RUSKIN – Since she started her teaching career at Lennard High School seven years ago, Kelly Zunkiewicz has worked to set high expectations for her students, making sure they know they are in charge of their learning.
It’s just one reason Zunkiewicz is one of four recipients of this year’s $25,000 Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice, a national honor The New Teacher Project awards to successful teachers in public schools serving a high share of families in poverty.
Setting high standards for her students, as well as making herself available to them outside of the school day, are tactics students have embraced and followed to academic success.
The passing rate of Zunkiewicz’s students on the AP Calculus exam skyrocketed from 11 percent seven years ago to 80 percent last year and the number of girls enrolled in the course has jumped from just two to nearly half the class.
Senior Yamilex Moralex, 18, said she decided to take Zunkiewicz’s AP Calculus class just because she’s the teacher.
“She puts a lot of extra time into her work,” Morales said. “She puts a lot of her time into us.”
Zunkiewicz heard she won the Fishman Prize during a surprise visit to her classroom Monday morning by representatives from the organization, as well as district and school officials and family members. Her class of mostly seniors watched from their desks.
“They’re such a big part of it,” Zunkiewicz said, her eyes brimming with tears. “It’s so exciting.”
Among the other winners, two are from California and one is from Illinois. Zunkiewicz, an Ohio native, is the first Florida teacher to win the prize.
Formed in 1997, The New Teacher Project is a New York based nonprofit organization that aims to provide great teachers to students who need them most. It was founded by former Washington, D.C., public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is widely known for her education reform efforts.
The prize, which has been offered annually since 2012, is named for Shira Fishman, who teaches math at McKinley Technology High School in Washington.
This year’s winners were selected from 800-plus applicants from 46 states and Washington, D.C. Of those, 100 were invited to submit teaching videos and reference letters and 21 were selected as semi-finalists. Each semi-finalist was observed at work in the classroom by officials from The New Teacher Project before 10 finalists were interviewed by a panel of judges.
“It just comes down to great teaching,” said Dottie Smith, The New Teacher Project’s vice president for new teacher effectiveness, who presented the prize to Zunkiewicz on Monday. “We look for a holistically excellent teacher. It’s very selective, very rigorous.”
At Lennard High, located on East Shell Point Road in Ruskin, about 75 percent of the 1,860 students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches.
Zunkiewicz developed the school’s calculus program and serves as its math coach. In addition to AP Calculus, she teaches honors pre-calculus.
She spends her lunch break and time after school tutoring students and visits classes in subjects other than her own, looking for new teaching ideas and strategies.
This school year, Zunkiewicz’s pre-calculus students performed better than those at any other Hillsborough County high school on their first-semester exam. Zunkiewicz said her students have been successful, in part, because of her high expectations for them.
“They understand why we’re doing what we’re doing in the classroom,” she said.
In addition to the $25,000, which winners can spend however they choose, they will go through a six-week summer residency program with the organization, during which they will interact with education leaders and work together to write a paper that includes their best teaching tips, focusing on helping fellow teachers improve their classroom practices.
“It’s going to give me an opportunity to expose the great things that are happening,” Zunkiewicz said.
Her parents – Eddie and Lauri Zunkiewicz – flew in from Ohio for the surprise classroom visit.
“I think it’s wonderful they can reward good teachers to stay in the classroom,” said Lauri Zunkiewicz, who taught first grade for 35 years.
Also there for the announcement were Hillsborough Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia and Earl J. Lennard, namesake of Lennard High School.
Said Elia, “You’ve done an incredible job raising the awareness of the students here of what they can do.”