MANATEE -- Jennifer Willis, a first-grade teacher at Oneco Elementary, is described by co-workers as an energetic and charismatic leader. Willis is also co-chair of the Literacy Committee and a mentor at Oneco's Summer Academy.
Those classroom efforts paid off Wednesday evening when Willis was chosen Manatee County Educator of the Year at an award ceremony at the Manatee Technical Institute. She was presented with a $5,000 check from the Suncoast Credit Union Foundation, an all-expense paid trip to Pittsburgh for a Pirates game courtesy of the Pittsburgh Pirates, an all-expense paid trip for a teacher's conference at the University of Notre Dame, a Lenovo Thinkpad tablet, a $2,000 scholarship to Nova Southeastern University and an additional $1,000 from the Macy's Foundation, $250 of which will be donated to Oneco Elementary.
"Every teacher is deserving of recognition like this," Willis said. "Everyone who is a teacher works above and beyond."
The event was sponsored by the Manatee Education Foundation.
"It takes time, effort, generosity and lots of dedicated people to provide
quality education," said Mary Glass, executive director of the Manatee Education Foundation.
Willis was not the only honoree. Patrick Gallagher, energy and recycling specialist at the Manatee County School District Matzke Center, was named School Support Employee of the Year.
Gallagher has worked for the school district for six years and has cut district utility costs greatly. Gallagher is credited with saving the district $500,000 in utility and energy costs during the 2013-14 fiscal year. Gallagher also participates in the district's Aspiring Leaders program.
Gallagher also received a $5,000 check from the Suncoast Credit Union Foundation, a trip to Pittsburgh, a Lenovo Thinkpad tablet and a $250 school grant.
"We don't do this for ourselves, but for the children we serve," Gallagher said. "We don't do this alone, but we do this as a team."
Gallagher said he plans to give the money he won to the Florida State Elks Association, where he volunteers.
The Elks have donated books to Manatee County schools and aided the Feeding Empty Little Tummies program to provide food to families in need.
Willis said she plans to add the money to make a down payment on a home.
This is the second year in a row the Educator of the Year Award went to an Oneco Elementary School teacher. Zada Bazzy, a music education teacher at Oneco, won in 2013.
"We have a lot of powerful educators," Willis said.
Each school and work site in the Manatee County School District was allowed to nominate employees for the awards.
The nominee lists were trimmed to 12 semifinalists in each category. Committees comprised of peers, fellow educators and administrators selected four finalists for each award.
Willis will advance to the Florida Department of Education Macy's Teacher of the Year competition this spring, and Gallagher will advance to the Florida School Related Employee of the Year competition.
The other Educator of the Year finalists:
Jennifer Daly, language arts teacher at Palm View Elementary School.
Jackie Holloway, second-grade teacher at Gullett Elementary School.
Sarah Mitchell, science coach at Samoset Elementary School.
The semifinalists received a $1,000 scholarship to Nova Southeastern University and a Lenovo Thinkpad tablet.
The other Support Employee of the Year finalists:
Beth Haisley, Grapevine Café assistant manager at the School Support Center.
Rosemary Hopkins, senior secretary at Palm View Elementary School.
Marie Mueller, technology contact at Oneco Elementary School.
The finalists for Support Staffer of the Year received a Lenovo Thinkpad tablet.
All finalists received an engraved plaque.
The evening featured performances by the Haile Middle School dance team and MTI culinary students prepared hors d'oeuvres.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.