Excellence in education honored


Katy Turnbull believes in beginnings -- getting her first-graders going in their school careers with a solid foundation of skills and curiosity, starting any visit to Seward Elementary School with a burst of flowers, initiating conversation with a warm smile so encouraging it makes one wish they had an art project or writing assignment to show her, and kicking off each day in her classroom with enthusiasm and fun. That especially goes for the beginning of the school year, where the first day of class means students' first scientific exploration -- of worms.

Turnbull, with help from her husband, Craig, digs up a plastic tub-worth of earthworms for her students to investigate on the first day of school. Students get an engaging lesson in life science, practice following instructions -- touch, don't squish -- and, perhaps most importantly, see that learning is fun.

"The worms are kind of a way to have their first day of school be something unique for the kids, and also gives me the opportunity to watch them as they explore," Turnbull said.

It's this kind of hands-on approach, creativity in designing multidiscipline lessons, and commitment to not only help students learn, but love to learn, that earned Turnbull the distinction of being named the 2010-11 BP Teacher of the Year for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

"Katy's been a source of tremendous help at our school," said Seward Elementary School Principal David Kingsland, noting Turnbull's willingness to step in as acting principal, participation in the school's leadership and intervention teams, and having her students plant and maintain a thriving garden in front of the school. "A lot of teachers have kids plant seeds, but she takes it beyond that. She really does bring the outside in. She'll incorporate science into it, and writing and art. And she actually goes outside and has them dig in the dirt and take roots apart and just do all sorts of hands-on stuff."

A reception was help Thursday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center to honor the five KPBSD teachers chosen for recognition as BP Teachers of Excellence and name the peninsula's Teacher of the Year. This is the 16th year of BP's teacher recognition program, conducted in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna and Fairbanks school districts. More than 1,000 nominees were submitted this year, which is twice the nominations received last year, said presenter Randal Buckendorf, chief counsel with BP.

"In the 16 years of the program we've recognized many great teachers. These educators haven't just taught our children, they teach us. They inspire us to do our best," he said.

The five KPBSD BP Teachers of Excellence and their schools receive $500 gift cards, with the BP Teacher of the Year getting an additional $1,500 for continuing education. The 2010-11 award recipients are:

* John Harro, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade computer technology classes at Soldotna Middle School. His curriculum includes a robotics class, where he encourages his students to become problem solvers by trial and error, and to share what they learn with the class. Harro also coaches the Nordic skiing and cross country teams.

* Sandra Kay Lewis, who teaches art at Kenai Central High School. She encourages her students to build their artistic skills with practice and patience. Her students showcase their artwork in the district's annual art show, which she has organized for 22 years. Lewis also is the advisor to the National Honor Society and an active community volunteer.

* Debbie Piper, who teaches second grade and kindergarten through sixth-grade art classes at McNeil Canyon Elementary School. For nearly 30 years, Piper has instilled a love of academic and artistic knowledge in her students. She is a mentor and shares her passion for education with other teachers.

* Jeffrey Szarzi, who teaches math and science at Homer Flex High School. Szarzi challenges his students to reach a higher level and to accept responsibility for their own success.

Turnbull has been a teacher for 31 years, 21 of those in KPBSD, with four years at Moose Pass School and the rest in Seward, where she and her husband raised their two sons.

She's known since taking an education practicum class as a sophomore in college that the classroom is where she wanted to be, working with the primary grades, in particular.

"They're just magical, they truly are. They're learning to read and it's so exciting for them and they just love to learn. They're like little sponges -- they pick up everything. It's exciting to be a part of that time in their school lives when they're really learning skills that they'll use the rest of their lives," Turnbull said.

She's retiring this year but plans to still be involved in Seward schools. Even if she isn't there for the day-to-day activities, she'll still forward the overall goal -- to plant the seeds of knowledge in young learners and nurture them as they grow.

"This is the children's first school experience, and you want it to be positive," she said. "You want to develop that inquiry that they need. They just have that natural curiosity, and you want to give them the tools that they can learn to explore the world around them."