. As a professional musician, he performed with the Boston Pops, appeared at Carnegie Hall, marched in two presidential inaugural parades and was featured on 60 Minutes, The Today Show and Fox News. In 2003, Milligan’s work took an unanticipated twist when his wife, Kristen, was diagnosed with a rare terminal liver cancer when their children were just 4, 2 and 7-months old. He and his wife quickly realized the incredible need to serve families like their own. Sadly, Kristen lost her battle with cancer in 2012, but not before Inheritance of Hope was created – providing a lifeline for families with children who face the hopelessness of a parent’s imminent death. Since its inception, Inheritance of Hope has been recognized as a “Top 10 Children’s Charity in North America” and has been named “Top-Rated” by each year since 2011. In 2015, Milligan was named an Ellis Island Medal of Honor recipient. He is a graduate of Lakeland High School.

Benjamin Stevenson - 2015 Hall of Fame InducteeBenjamin Stevenson  is currently the executive director of the Lakeland Housing Authority and has over 26 years of experience in land use, transportation and urban planning. In 1993, he became the first Black male urban planning supervisor in the history of the City of Tampa. During his tenure with the City of Tampa, Stevenson developed many notable programs and received many awards. His micro-loan program, created to serve small and minority businesses, was voted the best micro-loan project in the country by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and awarded their Blue Ribbon award for economic opportunity. One of Stevenson’s most noteworthy achievements came during the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort in New Orleans. He was directly responsible for supervising the $500 million community redevelopment effort at the St. Bernard public housing community, now known as Columbia Parc of the Bayou District. It was voted the best affordable housing project in the country, received several national awards and was even visited by President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and philanthropist Warren Buffett. Stevenson attended the University of Florida, earning an Associate of Arts degree in Architecture, a Bachelors of Arts degree in Criminal Justice and a Masters of Arts degree in Political Science. He is a graduate of Mulberry High School.


Complete list of inductees »

The 2015 Hall of Fame sponsors are: AT&T, Polk Education Foundation and Publix Super Markets Charities.Enduring Freedom. He is a graduate of Winter Haven High.

Polk County Teacher and School-Related Employee of the Year Awards Program

Congratulations to Adam J. Smith of Frank E. Brigham Academy and Jason Leatherwood of Horizons Elementary, 2015 Polk County Teacher and School-Related Employee of the Year.

2015 Teacher of the Year and School-Related Employee of the Year Sponsors

Platinum Sponsors:

  • Ledger Media Group
  • MIDFLORIDA Credit Union
  • Regal Automotive

Gold Sponsors:

  • Achieve3000
  • Boswell & Dunlap LLP
  • Bright House Networks
  • Florida Blue
  • The Mosaic Company
  • Pearson
  • Publix Super Markets Charities
  • Southeastern University
  • TECO
  •  WellDyneRX

Silver Sponsor:


Bronze Sponsors:

  • Agile Mind
  • Annett Bus Lines
  • Ben Hill Griffin Inc.
  • Citizens Bank & Trust
  • Duke Energy
  • Grand Canyon University
  • Horace Mann Insurance
  • Huntington Learning Center
  • Lakeland Electric
  • Polk Education Association
  • Polk State College
  • SunTrust Foundation
  • Warner University

    banner recognizing Regal Automotive Group as car sponsor

Click here for more information on this year's Polk County Teacher of the Year and School-Related Employee of the Year.

About Face Awards

The About Face Award recognizes secondary students who have made a significant turn around in their behavior, academic achievement and attendance in school. One student from each middle and high school in the district receive the award annually at the Awards Program. Students are nominated by their school and receive a medallion for their success.

This event is made possible through the sponsorship of TECO Energy.

To view a list of this year's About Face winners click here.

For more information, contact the Department of Public Relations & Strategic Partnerships

Master Key Awards

2014 Master Key Recipients

The Master Key Award winners were recently recognized during a Polk County School Board meeting.

