A group of city leaders and Seahawks made their way to 10 schools April 3 to surprise teachers who are “Ahead of the Class.”
The top 10 finalists come from a range of schools in Renton. This year seven finalists are from Renton School District, the other three from Renton Prep Christian School, New Horizon School and Renton Technical College.
This is the 17th year of Ahead of the Class Excellence in Education Awards, a partnership between the Renton Chamber of Commerce, Renton schools and local businesses. The top five teachers will receive $500 dollars on April 18 at the IKEA Performing Arts Center. The other five teachers will receive $100.
Elizabeth Zimmerman has been at Campbell Hill Elementary School for 13 years, and a second-grade teacher for three years. This is her second time as a finalist for the award.
This year, Zimmerman’s flight had just touched down in Florida when the principal texted that she had great news about her being in the top 10. Then she received a video of the kids surprised in the classroom that day. She said it brought tears to her eyes to see her students excited with the surprise, and well-behaved while she was out of town.
It’s been a great year for Zimmerman’s second graders, she said. One of her students this year wasn’t reading, and now he’s reading at a first grade level, aloud, and laughing with the words on the pages.
Another kid said to her right before she left to Florida: “Now I get it, when my brain’s calm I can learn.”
Zimmerman said she likes the Ahead of the Class awards because it gives a spotlight to teachers, whose work isn’t commonly recognized.
Here is the work of a few other teachers in the top 10:
Kayla Vrudny has taught at Renton Prep Christian School for seven years, and was also in the Top 10. She said it was great Ahead of the Class recognizes teachers.
As a third grade teacher, she was showing their class dance to the whole school when Blitz and the pack showed up. It was a nice surprise, Vrudny said.
Being a part of the Renton Prep team has been an honor, she said, and what’s special about the school, and her class, is making sure it’s a safe, enjoyable place. Part of that, she said, is the foundation in faith as a Christian school and also encouraging students to make mistakes.
Vrudny also said she enjoys the freedom and flexibility with her curriculum, using field trips to teach the students, including a trip to iFly in Tukwila.
New Horizon School, which is for students with learning disabilities and other learning differences, was also represented in the top ten by co-founder Kathleen DeBruyn who teaches high school juniors.
DeBruyn said she didn’t know much about Ahead of Class before being encouraged to apply this year. When the party came into the door, it took several moments of thinking it was for a student’s birthday before she realized it was all for her.
She got a hug from Blitz and they snapped some pictures while she remained in a daze about the whole thing.
As far as what makes DeBruyn “ahead of the class,” she said it’s hard to describe, but it’s really about being able to change the way she teaches all the time, checking in with students to make sure they’re on board with what they want to learn.
“I have to be on my feet and be ready to answer, and if I don’t know, say: ‘I don’t know, but let’s find the answer together,” DeBruyn said.
Elizabeth Demong is a full time faculty in the RTC program formerly known as basic studies. This is her fourth year at the school.
She teaches math classes that help students receive their high school diploma.
Demong and her colleague in the other math department, Marty Cooksey, realized they had two sets of students paying different amounts for the same classes.
There used to be a test that would place both high school diploma students and other college students into one of the math classes, either college level or the four classes below-college-level called developmental math.
For high school diplomas, students only paid $25 for these developmental math classes, but wouldn’t receive college credit. All other students pay tuition, and they had a separate developmental math curriculum for those students.
As a high-school dropout who went through the developmental math course at a community college and went on to get her masters degree, Demong said she understands student frustration of placing in the lowest level and working through four math classes before you can even get to your prerequisite.
“This is an enormous barrier, and it’s not just here at RTC it’s every community college in Western Washington,” Demong said.
So her and Cooksey received a grant to redevelop the math sequence. They have condensed those four classes into one class, A-Math 190, and there’s no placement testing.
Now high school diploma students and other students are in the same class, though other students still pay typical tuition to meet requirements for their financial aid.
For this project, both faculty were nominated as a finalist for the Ahead of the Class Award, and surprised in front of their pilot class for the project, on their very first day of the new combined class. It was a funny thing for the first day, Demong said.
Tracy Dyson, another finalist with Renton School District, was a finalist before and has been with the district for about 32 years.
This was her first year working with kindergarteners in 26 years at Hazelwood Elementary School. The students were all shocked during the surprise, Dyson said.
Dyson circled back to the appreciation of the Ahead of the Class awards, saying she feels in general you don’t receive recognition in teaching, and it’s nice that this award not only recognizes ten people, but ten people at a variety of schools here in Renton.
More information on the final event and registration is available here.
Other finalists include:
• Lauren Daugherty, Nelson Middle School
• Christina Neuschwander, Renton High School
• Ryan Torpie, Dimmitt Middle School
• Kaia Tomokiyo, Sartori Elementary School
• Tyler Svenson, Risdon Middle School
This article has been corrected to show that the high school diploma students at Renton Technical College are different from the running start students, which is a different program.