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Centennial Middle School science teacher is Miami-Dade Teacher of the Year

Marshall Ruffo didn’t grow up wanting to be an educator. The Centennial Middle School science teacher isn’t even sure how it happened.

“I tell everybody, this profession chose me,” Ruffo says.

It turns out, education made a good choice.

Ruffo was announced Wednesday as the 2014 Francisco R. Walker Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year. The 36-year-old Cutler Bay kid who spent the last 11 years teaching teenagers in his hometown beat out about 22,000 of his colleagues to take home $5,000, a brand new Scion and the coveted Golden Apple Award.

Clad in a charcoal gray suit, a choked up Ruffo had to take a few seconds to absorb the news onstage in front of hundreds of colleagues at The Doubletree by Hilton Hotel & Miami Airport Convention Center. He thanked his mom and dad, his fellow teachers and talked about “doing what I love.”

For Ruffo’s students, that means kayaking and sailing field trips, lionfish dissections and a three-day camping trip to Elliott Key, complete with a tent-destroying storm. It’s hands-on learning, like growing bell and banana peppers, tomatoes and sunflowers and then eating them. It’s the kind of teaching that leads to all his honors Earth science students and mixed-level marine science students scoring passing rates on key exams, according to the school district.

“He wants to do everything he can for them,” said Jennifer Myer, who teaches world history across the hall from Ruffo’s classroom. “This is his life. He lives for them.”

Ruffo said he never considered teaching until, as a senior at Florida International University majoring in botany, he got a taste of educating through the Audubon Society. He liked it, surprisingly. So instead of applying for medical school, he became a substitute teacher at Centennial and Cutler Ridge Middle, where he went to school as a kid.

He ended up getting a job at Centennial, and now he’s teaching 7th-, 8th- and ninth-graders, including one of his former classmate’s kids.

Ruffo’s passion for teaching even helped persuade Cutler Bay Mayor Edward MacDougall to reconsider investing millions in a charter school and instead push the money into converting Centennial into a high school. That process is currently underway.

“He invited me to take a look at what they’re doing there, and I have to tell you I was so overwhelmed with the dedication of the teachers,” said MacDougall, an old friend of Ruffo’s father.

Ruffo was one of five finalists. Runner-up went to Bradley Sultz, an AP psychology and world history, and honors world history at iPreparatory Academy in downtown Miami. The rookie Teacher of the Year award went to Mary Lantor of Morningside K-8 Academy.

The other four finalists for the top honor were Maria Donohue of Hialeah Gardens Senior High, Bradley Sultz of iPreparatory Academy, Christine Napoles of Hialeah Middle, and Susan Castleman of the Educational Alternative Outreach Program.