The Master Key Award winners were recently recognized during a Polk County School Board meeting.
From left to right: Cindy Price (Community Affairs Manager at TECO Energy), Karina Zellner (Wendall Watson Elementary), Marie Robertson (James E. Stephens Elementary), Laura Blanchette (Southwest Middle), Derek Hall (Elbert Elementary) and Lori Cunningham (Polk County School Board, District 2) are pictured above.   

Derek Hall
Derek Hall, an educator at Elbert Elementary is a dedicated and highly effective teacher of students with special needs. He assists 3rd, 4th and 5th grade General Education Teachers with students who need help meeting grade level requirements in reading, mathematics and writing. When Elbert Elementary Principal William Dawson speaks of Mr. Hall he says, “He can relate to students and empathize with their struggles. Mr. Hall provides a warm trusting environment for students and defuses problems in a non-confrontational way when needed. He always completes his IEP’s [Individualized Education Program] and as Grade Chair he helps other teachers in need. Most importantly students show remarkable learning gains in academics with Mr. Hall. He truly cares about his students.”

Laura Blanchette
Laura Blanchette, an ESE teacher at Southwest Middle, has worked in education for more than two decades. Her experience and mastery of her subject area, effective instructional strategies, and ESE policies and procedures clearly shine through each day. But it is her knowledge of her students and the ability to relate to them that makes her an exceptional educator. As Southwest Middle Principal John Wilson points out, “The quality though, that makes Mrs. Blanchette stand out as a teacher, is her ability to connect with and get the best out of students of all levels, backgrounds and abilities. As I visit her classroom through the year, I routinely see some of the most challenging students one might find anywhere at their desks and engaged in work. Mrs. Blanchette moves around the room from desk to desk working individually with students and continuously offering up words of encouragement and praise. The students seem to intuitively know that she is genuinely there for them. It is a quality I would like to be able to bottle and sell.”

Marie Robertson
Marie Robertson, a varying exceptionalities teacher, at James E. Stephens Elementary works closely with general education teachers in order to help students with disabilities master the curriculum. She takes initiative to make sure she is fully prepared to bring out the best in her students. She is resourceful and actively engaged as she works towards making things happen. Her strengths also include her ability to develop strong relationships with parents that result in creating successful students. James E. Stephens Elementary Principal Chandra Hall says, “[Marie] is proactive and thinks outside the box by coming up with plans to fit the needs of her students. She works with the general education teachers to implement the curriculum to diverse learners. She works above and beyond her case load by helping other students who are struggling. Marie works well with the parents of her students. She helps them understand their child’s strengths and weaknesses and how to work with them at home.”

Karina Zellner
Karina Zellner, a varying exceptionalities teacher, at Wendell Watson Elementary provides services to students with disabilities during General Education classes. She works closely with her students’ teachers to reinforce skills being taught in the classroom, making sure students receive quality and high level support to gain skills and achieve standards. She also assists other teachers with special challenges and needs, by coordinating school and district staff, coordinating parents’ efforts and collecting and analyzing data that will help students reach academic goals. But it’s her tireless dedication to what she does, that makes her stand out from her peers. Wendell Watson Principal Kathy Riley says, “As a teacher in the inclusion classroom, [Karina] works above and beyond with her assigned students and those students in need of additional help. Students love to work with Mrs. Zellner…. [She] is an invaluable resource to Wendell Watson Elementary, offering her knowledge and skills readily. Her knowledge base and management skills help to ensure the success of students with disabilities at Wendell Watson Elementary. Her compassion for students and dedication to the profession most certainly validate her as a recipient.”

The extraordinary efforts that teachers of exceptional students make to help them achieve their maximum potential. They award the Master Key award to four exceptional education teachers who have demonstrated excellence, perseverance and longevity in their careers.

These awards are made possible through the sponsorship of TECO Energy.

