Education

Manatee School for the Arts mourns passing of sixth-grade teacher Rebekah Hatmaker

BRADENTON -- Known for her exceedingly high heels, her love of the color pink and a passion for dance, Rebekah Hatmaker was the epitome of the Manatee School for the Arts' spirit, say those who knew her.

Ms. Hatmaker, a 31-year-old sixth-grade math teacher in her ninth year at the school, died Thursday from complications of a streptococcus infection, said Bill Jones, the school's principal.

"Everybody is just very distressed and very shocked," Jones said. "It's not something you're ever prepared for."

Students were not in class Friday because of an in-service work day, so grief counselors will be available at the school Monday for students and staff.

While some community members worried whether students might get sick, Jones said, the infection was not contagious and there was no need for parents or families to be alarmed.

The Florida Department of Health in Manatee County re

ceived and investigated a report of bacterial meningitis in a Manatee County woman caused from a strep infection. The investigation confirmed the report, but because of the type of infection and as a result of the investigation, there is no increased public-health risk, said Megan Jourdan, the public information coordinator.

"This is a rare outcome to a very common infection," Jourdan said.

There is no increased risk of severe illness for anyone who came into contact with Ms. Hatmaker, Jourdan said. The department is not recommending any testing measures, but Jourdan reminded the public to take the basic health precautions.

Ms. Hatmaker was a native Floridian and graduated from the University of South Florida. Her hobbies included dancing, shopping, traveling and spending time with her family. She loved the beach, trips to Disney World and Hello Kitty items.

Kelly Hillman, the director of marketing and events for the school, worked alongside Ms. Hatmaker as a teacher before becoming an administrator. She called her a fashion icon.

Every day, Ms. Hatmaker would wear a different pair of brightly colored high heels, Hillman said. "She loved this place," she said.

As a sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Hatmaker taught the newest and youngest members of the MSA family, Jones said. She and the rest of the sixth-grade team easily struck the balance between nurturing the students and allowing them to learn and become more independent, he said. Ms. Hatmaker was a calm and quiet teacher, who volunteered within the school community and really cared about the children.

"You really couldn't ask for a nicer person," Jones said. "Well, you could, but you wouldn't find one."

Ms. Hatmaker wanted the students to exceed academically while also pushing them into the arts, Hillman said.

"She believed everybody has the same ability if they have the same opportunities," she said.

A former college dancer, Ms. Hatmaker started the school's first dance team shortly after joining the staff in 2005, Jones said.

Students and friends posted on Ms. Hatmaker's Facebook on Friday, thanking her for all the help she had given them and saying it will be hard to walk past her door and not see her in her classroom.

Along with the grief counselors Monday, Jones said the students will be able to make remembrance posters. Students and staff can sign the posters, leaving memories or messages and the posters will then be passed along to Ms. Hatmaker's family.

Ms. Hatmaker is survived by her mother, Jaime Hatmaker Utz, her father, James Hatmaker, her sister, Sarah Hatmaker-Rutledge, grandparents Joe and Jean Byrd, and many aunts, uncles and cousins.

Memorial services are planned for 7 p.m. Tuesday at The Tabernacle Church on Desoto Road in Sarasota. A viewing will begin at 5 p.m. The family asks that, in lieu of flowers, any memorial gifts be made in Ms. Hatmaker's memory to a special fund for the Tabernacle Church building.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.

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