Teacher and School-Related Employee of the Year
Jessica Solano, a third grade teacher at Highlands Grove Elementary, and Maria Gomez, an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) paraprofessional at Bartow Senior High, took home the top prize during Polk County Public Schools’ 2016 Teacher of the Year, and School-Related Employee of the Year event.

The ceremony was held at The Lakeland Center. The winners, along with 12 finalists, received cash awards and other prizes from event sponsors.

Solano and Gomez were chosen from over 200 candidates who were nominated by individual schools throughout the Polk County School District. Judges included community members from local organizations and businesses, as well as past winners and finalists. Judges reviewed the applications without knowledge of applicant names or schools. Judging criteria included leadership and professional development activities, community and school involvement, and teaching style.

2016 Teacher and School-Related Employee of the Year GalleryBoth winners will move on to compete for the state Teacher of the Year and School-Related Employee of the Year titles.

Since the Teacher of the Year program began in 1968, Polk is proud to have twelve teachers become finalists for Florida's Teacher of the Year. Three of them won the title and one became a U.S. finalist.

Previous Teacher of the Year Award Winners »

Previous School-Related Employee of the Year Award Winners »

2016 Winners

Jessica Solano - 2016 Teacher of the YearJessica Solano – 2016 Polk County Teacher of the Year and 2017 Florida Teacher of the Year:

Jessica Solano believes in challenging her students and herself by embracing change and stepping out of her comfort zone. A third grade teacher with seven years of experience, Solano also works as the technology integration coach at Highlands Grove. She frequently incorporates new tools in her classroom to enhance her students’ learning. Solano has a contagious enthusiasm and truly believes in every student she teaches. Outside of her classroom at Highlands Grove, she works as a volunteer teacher at a youth ranch for foster children. Through this experience, Solano says she has “learned how rewarding it is to see students who had previously given up on the chance of being considered ‘smart’ put together what life skills they did have, with their newfound self-esteem, and replace impossibility with success.”

Learn More about Jessica Solano »


Maria Gomez - 2016 School-Related Employee of the YearMaria Gomez – 2016 Polk County School-Related Employee of the Year:

Maria Gomez, an ESOL Paraeducator with 12 years of experience, always goes the extra mile to help students achieve success. Whether she is spending extra time working one-on-one with a student, translating for Spanish-speaking parents or baking birthday cakes for the staff, Gomez’s dedication to Bartow High’s students and staff is evident in everything she does. One of her students recalled a special experience they had: “Mrs. Gomez was so helpful from the first time I came to the school for a tour. She asked what I wanted to do in school – I wanted to be in band even though I don’t know English. She helped me get into the band class, it made me so happy. My English is still small but I feel a part of the school because of Mrs. Gomez.”


2016 Finalists

Teacher of the Year Finalists:

  • Janice Katz, Davenport School of the Arts, Kindergarten Teacher
  • Kris Newman-Lake, Spessard L. Holland Elementary, Exceptional Student Education (ESE) Teacher
  • Belinda Ressel, Brigham Academy, Music Teacher
  • Shannon Dodd Moats, Dr. N. E. Roberts Elementary, ESE Teacher
  • Kimberly Gunter, Snively Elementary, Fourth Grade Teacher
  • Mindy Baine, Lake Gibson High, Education Academy Teacher

School-Related Employee of the Year Finalists:

  • Ivan Cubela, Lakeland High, Daytime Custodian
  • Fernando De León, Haines City High, Grounds Custodian
  • Debra Comparato, Winter Haven High, Secretary
  • Kimberly Green, Lincoln Avenue Academy, Network Manager
  • Sharon Camden, Spook Hill Elementary, Physical Education Teacher
  • Sherry Murray, Doris Sanders Learning Center, Paraeducator

2016 Honorees

Teachers of the Year are listed first followed by School-Related Employees of the Year


Alturas Elementary: Ethel Houser Johnson; Senia Winn


Auburndale Central Elementary: Kasie Sparr; Juana Tavira
Auburndale High: Kimberly Shaske; Amy L. Perkins
Clarence Boswell Elementary: Francis Aline Clement; Kim Hobbs
East Area Adult: Madeline O. Lopez-Ortiz; Ekisha Clark Smith
Jere L. Stambaugh Middle: Lindsey Merck; Scott M. Bennett
Lena Vista Elementary: Jane Jergensen; Shirley Dailey
Walter Caldwell Elementary: Elizabeth Malone; Bonnie K. Horne


