Stephanie Durham

Position: Reading Coach

School: John E. Ford Pre K-8 Montessori School

School District: Duval County Public Schools

City, State: Jacksonville, Florida

About the Nominee: Stephanie Durham has been instrumental in the transformation of her school. Her work to ensure a quality education for all students does not end with her full-time position at Ford, as she also holds two additional jobs to strengthen the field of education and individual at-risk students. Ms. Durham trains, guides and mentors 32 teachers at Ford on the traditional school calendar. Since June 2012, she has also worked at night and during the summer time facilitating poetry lessons for Hope at Hand, Inc. Her Hope at Hand poetry groups include: - Pretrial Detention Facility - incarcerated female adolescents with felony charges - Department of Juvenile Justice - incarcerated female adolescents - PACE Center for Girls – alternative high school for high school girls - Gateway, Steps to Recovery – adolescent females in recovery - Buckner Division/Children’s Home Society - adolescent females in foster care, ages 13-18 either pregnant or with young children - Catholic Charities/Refugee Resettlement –girls from Afghanistan - Catholic Charities/Refugee Resettlement –girls from Burma

Hope at Hand is funded by local donations and grant awards. From time to time, funds are unavailable for scheduled poetry sessions, but Ms. Durham never alters her schedule with her high school girls. She is determined to facilitate hope for some of the most vulnerable students in North Florida. She can walk into hostile environments with a box of crayons and a handful of poems and change the attitudes and hearts of her girls, who all love her.

This 12 year veteran educator is also a K-2 English/Language Arts team leader for EdReports.org, a national organization. She was accepted into Leadership Jacksonville, Class of 2017. She was also a 2016 Finalist for Instructional Coach of the Year for Duval County Public Schools. In the last year, Ms. Durham has presented language arts and poetry on the local, state and national levels. She was selected to attend Teach to Lead. Finally, she is a lead language arts advocate for the State of Florida’s Student Achievement Partners.

Ms. Durham strengthens beginning teachers, veteran teachers, educational organizations and at-risk female adolescents. She is a tremendous asset in the profession of education!

Vivian Gonzalez

Position: Music Teacher

School: South Miami K-8 Center

School District: Miami-Dade County Public Schools

City, State: Miami, Florida

About the Nominee: Vivian Gonzalez was nominated by her spouse, Alfred Figueroa, as well as a colleague, Melissa Lesniak. The following profile contains text from both nominations. Ms. Gonzalez, has been a Life Changer since she became a music teacher for Miami-Dade County Schools in December of 1999. Over the course of her career, she has proven to be an outstanding music educator and a strong advocate for music education in our district and abroad.

Her career began at a center school that served the 150 most severe cases of middle school students who were diagnosed as Emotionally Handicapped and Severely Emotionally Disturbed. While she was there, she started the R.O.K World Drumming Ensemble, a group that became the pride of the school. It was a steel drum band with Afro-Cuban hand drums. This ensemble gave the students a positive outlet for their emotions and a way to appropriately interact with their peers. In 2003, Ms. Gonzalez became the orchestra director at a local magnet middle school. Six months after taking the position, one of her students tragically passed away. After this hugely devastating event, Ms. Gonzalez led her students to persevere and show the community the power that music has to heal.

For the last 12 school years, Ms. Gonzalez has been the magnet music teacher at a local K-8 center school. She has focused her time on building a strong community that her students and their families can count on from third grade through high school graduation. Ms. Gonzalez has impacted the lives of hundreds of children in Miami-Dade County, and her efforts have been by many organizations. To give a few examples, she was Magnet Schools of America’s 2017 Region III Teacher of the Year, a featured teacher for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics and a top-ten finalist for the 2014 Grammy Music Educator Award.

A product of the Miami-Dade music community, Ms. Gonzalez is a wonderful example of what can happen when a community rallies around a talented child who comes from a low socio-economic background. Wanting to give back to the community that gave so much to her, Ms. Gonzalez works tirelessly to provide her students with opportunities and support to ensure their future is bright. It’s commonplace to see her giving free lessons to students before or after school. She also helps parents and students navigate applications for middle school, high school, summer camp and college, and she helps them find community resources and scholarships so that her students can benefit from all that music has to offer. Most importantly, Ms. Gonzalez is committed to and passionate about making sure that every single student she teaches leaves her program knowing that they can do absolutely anything they put their mind to if they are willing to work hard for it. She impacts the lives of her students by providing and encouraging repeated opportunities for them to work hard and succeed. Her students develop confidence, work ethic, a love of music making and resilience, making them stand out among their peers.

Ms. Gonzalez is a particularly strong advocate for students with special needs. She has developed many innovative inclusion lessons and practices that have made her a regular presenter on the subject. Through her initiative and willingness to support her colleagues, Ms. Gonzalez has made string instrument education more accessible to students with disabilities in Miami-Dade County and across the nation. She has presented on the topic of inclusion of special needs students for the National Association for Music Education, American String Teachers Association and Little Kids Rock, Florida Orchestra Association, and the Florida Music Education Association conferences.

Students regularly reflect on the impact Ms. Gonzalez has had on their life as a second mother and mentor. Phrases like, "Ms. Gonzalez makes me believe that I can do anything I am willing to work hard for," "Ms. Gonzalez makes me feel safe," and "Ms. Gonzalez makes me feel like I always have someone looking out for me," are regular comments from students. Parents of her students are her most vocal supporters, impressing upon administrators and community members the value of her teaching and the community that is created by her program.

