Oakridge Elementary School teacher Evelyn Schwartz is well aware of the life-changing power of education — it was at age 37 when it dramatically altered her own path.
That’s when Schwartz, who had worked for 20 years in business, took the chance of going back to school to finish earning her college degree, with the goal of one day becoming a teacher.
“I said to my husband, ‘I can make a change in the world. I’m not making a change in business,’ ” Schwartz said.
Schwartz later graduated from Florida Atlantic University and launched her teaching career at age 40. On Tuesday — almost two decades later — Schwartz was chosen as Broward County’s Teacher of the Year.
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“I have two words that I would like to share tonight,” Schwartz told the more than 1,000 colleagues gathered at the awards ceremony. “Honor and privilege.”
Schwartz hadn’t prepared a formal speech, and after the congratulatory hugs were all over, she admitted to being speechless at this most gratifying moment of her career.
“That never happens,” Schwartz said. “I am never speechless; I teach first grade.”
Though her classroom is filled with tiny 6- and 7-year-olds, Schwartz says her students are old enough to start learning some of life’s biggest lessons.
That’s why Schwartz doesn’t just stick to teaching the basics of math and reading. Schwartz also has her students learn this mission statement: “I am responsible for my learning, safety, health, happiness and making the world a better place.”
Along with creating a classroom mission statement, Schwartz also started a classroom tradition known as the “Daily Five” — a self-guided reading practice program that makes students responsible for improving their own reading skills.
Schwartz’s recognition was part of a larger “Caliber Awards” ceremony event — a black-tie affair held at the Broward County Convention Center in Fort Lauderdale. In addition to Teacher of the Year, Broward County Schools also selected its Principal of the Year, Brian Kingsley of Gulfstream Middle School in Hallandale Beach; Assistant Principal of the Year, JoAnne Misiewicz-Seltzer of Flamingo Elementary School in Davie; and School-Related Employee of the Year, Krystal Morman of McNicol Middle School in Hollywood.
Winners in all four categories received a $1,000 prize, along with a commemorative ring.
Schwartz, the winning teacher, also becomes Broward’s nominee for the Florida Department of Education/Macy’s Teacher of the Year award.
Broward’s other Teacher of the Year finalists this year were Suzanne Clancy from Challenger Elementary School, Monica Fernandez from Hallandale Adult Community Center, Miranti Murphy from Boulevard Heights Elementary, Traci Porter from Harbordale Elementary, and Marie Rho from Lauderdale Manors Elementary.
At Oakridge, Schwartz has succeeded despite the dramatic deterioration of the school itself — the Hollywood school has struggled with leaky roofs and mold problems, among other issues. The school was supposed to receive massive renovations a couple of years ago, but those plans were sidetracked by a combination of district corruption and abrupt cuts in state funding.
Schwartz said she has taken those setbacks in stride.
“Yes, I would love for it to have been rebuilt when it should have been rebuilt, but it’s not an obstacle,” she said. “I encourage my children to always grow where you’re planted and go with the flow, because things aren’t perfect and they have to learn to deal with that.”
Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said the district has made some of the needed repairs at Oakridge, but is struggling to persuade state lawmakers to restore Broward’s construction budget to its previous, higher levels.
“The Oakridge situation, and this Teacher of the Year award, what that kind of says to you is, look, we’ve got people who are working under all kinds of conditions to deliver, day in and day out,” Runcie said. “We need to make sure that they have the best conditions possible. If we can do that, imagine what kind of outcomes we can get for our kids.”