Bartow Elementary Academy: Gretchen Emery; Evelyn Greear
Bartow High/IB/Summerlin Academy: Laura Webster; Maria Gomez
Bartow Middle: Dyrren Devonne Barber; Bjorn Jiskoot Jr.
Floral Avenue Elementary: Jessica Rothbard; Diana Tinker
Gause Academy of Leadership: Brenda Lashman; Vollie Frasher
Gibbons Street Elementary: Patricia Thomas; Bobbie Jo Crippen
James E. Stephens Elementary: Kimberly Pollan; Agnes Outlaw
Jean O’Dell Learning Center: Jennifer Albright; Dennis Mills
Spessard L. Holland Elementary: Kris Newman-Lake; D. Wayne Lovell
Union Academy: Heather Landreth; Pamela Irving


Davenport School of the Arts: Janice Katz; Peggy Carter
Horizons Elementary: Sandee Buckley; Johany Rodriguez
Loughman Oaks Elementary: Milagros J. Sisco; Celsa Pieri
Ridge Community High: Nick Sityar; Josephine Bragg


Donald E. Woods Opportunity Center: Minnette Wright Smith; Wilma Archer
Dundee Elementary Academy: Jessica Gavin; Rebel Slone
Dundee Ridge Middle Academy: Alexandra Lee; Almeda Henderson

Eagle Lake

Eagle Lake Elementary: Shelley Buckley Rivers; Teresa Hedge
Lake Region High: Sergeant Major Doyle Braddy; Kimberly Braddy
Pinewood Elementary: Nora Dees; Namita Jaitly

Fort Meade

Fort Meade Middle-Senior High: Aura Elisa Coca; Lee Prosser
Lewis Anna Woodbury Elementary: Louria Ann Macon; Pamela Office
Lewis Elementary: Dawn Beynon; Anita Bigsby


Ben Hill Griffin Jr. Elementary: Robert Babington; Donna Hutto
Frostproof Elementary: Erin Bieling; Melissa Mathews
Frostproof Middle-Senior High: Blanca Montalvo; Linda Casey

Haines City

Alta Vista Elementary: Tova Rivera; Magaly L. Arnold
Bethune Academy: Janet Lee Lachapelle; Sharon D. Wooten
Daniel Jenkins Academy of Technology: Danielle Babers; Matel Malpartida
Eastside Elementary: Robyn Williams; Louella Bass
Haines City High/IB: Sabra Hatley; Fernando De Leon
Sandhill Elementary: Michele L.G. Hunter; Debbie Webb
Shelley S. Boone Middle: Eli M. Keverenge; Stacey Putney

Highland City

Highland City Elementary: Jennifer Horvatin; Suzanne Mazzucco

Lake Alfred

Karen M. Siegel Academy: Lori LeBlanc; Ann Eaton
Lake Alfred Elementary: Randi R. Honer; Brandyn Pringle
Lake Alfred-Addair Middle: James Bowman; Yamilette Cosme

Lake Wales

McLaughlin Middle & Fine Arts Academy: Johnnie Kirkland Jr.; Kimberly S. Wurth
Roosevelt Academy: Sharanta Harrington; Marilyn Graham
Spook Hill Elementary: Lydia Roberts; Sharon Camden


