The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County honors exceptional educators


Pictured above, Jackie Brehm Edmondson serves as the Excellence in Education Committee Chair.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County held its third annual Excellence in Education and Teacher of the Year awards ceremony on Wednesday, September 30 a little differently this year, opting to record a virtual presentation rather than a luncheon due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the change in format, COVID-19 did not hinder The Chamber from recognizing several local educators for their diligence, commitment and remarkable influence on their community.

Gadsden State Community College interim president Gregg Bennett welcomed viewers to the presentation, which honored teachers in Attalla, Etowah County, Gadsden City and private school systems. Excellence in Education Committee Chair and GSCC Director of Public Relations Jackie Brehm Edmondson shared that the awards began several years ago when a group of likeminded individuals collaborated on a way to acknowledge innovative educators, outstanding students, wonderful community partners and unique programs that make such a positive difference in the community.

Recipients of the Excellence in Education awards were commended for their service in such a noble profession that rarely receives the gratitude it deserves. Award winners were nominated after completing an application and were organized into categories for committee voters to review. The Chamber CEO Heather Brothers New noted that there were an exceptional amount of nominations to explore, and she hoped that hearing the winners’ stories will inspire other educators in Etowah County to submit their own applications next year. Self-nominations are encouraged, as often educators’ dedication and efforts are best understood by the educator themselves.

The Excellence in Early Childhood Education award was given to Nancy Barton of Gaston Elementary, who is one of Etowah County’s longest educators. Her philosophy in teaching is to remember that childhood should be a journey, not a race. She strives to incorporate hands on experiences into her students’ lives that extend the classroom and remains active in developing opportunities for Gadsden students throughout the years. 

“I’m almost speechless,” said Barton. “It’s been a pleasure to have served the children and parents of Etowah County for the past 22 years. Ending my career is a little bitter sweet, but it was time. It’s time for a new adventure.”

The Excellence in Citizenship award was given to the Peer Helpers Program at Hokes Bluff Elementary. The Peer Helpers Program’s mission is to nurture love and unification through elected students who greet kindergarten through second grade peers in the car line with signs and high-fives each Friday. The students visit other classrooms, making cards and artwork in appreciation of teachers and other philanthropic activities, including raising money for Sleep in Heavenly Peace.

The Excellence in Educational Achievement award went to Lori Hensley of Jacksonville State University, who established course-based undergraduate research experiences (or CUREs) where students design their own experiences in an authentic research method that allows them to think like scientists.

The Excellence in STEAM Education award went to Kristin Gebhardt of Mitchell Elementary School, who began robotics program for third through fifth graders this past school year through grant sources.

The program meets during school hours and after school one day a week, during which the students built two robots and attended a competition last January. Gebhardt’s passion for innovation and drive inspired the Chamber to also present her with its inaugural Excellence in Innovation cash reward of $500.

“I am just so excited and so blessed to get this,” said Gebhardt. “I have enjoyed doing robotics so much in my classroom. It has been phenomenal. I’ve seen growth in the STEAM area with my kids, we have just loved it. We were so devastated it was cut short last year, but we are looking forward to this year.”

The Excellence in Student Empowerment award was presented to Broadening Boundaries Book Club, created by Episcopal Day School’s Emily Hayes. Hayes began the book club with a group discussion built around an in-class library of around 1,500 books that she crowd sourced through friends, family and retired teachers. The books are carefully selected to ensure diverse young adult literature authors and characters are included, featuring popular novels like Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give. Hayes believes that through programs like Broadening Boundaries Book Club, students can learn to become citizens who are not afraid to step out of their comfort zones, who recognize experiences different from their own, who can discuss differences civilly and who believe in taking action to create positive change.

“I had been doing a lot of research about how we don’t give kids in middle and high school time to read any more,” said Hayes. “In elementary school, they read in class, but as they get older we tell them what to read and they lose that love of reading. Luckily, I had the amazing Laura McCartney (headmistress at Episcopal) who let me introduce Free Read Friday. Every Friday, my kids got to read whatever they wanted – comic books, graphic novels, anything. I let them have their choice, empowered them to pick what they wanted to read and it was just amazing to watch them. All of a sudden, I had parents telling me, ‘My kid was reading last night instead of playing a video game.’” 

The Excellence in Special Education honoree was Mugs with a Hug at John Jones Elementary, a coffee cart ran by the self-contained unit at the school. The coffee cart is interactive – a real life experience to help students achieve personal goals. As the teachers order coffee prepared by students, students practice following procedures and multi-step directions, learning real-life skills for future professional endeavors later on in life.

