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  • Writer's pictureChad Oliver

The “Why” for CCPS Employees of the Year


Oakridge Middle Civics Teacher Andrea Polanco _ Collier County nominee for Florida Teacher of the Year

 

Most people do not enter the jail with a smile. Hunter Sayers does it every day. He clears the security checkpoints and steps into an elevator leading to a classroom full of desks and posters teaching leadership skills. The most prominent feature is a “legacy” wall honoring inmates who have earned their equivalency diploma, a circuitous route to completing high school requirements made possible through the work of educators like Hunter. He works for Collier County Public Schools (CCPS) within Adult and Community Education, where he preps students for the GED, teaches English, and helps them re-enter the workforce.


Superintendent Dr. Leslie Ricciardelli and other district leaders visited Hunter inside the Collier County Sheriff’s Office Naples Jail Center to tell him he had been chosen as the Post-Secondary Teacher of the Year. I asked Hunter a simple question. Why do you do what you do? “I always had a heart for helping people. I see people who are here in jail, many of them are extremely intelligent, for whatever reason they might not have been able to finish school or maybe they come from another country and don’t have an educational background,” explained Hunter. I heard variations of that response along our stops to honor the 2024 CCPS Employees of the Year.   


Samantha Wilson with her parents at Gulfview Middle School

 

The Middle School Teacher of the Year is Gulfview Middle science teacher Samantha Wilson. Her mother, who teaches next door, and father joined for the surprise announcement. “I was lucky enough to have two parents who were educators,” Samantha explained. “I got to see it as a kid going through Collier County Public Schools. I love this community... born and raised in it. My “why” is seeing [students’] faces when it clicks and they make a connection.”


Andrea Polanco teaches civics at Oakridge Middle and is our nominee for Florida Teacher of the Year. “My why is them,” explained Andrea. “[Students] need people who are passionate about education. The more passionate you are in the classroom, the more learning they are going to do. We work as a team.”


Andrea Polanco with husband and son at Oakridge Middle

 

Talk about a team. This year, the Elementary Teacher of the Year went to co-teachers who often finish each other’s sentences. Janelle Matos and Joanna Campanile have been team-teaching for the last decade in a combined classroom at Vineyards Elementary. “I do it because I love to see the lightbulb go off,” said Joanna. “I love when we’re teaching them to read or taking them in the garden and giving them all those experiences that may be their first time ever.” Standing next to her, Janelle explained her “why.” “I do it for that ‘aha’ moment when [the answer] comes to them, and they know that learning is fun and forever.”


After 34 years in CCPS, Gulf Coast High science teacher Lisa Townsend is the High School Teacher of the Year. “My why is some great teachers I had in school. I wanted a career where I could teach and coach. I was a girls’ basketball coach for many years. So, it fit. I really did truly feel a calling,” Lisa added. “When I was a young girl, living in Michigan, I started a folder that said Naples, Florida. I had a goal to teach here. We used to vacation here as a family, so I was driven. It was the right decision.”


Pre-K assistant Sandy Rayburn at Village Oaks Elementary in Immokalee is our Collier County Nominee for School-Related Employee of the Year. “I love being with [children] and nurturing them,” Sandy explained. “I want them to enjoy their life outside of their home and have a good time learning and feeling confident in themselves.”


Back at the jail, Hunter shared an example of the trust he builds with inmates waiting for the next steps in the judicial process. He sometimes walks over to their cells and wakes them up so that they don’t miss his class. These are crucial steps toward lending a hand to these community members rather than writing them off. “To be able to help those guys, and then we see many of them on the streets outside, and they get jobs,” Hunter added. “They’re successful, they go to college, and we’ve lifted them up to live a successful and fulfilling life.”

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