The first week of school can be rough for any kid, especially the ones who don’t want to say goodbye to mom.
Jenna Pugh remembers shedding a few tears early in Mrs. Park’s first-grade class.
Then came hugs from Mrs. Park that chased away the sadness.
“I remember her being so warm and loving,” said Pugh.
It’s not all Pugh remembers. There was Mrs. Park singing. Or Mrs. Park dancing. Just ways to keep everyone learning and engaged.
“She was just a fun teacher,” said Pugh.
That was in the early ‘90s at Alimacani Elementary School.
While the fashion styles, technology and curriculum all have drastically changed nearly 25 years later, Kay Park has remained a constant for students.
She has been in the business of teaching kids for 32 years, but this is the year in which her distinctive style and efforts in and out of her third-grade classroom have earned her top honors.
Park recently was named the Florida Blue Duval County Teacher of the Year, an honor that means she’ll compete for a statewide title this summer.
Pugh was among those who nominated her, but not as a former student. Instead, it came as a colleague. Pugh teaches first grade at Alimacani and said Park hasn’t changed.
It’s still all about contagious positivity, a loving nature and a dedication to the kids.
It’s just after 8:30 a.m. Friday, but the start of the school day doesn’t mean dillydallying or chatter.
Most of Park’s students already are in their seats with books in front of them, a couple of others are on computers reviewing articles. It’s independent reading and writing time.
“I want to see some great work,” said Park in an encouraging but all-business tone. “I want to see some reading, I want to hear some writing.”
The students are on task when the opening beats to Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” suddenly start playing, breaking the silence.
“The future looks bright ahead,” croons Presley as Park is in the corner briskly bobbing her head and snapping her fingers to the rhythm.
The kids keep working until they’re interrupted by morning announcements. It’s part of the ritual, but there is a new wrinkle today.
Alimacani students are encouraged to wear purple the following Wednesday to celebrate the children of military personnel. Journals are unearthed for next-week reminders and a brief discussion about nearby Mayport Naval Station ensues.
It’s where Park’s husband, Steve, was stationed until he retired after years of bouncing around the U.S.
Her message isn’t a reflection of her husband’s efforts, though. It’s about the military kids and what they go through.
Announcements done, it’s time to share independent reading work.
Maybe it reflects what they were reading about. Maybe it’s about another topic they just wanted to write about. But everyone eventually steps to the front of the room to share.
It’s a way to help students take ownership of their work while building self-esteem and public speaking prowess.
Presley is up first to talk about the cool features of her Neverland Island retreat. Skittles for walls. A roof made of Twix bars. Amelia Earhart is there and so is Presley’s pet wolf, Elvis. Why wouldn’t a girl named Presley have a wolf named Elvis?
Boys are out of luck: Only girls can visit. Plus, she gives the girls $5 million each.
Some classmates grin, a couple nod in approval before asking Presley a few questions.
“Do you ever chew on your house?” Without a moment’s hesitation, Presley answers, “Yes.”
“Why are you giving $5 million to girls?” Easy. “Because I’ll be rich,” said Presley. “And no boys are allowed, ever.”
Park lets out a big laugh at that one.
Karleigh is up next to talk about her beloved dog. Then Ryan, who educates his classmates about monkeys that go to college. Harrison informs them the Nintendo 3DS is the world’s best-selling video game unit — a nifty fact he picked up in a Guinness Book of World Records.
Next up is Duval County curriculum through a book about water on Earth. Context clues and vocabulary are the learning priorities.
After 15 minutes of working as a class, the children break off into prearranged groups to work in teams focused on reading, writing and comprehension.
The kids know exactly what to do, how to act and what’s expected of them.
“We’re really into rituals and routines … and we run a tight schedule,” said Park. “It’s bell-to-bell instruction.”
She gets them for 71/2 hours a day and wants to make the most of it all.
Heart in the classroom
Park didn’t have to look far to find teaching role models. Her mother taught third-grade in Pensacola for 36 years. Her father was a principal.
Park has been teaching for 32 years, 26 of them at Alimacani. She never wanted to become a principal or head Downtown to be an administrator. She felt her best gift would be to stay in the classroom.
Park has shared that passion with young teachers during her career, mentoring too many to remember at school and the University of North Florida.
It’s what she wants to continue to do when she retires in a couple of years.
Pugh, coming up on her 10th year of teaching, calls it admirable for Park to dedicate her life to the classroom. It’s where the biggest difference in children’s lives is made, she said.
It made a difference on Pugh, too. Not just as a student, but as a teacher. Park taught her about being a leader in the classroom.
And her attitude and encouragement helped push aside Pugh’s thoughts of quitting after a rough year of co-teaching with someone who wasn’t very positive.
“She was there the whole time,” Pugh said. “I owe my career to her.”
Park might owe her recent recognition to Pugh and others who convinced her to fill out the paperwork for Duval County teacher of the year. She’d always been nominated, Pugh said, but they told her it was her year.
Park remembers the steps along the way to that point. The visit from her principal announcing she’d been named Alimacani’s teacher of the year, which caused her kids and family to be ecstatic.
Months later came the visit from Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to congratulate her in front of the school on being named one of five local finalists.
Finally the surprise at the awards ceremony, the moment of shock and hearing her cheering section erupt.
However, there was another part she counts as among her favorites.
Two students who had been in her class last year, Michael and Ja’Sean, were the ones to introduce her without using notes. Ja’Sean even sang for the audience, much to Park’s delight.
It always comes back to the kids.