The Long Furniture Excellence in Community Outreach award was given to Summer Fun Snacks, a program at Glencoe Middle School that delivers large packs of snacks each Friday during summer vacation to 55 – 60 students in Glencoe Elementary, Middle and High School. Dozens of volunteers of all ages work to shop, pack and deliver the food to students in the hopes of making each individual feel supported by the community. Since its inception, Summer Fun Snacks has grown to become a nonprofit.

“When I first became a teacher, I realized so many students depend upon the school lunches as their primary meal,” said Summer Fun Snacks creator Amy Wagnon. “One day at Celebration in the Park in Glencoe, I was with some other likeminded people talking about that, and I realized I was finally going to do something because they had the same vision. Right there in my home, my husband agreed and we created Summer Fun Snacks. We’ve been doing it every week in the summer. We deliver meals to the students right in their home who otherwise might not have something to get them through the summer months. It’s a blessing to us and to the students. It’s a growing mission, and it has brought along some great feelings for our students. They feel supported by their community, and they are learning that people recognize them and love them and are supporting them in their lives.”

The Excellence in Community Education Award was received by Tiger for Tomorrow’s Wilbur McCauley, who strives to educate visitors about the importance of animal preservation and conservation. Tigers for Tomorrow is a 501(c)3 non-profit wild animal preserve and last stop home to over 160 animals.  Their mission is to uphold the highest standards of care and respect for native and exotic animals in need of a secure and permanent home. As a wild animal preserve and rescue, TFT is open to the community as an environmental education learning center and outdoor recreational destination for the entire family.

“We work very hard at Tigers for Tomorrow to try to educate the public talking about animals both in captivity and the wild,” said McCauley. “We have a lot of school groups that come up there, along with kids and families. Every time they come up, they always learn something new.”

The Excellence in Innovation Learning Award was given to Fatima Wise, who teaches a self-contained classroom at Oscar Adams Elementary School. Wise focuses on innovative programing to normalize schedules, structure and interaction among her students. She includes activities like a coffee cart, a warm fuzzy jar, Hershey Kisses for your brain and Celebrating Who is Here Today, which helps students gain self-awareness of being at home versus at school.

The City of Gadsden Excellence in Career Technical Education K-12 award went to Sherry Hall of Sardis High School who sponsors the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America Organization. The FCCLA students recently celebrated their 17th annual meal program that provides food for the elderly, homebound and in-need members of the community. Hall also implemented several pieces of equipment and a design program in her classroom that encourages entrepreneurial skills for her students.

The Etowah County Commission Excellence in Administration Award went to Thomasina Smitherman, who is principal at Oscar Adams Elementary. Smitherman strives to ensure her best intentions create the most beneficial results and wants to cultivate change by honoring student voices and ideas. She presents awards regularly to her students and fosters clubs that give weekly presentations on topics like self-esteem, mindfulness, healthy eating, soft skills and table etiquette.

The Etowah C.A.R.E.S. Excellence in Career Technical Post-Secondary award was given to Rebecca Southern, who is the Diagnostic Medical Sonography Program Director at Gadsden State. A video shown indicated the love Southern possesses for her students and her unbridled commitment to ensuring their success – not only in the classroom, but in life as well.

“I love my students,” said Southern. “I didn’t expect to win. It was such an honor just to be nominated. I have the best teaching partner ever, my clinical coordinator. I could not function without Kelsey Taylor…she’s amazing. We have the same vision and heart for our students. I’m so thankful and so proud of them. They’re amazing and all of our graduates are doing fantastic things.”

The Excellence in Academic Research award went to Jacksonville State University’s Deborah James, who serves as the Director of Academic Enhancement and Tutoring Services. James completed a comprehensive retention study by learning behaviors through an academic treatment plan that showed promising results. The plan treated the top the at-risk scales of attitude, motivation and time management.

The Excellence in Student Engagement Award went to Amy Taylor of West End High School, who teaches English and serves as the SGA and senior sponsor for the school. The Excellence in Fine Arts award was given to Michael Gagliardo of the Etowah County Youth Orchestra. Since 1995, Gagliardo has led the youth orchestra throughout the United States and abroad on concert trips, establishing a passion and commitment for music in youth education.

“This is really a tribute to all of my past educators, my band directors, my music teachers and my piano teacher and all of the people who taught me along the way,” said Gagliardo. “I remember an orchestra director said to me the most important thing in my career is if one student chooses to follow in my footsteps, then I’ve done my job. That’s how I feel. If there’s one student who chooses to follow in my footsteps and continue working in music education, then I’ve done my job and there’s nothing more I could ask.”

