Manatee School District announces winners of the annual Excellence in Education Awards

The School District of Manatee County celebrated eight finalists during its annual Excellence in Education Awards, held at the main campus of Manatee Technical College on Wednesday evening.

Principals described their employees as passionate and indispensable, but only two could win a $5,000 award from Suncoast Credit Union, along with other prizes worth thousands more.

Amanda Keeney, the cafeteria manager at Myakka City Elementary School, won Support Employee of the Year.

Debra Hartline, a reading teacher at Braden River High School, won Educator of the Year.

Hartline is now eligible for a statewide Teacher of the Year award, hosted by Macy’s and the Florida Department of Education, while Keeney is eligible for the Florida School-Related Employee of the Year competition.

As the cafeteria manager, Keeney founded a garden club to educate students about the origin of their food, and she often hosts “field trips” to the lunchroom, where students can try new vegetables.

In a video prepared before the award ceremony, Myakka City Elementary Principal Kathy Price referred to her cafeteria manager as a team player.

“She really makes the cafeteria warm and inviting for the kids,” Price said. “She always has cute themes and gets the kids motivated and excited to try new things.”

Keeney remixed “Ice Ice Baby,” the 90’s hit by Vanilla Ice, and dubbed it “Lunch Lunch Lady,” which played during the announcement at Wednesday’s award ceremony.

“As I stand here tonight, this award is not what makes me proud or honorable or great,” Keeney said. “The children that I serve every day are what make me feel those things. Each child is a gift, and I’m truly honored to serve them every day.”

After tutoring her own daughter, Hartline decided to become a teacher. Approximately 96 percent of her students meet the reading requirement to graduate from high school each year, according to the school district.

In her own introductory video at the award ceremony, Braden River High Principal Sharon Scarbrough referred to the reading teacher as a model instructor for her students.

“The pure joy, the hugs, the tears they share together is really why so many of us got into education,” Scarbrough said.

Hartline said she finds joy in working at Braden River High and helping students to advance beyond their expectations.

“My proudest moments are when I watch my students take the walk they never thought they would take,” she said. “They walk across the stage to graduate.”

Hartline and Keeney were among eight finalists at Wednesday’s ceremony, and they were among 56 original semifinalists, each nominated by a parent, student, Manatee resident or district employee.

Two committees — composed of educators, administrators and local business partners — chose the finalists. Manatee Education Association, the local teachers’ union, partners with local organizations to make the event possible.

Superintendent Cynthia Saunders thanked community partners and Wednesday’s guests at the 2019 Excellence in Education Awards.

“Without each and every one of you, this would not be possible,” she said.

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.