Bill Duncan Opportunity Center: Edwin Charles Brooks Sr.; Juanita Daughtry
Carlton Palmore Elementary: Jessica Maslyn; Michael Lowe
Cleveland Court Elementary: Ken Groff; Debbie Greenhow
Combee Elementary: Amanda Williams; Victor Franco
Crystal Lake Elementary: Michelle Hunt; Debbie Green
Crystal Lake Middle: Melea Jennings; Teresa Canterbury
Dixieland Elementary: Mandi White; Nancy Walls
Doris A. Sanders Learning Center: Robert Sullivan; Sherry L. Murray
Dr. N.E. Roberts Elementary: Shannon Dodd Moats; Brandy Victor
Edgar L. Padgett Elementary: Brandon Hayes; Alveza Garcia
George W. Jenkins High: Ned Murphy; Emily Higgins
Griffin Elementary: Cheryl Revolinski; Michele Bramble
Highlands Grove Elementary: Jessica Solano; Jill Thompson
James W. Sikes Elementary: Meggan Durre Burgess; Maria I. Portal Chirino
Jesse Keen Elementary: Cleo Johnson; Cora Rankins
Kathleen Elementary: Nicole Fortner; Judy Thirion
Kathleen High: Andrew Gash; Jeri McKinney
Kathleen Middle: Jennifer Kathryn Billups; Diana Oxford
Lake Gibson High: Mindy Baine; Grace Bushall
Lake Gibson Middle: David Sihombing; Cassie Meldau
Lakeland High: Tracy Chaves; Ivan Cubela
Lakeland Highlands Middle: Brenda Logan Wise; Cheryl Wiggins
Lawton Chiles Middle Academy: Debra Graham Garcia; Jessica Rogers
Lincoln Avenue Academy: Ina Cameron; Kimberly Green
Lois Cowles Harrison School for the Visual and Performing Arts: Shelley Bourgeois; Carlos Lumpuy
Maynard A. Traviss Career Center: Brenton Wildes; Karen Skinner
Medulla Elementary: Carissa Lloyd Cabello; Linda Richardson
North Lakeland Elementary: Venecia Arias; Tammy Slocum
Oscar J. Pope Elementary: Nicole Windle; Taina I. Corcelles
Philip O’Brien Elementary: Carolyn Ouhri; Mayra Nidia Ramos Carpio
Polk Virtual: Robin Knitt
R. Bruce Wagner Elementary: Aimee Stine; George E. "Sonny" Trask III
R. Clem Churchwell Elementary: Kathy McClellan; Sharon Roberts
Rochelle School of the Arts: Joel Rodriguez; Taurean Javon "T.J." Starks
Rosabelle W. Blake Academy: Antje Wetherington; Priscilla M. Walters
Scott Lake Elementary: Karla Garcia; Katia Perez
Sleepy Hill Elementary: Nelly Ocasio; Ismael Jimenez
Sleepy Hill Middle: Maegen Wren; Stacy Meyers
Socrum Elementary: Brenda Coult-Bailey; Penny Alderman
Southwest Elementary: Ashley Smith; Elizabeth Tackett
Southwest Middle: Xochil Aguilar; Andrea Rhoden
Tenoroc High: Yadira Camacho; Charlotte Bailey
Valleyview Elementary: Sylvia Guess; Nikki Blevins
Wendell Watson Elementary: Ashley Wightman; Nancy Adkins
West Area Adult: Brenda Lee Turner; Andrea Styer
Winston Academy of Engineering: Amanda Leggate; Maria Negron


Kingsford Elementary: Denise Decker; Wanda Daniels
Mulberry High: Jose R. Rivera, CDR, USN (Ret.); Glenda Sherrod
Mulberry Middle: Scott P. Sula; Karina Zarzoza
Purcell Elementary: Heidi Claudio; Maria Rodriguez


Lake Marion Creek Middle: Sharon Crowfield-Bienaime; Serena Dunn
Laurel Elementary: Denise Baptiste; Jacqueline Ramirez-Baez
Palmetto Elementary: Carlos Gonzalez; La'Kendrick K. Green

Polk City

Polk City Elementary: Kimberly Blanco; Frank McCaulley

Winter Haven

Chain of Lakes Elementary: Nichole Humphrey; Jackie Brock
Denison Middle: Francisco Coyt; Julieanne Marie Wright
Elbert Elementary: Derek Hall; Sally Justice
Frank E. Brigham Academy: Belinda Ressel; Sara Dunn
Fred G. Garner Elementary: Christopher Eric Hutchinson; Michelle Malfa
Garden Grove Elementary: Jason Reese; Darrell Thomas
Inwood Elementary: Stephanie McNalley; Kiley Lanfair
Jewett Middle Academy Magnet: Simoni Limeira-Bonadies; Kassia Harris
Jewett School of the Arts: Bridgett R. Henry; Cheryl Petko
John Snively Elementary: Kimberly Gunter; Kathy McKean
Lake Shipp Elementary: Kelly Peterson; Sharon Lee
Ridge Career Center: Patricia H. Gegenheimer; Glenn Clarke Evers
Wahneta Elementary: Alice Higgs; Christina Sudduth
Westwood Middle: Elaine Andino; Pamela Holman
Winter Haven High: William Hatley; Debra Comparato

2016 Sponsors

banner recognizing Regal Automotive Group as car sponsor

Platinum Sponsors:

  • Ledger Media Group
  • MIDFLORIDA Credit Union
  • Regal Automotive

Gold Sponsors:

  • Boswell & Dunlap LLP
  • Bright House Networks
  • Florida Blue
  • Mosaic
  • Publix Super Markets Charities
  • TECO

Silver Sponsors:

  • Achieve 3000
  • Ben Hill Griffin Inc.
  • Citizens Bank & Trust
  • Duke Energy
  • Florida Southern College
  • Horace Mann Insurance
  • Huntington Learning Center
  • Lakeland Electric
  • Pearson
  • Polk Education Association
  • Rodda Construction, Inc.
  • Southeastern University
  • SunTrust Foundation
  • Warner University
  •  WellDyne


2015 Teacher and School-Related Employee of the Year

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.

More information about 2015 Honorees »