The Exceptional Student K-12 award went to Hunter Enders of Gadsden City High School, who excels in academics, athletics and community leadership. A member of numerous clubs, the cross country runner and JROTC First Lieutenant volunteers regularly and speaks to elementary schools about healthy life choices, while maintaining a nearly 104 GPA. The Exceptional Student Post-Secondary award went to Kerry Griffith of Gadsden State, who has been recognized by the college with numerous accolades. As the 2019-2020 SGA president, Griffith worked on disciplinary planning committees, tutored students through Student Support Services while earning superior academic achievement and overcoming a mountainous obstacle in his personal life.

“You are not what other people think of you,” said Griffith. “You are what you think of yourself. Even if people remind you constantly that you messed up, it doesn’t matter what they think. They are only a part of your story. You’re the only one that truly knows your entire story. You can be anything you want to be; it’s just how you want the rest of your story to play out.”

The Gadsden City Schools Heart of a Teacher award was presented to Heath McLeod at Gaston Elementary School. McLeod channeled his own personal experiences into an incredibly powerful role as a school counselor. As a child, McLeod experienced fear and abandonment that gave him insight into the other struggles children face daily and gave him the ability to empathize with their situations. With a poverty rate of 70% at Gaston Elementary, McLeod strives to acquire needed resourced through donors and helped to create a student food program to ensure that children have something to eat over the weekend. In addition, McLeod developed a fundraiser to raise awareness for childhood cancer and helped a second-grade student begin a recycling program.

“It’s really my privilege every day to get resources for my students and to find every way that I can help them,” said McLeod. “I became a school counselor because I grew up in a broken family, and it was a youth pastor and other people who invested in my life. I try to give back every day.”

The Alabama Teachers Credit Union Heart of an Educator Post-Secondary award was presented to Billa Burger, who teaches Microcomputer Applications at Gadsden State. Burger has been instrumental in launching courses at Gadsden State and Gadsden City High School while teaching python visual basic coding. She added new technology to the program by coauthoring a margin of excellence grant proposal to add a drone course to promote STEAM education, and implemented her drone certification into her first course this past summer.

“It is just my privilege to work at Gadsden State,” said Burger. “That is my dream job, and I’ve been living my dream now for almost 10 years. I am just thrilled to receive this award.”

The following individuals were recognized as Teachers of the Year during the ceremony: Malory Monroe of Attalla Elementary School, Kathryn Rogers of Etowah High School, Karen Hammonds of Etowah Middle School, Deborah Simmons of Carlisle Elementary School, Karla McArthur of Duck Springs Elementary School, Floyd Hooper of Etowah County Career Technical Center, Heather Carroll of Gaston Elementary School, Anita H. Campbell of Gaston High School, Lyndsey Aulsbrook of Glencoe Elementary School, Andrea Janss of Glencoe Middle School, James Stephens of Glencoe High School, Nicole Sprinkle of Highland Elementary School, Devan Talbot of Hokes Bluff Elementary School, Amy Dillard of Hokes Bluff Middle School, Jason Presley of Hokes Bluff High School, Alissa Cash Hamm of Ivalee Elementary School, Casey Underwood of John Jones Elementary School Sherie Newton of Rainbow Middle School, Jamie Kaye Shirley of Sardis Middle School, Kasey Roberts of Sardis High School, Heather Allen of Southside Elementary School, Jason Russell of Southside High School, Karla Phillips of Special Education Learning Center, Amy Gibbs of West End Elementary School, Kellie Miller of West End Elementary School, Pam Naylor of Whitesboro Elementary School, Paige Hayes of Adams Elementary School, Elizabeth Bunton of Donehoo Elementary School, Leslie Crosby of Eura Brown Elementary School, Samantha Owens of Floyd Elementary School, Anna Tow of Mitchell Elementary School, Janie Browning of Striplin Elementary School, Christin Nolin of Thompson Elementary School, Angie Ramsey of Walnut Park Elementary School, Latoya Laster of Emma Sansom Middle School, Teresa Walker of Gadsden Middle School, Karen McCurley of Litchfield Middle School, Malcolm Dailey of Gadsden City High School, Jillian Neal of Coosa Christian Elementary School, Tina Tow of Coosa Christian High School, Brittany Beaird of St. James Catholic School, Shelley Cothran of Episcopal Day School Elementary,  Karen Thompson of Episcopal Day School Secondary, Michelle Hughes of Westbrook Christian Elementary School and Frances Stewart of Westbrook Christian High School.

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