For more information, contact the Department of Public Relations & Strategic Partnerships


2015 Outstanding School Volunteer of the Year Awards Program

2015 Inductees

Kristie Sudduth - Outstanding Youth Volunteer of the YearOutstanding Youth Volunteer of the Year
Elementary level 
Kristie Sudduth
Wahneta Elementary

Kristie Sudduth has volunteered for several years at Wahneta Elementary. She readily takes on any task, and never wants anything in return. She has helped stock the food pantry, put away library books, served as decorator and DJ at the fall dance, made popcorn for movie-night fundraisers, swept the cafeteria following events, and continues to look for other ways to help. What is most remarkable is that she does all of this without anyone asking.

Keith Rowland - Adult Volunteer of the YearOutstanding Adult Volunteer of the Year 
Elementary level
Keith Rowland
Combee Elementary

Keith Rowland can be seen most days and many weekends volunteering at Combee Elementary. This former firefighter dedicates his time to helping children. He has served as a mentor to third graders and a chaperone on kindergarten field trips. He lends a hand with everything from planting plants and changing the marquee to unpacking and shelving books in the media center after renovations were complete so students could quickly return to checking out books. When he discovered kindergarteners and first graders weren’t tall enough to reach the classroom smartboards for interactive lessons, Mr. Rowland recycled old library shelves into platforms for the students to stand on.

Edward Norwood - Senior Volunteer of the YearOutstanding Senior Volunteer of the Year 
Elementary level
Edward Norwood
Highlands Grove Elementary

Edward Norwood is lovingly known as “Gramps” at Highlands Grove Elementary where he is also well known for his work ethic, positive attitude and huge heart. Mr. Norwood has spent the last four years volunteering at the school. In the mornings, he conducts “reading classes” with students, listening to them read aloud and working with them to improve their literacy skills. He also spends time fulfilling any tasks teachers or staff members might need: making copies, filling agendas, taking down bulletin boards, sharpening pencils, shelving books in the media center or even helping students find just the right book to read.


Jacqueline Gonzalez-Vega - Youth Volunteer of the YearOutstanding Youth Volunteer of the Year 
Secondary level 
Jacqueline Gonzalez-Vega
Mulberry Middle

With a warm genuine smile and innate sense of empathy, Jacqueline Gonzalez-Vega diligently volunteers at Mulberry Middle. She can often be heard engaging in encouraging conversations in both Spanish and English with students and their families. She has assisted with the Migrant Education program as well as other school events and projects. Every week, she helps prepare more than 90 backpacks filled with donated food for families and also delivers these packs along with clothing and other items. She helps students in the after school tutoring program every Tuesday and Thursday.

William Alexander - Adult Volunteer of the YearOutstanding Adult Volunteer of the Year 
Secondary level
William Alexander
Jewett Middle Academy Magnet

William Alexander makes an impression on students at Jewett Middle Academy Magnet with his mild manner and emphasis on obtaining a good education. He is always on call to assist staff members and students with anything needed from helping in the cafeteria to selling tickets for sporting events. He is particularly adept at mentoring students and attends parent conferences with these students when requested. He “adopted” a cafeteria table filled with eight students who didn’t mind earning C grades on their report cards. Mr. Alexander met twice a week with the students to discuss strategies to improve their grades and offered them encouragement. They have since made the honor roll and continue to have a connection with their mentor.

Karen Smith - Senior Volunteer of the YearOutstanding Senior Volunteer of the Year
Secondary level
Karen Smith
Winter Haven High

Karen Smith has spent 10 consecutive years volunteering at Winter Haven High. Students know her as “Miss Karen.” Her quilting talents and knowledge have been a valuable asset, and help students learn new techniques and improve upon their skills. One student developed a senior project to create 132 quilts with the help of community volunteers for an orphanage in Bogota, Columbia. This project was made possible through the mentoring and love of quilting that Miss Karen shared with the student.

The Outstanding Volunteer of the Year Awards Program is sponsored by The Ledger and MIDFLORIDA Credit Union..

For more information, contact the Department of Public Relations & Strategic Partnerships