Her colleagues hold her in the highest esteem, always praising her integrity, commitment and passion. She’s always looking for ways to encourage and support her colleagues and emerging music educators. As such, Ms. Gonzalez has served as a clinical supervising teacher and a mentor teacher. She is currently the Awards Chair for the Florida Chapter of the American String Teachers Association, an Emerging Leader for the Florida Music Educators Association, the Southern Division Representative for the NAfME IN-Ovations Council, an Editorial Committee member for the International Journal for Music Education and the South Miami K-8 Center School Advisory Chair.

In addition to her many leadership roles, Ms. Gonzalez has made a meaningful impact on her students and community through her students’ participation in district honors festivals, Florida All-State, and numerous community performances and events. She has created strong ties to the community by building relationships with local organizations such as the Miami Marlins, the Miami Heat, the Florida Panthers, the Adrienne Arsht Center, New World Symphony and Florida Grade Opera, University of Miami and Florida International University, just to name a few. Through these relationships, Ms. Gonzalez has created fundraising opportunities, scholarship opportunities and community support for her students and program.

Ms. Gonzalez is currently a doctoral candidate in special education. She is passionate about the inclusion of all students in the music classroom as well as cross-curricular instruction. She also has degrees in Music Education, Curriculum/Instruction-Reading Education and School Leadership. With this broad base of knowledge and skills, Ms. Gonzalez is well versed in education policy and programs and initiatives in music education. She has leveraged her knowledge for the advancement of the string education community in Miami-Dade County.

Her husband states that he has seen her work, passion and sacrifice firsthand. Ms. Gonzalez spends countless hours setting up events in the community for students, rehearsing after school, completing paperwork, talking to community members to ensure that her program will be around for years to come and mentoring former students to stay on a college path and be successful in life. She ensures that all of her current and former students are taken care of and have what they need. Whether it’s securing funds to ensure a student’s family has gifts and food over the holidays or helping a former student buy their first car, Ms. Gonzalez is always there to be a resource for her students.

Every day, Ms. Gonzalez is a LifeChanger in the Miami-Dade community. She is passionate and committed to making sure that every child she works with at school, through volunteering or in summer camp knows that she cares about them and is willing to help them on their path to a successful, well-rounded life. Her music magnet classroom is a community, and her students feel safe, valued and part of a large family.

Tammy Ditmars

Position: AfterCare Director

School: Meadow Park Elementary School

School District: Palm Beach Schools

City, State: West Palm Beach, Florida

About the Nominee: Tammy Ditmars was nominated by Marjie Rowe. Mrs. Ditmars is simply an amazing person. One could say she is a life saver. In fact, she was responsible for administering first aid that saved the life of an individual at Meadow Park Elementary School. There are so many other ways that she is responsible for touching and bettering the lives of all the students and families at her school. She is a true LifeChanger every day.

Meadow Park is a community school tucked into the surrounding neighborhood. Many of its many families need after school care for their children. Mrs. Ditmars, also known as "Miss Tammy," plans a comprehensive academic and social/emotional program that enriches the lives of these students. At Meadow Park, there are many students who want to stay in After Care. What makes Miss Tammy so special is that she looks out for each individual student and their family. Someone needs school supplies? She finds them. Someone needs clothes or shoes? She provides them. Someone has no food for dinner or for the weekend? She gives them a bag of food. In fact, Mrs. Ditmars has established Charlie's Pantry at Meadow Park. Inside the pantry are shelves of food and stacks of clothes and uniforms ready to be given to those in need.

Mrs. Ditmars also works in partnership with the teachers and administration. She supports every event planned for the students and parents. She will help set up the chorus concert, plan the end of year celebrations, serve food at the Annual Grandparents' Luncheon and stay long after school to work at literacy events and parent trainings. This year, the students are using a new software program that can also be used outside of school hours. Mrs. Ditmars helped the administration purchase more computers so that students could use the program in After Care.

The impact Mrs. Ditmars has on Meadow Park Elementary is enormous. She is the embodiment of a LifeChanger!

[nominee_videos nominee_email="tammy.ditmars@palmbeachschools.org"]

Richard Brown

Position: Assistant Principal, Eighth Grade

School: Howell L. Watkins Middle School

School District: Palm Beach Schools

City, State: Palm Beach Gardens , Florida

About the Nominee: Richard Brown has been changing lives for years. He shares his story with his students about how he grew up without his father in the house. This reaches many of his past and present students because they live in similar circumstances. He volunteers as a coach, speaks at many engagements for students and has a mentoring group at his school. He also started an initiative to help get fathers more involved in their students' lives. Mr. Brown does so much more that it's difficult to put it all into words. He is truly a LifeChanger in his community!

Angela Distasio

Position: Third Grade Teacher

School: Nob Hill Elementary

School District: Broward County Public Schools

City, State: Sunrise, Florida

About the Nominee: There is always that teacher who your child connects with. There is always that student who a teacher connects with. This connection make it possible for the student to achieve and exceed all expectations. Angela Distasio makes these one-on-one connections with her students and guides them on a path to success. She gains the trust of each student, their parents and the school community by ensuring she has the best interest of the student in mind. She proves it through all of her students' successes. Ms. Distasio believes that if you are teaching the students what's in the curriculum, you need to supplement it with material that enriches the concept and allows each student to go further. That way, true learning can take place. When each student feels successful, they want to attain more. When the students are successful, so is Ms. Distasio.

[nominee_videos nominee_email="angela.distasio@browardschools.com"]