Tuxedos and long gowns, hors d'oeuvres and awards, a real red carpet.
Hamilton County Schools teachers and educators were given the red carpet treatment to conclude Teacher Appreciation Week at the first annual OZcars Awards at Unum Friday night.
The event recognized excellent educators and leaders, and their achievements, within the district's Opportunity Zone, made up of its highest needs schools.
2018-2019 Opportunity Zone Teachers of the Year
> Cindy Ball, Barger Academy of Fine Arts
> Stephanie Hannah, Woodmore Elementary
> Susan McGrath, East Lake Elementary
> Alyssa Mincke, Hardy Elementary
> Susan Neelands, Clifton Hills Elementary
> Emily Owsley, Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy
> Jonathan Ramirez, Orchard Knob Elementary
> Rene Bruzon, East Lake Elementary
> Linda Erhart, Barger Academy of Fine Arts
> Cherri Schrick, Woodmore Elementary
> Erica Kelley, Orchard Knob Middle School
> Frenzica Mann, East Lake Academy
> Philip Cooper, Dalewood Middle
> Arianna Gladney, Brainerd High
> Jon Johnson, The Howard School
Teachers of the Year from each of the 12 Opportunity Zone schools, principals and others were recognized by their peers.
"It felt so special just to be recognized for all the work that we do," said Sydney Hester of The Howard School, who won an award for excellence in instruction. She credited her peers and colleagues for inspiring her throughout the year.
The Opportunity Zone was launched in the fall of 2017 by Superintendent Bryan Johnson in an effort to better support the district's historically failing schools and prevent a state takeover.
Opportunity Zone OZcars Award Finalists
Excellence in Instruction
> Lindy Blazek, Calvin Donaldson
> Melissa McDonald, Orchard Knob Middle
> Sydney Hester, The Howard School*
Excellence in Relationships
> Andrea Dyer, The Howard School
> Joe Banks, The Howard School
> Sonya Chase, Barger Academy*
Excellence in Passionate Practice
> Arianna Gladney, Brainerd High
> Christina Manton, Orchard Knob Middle
> Diamond Kelley, Woodmore Elementary*
* indicates the winner in each category
One of the focus areas of both the Opportunity Zone and the district as a whole is to support and develop great teachers and leaders.
"When we launched the Opportunity Zone two years ago, we talked a lot about creating opportunities and changing lives," said Jill Levine, chief of the Opportunity Zone. "Today, we realize the impact that our educators, all of you, have made."
Teacher recruitment and retention is often difficult in high-needs schools with limited resources and students who come from challenging situations. Many of the educators honored Friday expressed gratitude for the acknowledgment of their hard work.
"I'm really grateful for the recognition, we as teachers are not used to it," said Sonya Chase of Barger Academy of Fine Arts, who won an award for excellence in relationships.
She's been teaching at Barger Academy for 20 years and said she is thankful for the commitment and support she has received as part of the Opportunity Zone.
"Not only in the classroom, but in life really, you have to connect and relate to people. To have that connection, to show you care and to build that relationship with people. When you have trust, the real work of planning, teaching, learning and living can begin."
This year, with the help of more funding from the state for the priority schools and the district's commitment to improving teacher retention, the Opportunity Zone hired new teacher coaches, launched a mentoring program for first-year teachers and recognized teacher leadership through selecting model classrooms.
Tom White, senior vice president of investor relations at Unum, said the company was thrilled to host the event. Unum has focused much of its philanthropy not only on schools, but on teachers and leaders themselves. White said having a good leader in the classroom can make the biggest difference for students.
"We feel strongly about leadership and supporting leadership. One of the best ways to support schools is to support leaders," White said. "Really in any business, a good leader, good leadership is the most important."
Research shows that classroom teachers have the biggest impact on a child's learning, and principals can determine the success of their school.
But teachers can often see the difference they make without the research or the data points.
Keichemriya Jones, a senior at Brainerd High School, opened the program with her own thoughts about her past teachers and thanking them for the difference they have made in her life.
"Teachers are important to all students," she said. "You guys have a lot to give and you give us everything we need to go on with our lives. Always remember there is a kid who needs you."
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.