City schools pick their all stars, honor teachers of the year

Board members and several audience members wiped tears from their eyes during Tuesday’s Harrisonburg City school board meeting as 10 HCPS teachers received “Teacher of the Year” awards from their respective schools.

Director of Human Resources Jeremy Weaver and Assistant Director of Human Resources Jeron Baker presented the winners to the board, along with a stack of trading cards featuring each top educator from each HCPS campus. 

“I feel like I’ve won the lottery this year in reading through all the submissions for educator of the year,” Weaver told the board, adding that all teachers were selected by their peers through a nomination process at their home schools. In total, Weaver said they received 182 nominations for educator of the year. 

The awards, sponsored by the Harrisonburg Education Foundation, also came with a gift basket for each teacher filled with snacks, HCPS trading cards and a cash prize.

As Weaver and Baker called educators to the front of City Council Chambers to be individually recognized, they read words from the nominators, who included the teachers’ colleagues, administrators and their students.

Melissa Runion: Elon Rhodes, Pre-K

Melissa Runion has worked with the division’s youngest learners at Elon Rhodes Pre-K for just two years, but one of her colleagues described her as a “model teacher.” 

“She is able to create a classroom family where every child belongs,” Weaver read. “When entering her classroom, you can feel the buzz of students’ enthusiasm.”

Weaver added that Runion is expanding her skill set by taking graduate-level courses to become endorsed in early childhood special education. She also serves the community in her free time by serving as a mentor for at-risk youth as well as a mentor and resource for parents as a family services specialist.

Weaver said that one student commented, “She is a little bit funny.”

Allison Brandmark: Bluestone Elementary, Special Education

Peter Norment, principal of Bluestone Elementary, wrote in his nomination that Allison Brandmark “sets the standard for the rest of us when it comes to high expectations for our students.”

Weaver read Norment’s remarks: “It does not matter the ability or what challenges the student is coming to us with, she expects and truly believes that every child is capable. And it works.”

Brandmark leads monthly school-based professional learning opportunities on inclusive practices for the staff of Bluestone. 

“My philosophy of teaching centers on creating an inclusive and supportive environment where every student feels valued, respected and empowered to learn and grow,” Brandmark said. “I firmly believe that all students possess the ability to succeed and it is my commitment to fostering an atmosphere of inclusion and high expectations that drives my teaching practice.”

Ebony Cleveland: Keister Elementary, Kindergarten

Erin Young, principal of Keister Elementary, wrote in her nomination that Ebony Cleveland is “dedicated, child-centered and flexible” in every role she’s served in. 

Weaver said parents, colleagues at Keister, central office staff and students have all shared positive feedback about Cleveland — particularly in her consideration of equity and inclusion. 

“I believe this has allowed all learners to find and value a place in their classroom community,” Cleveland said. 

Samantha Kullander: Smithland Elementary, Health and Physical Education

Samantha Kullander has served on the Smithland Elementary leadership team, led school-wide events and is known for visiting classrooms to connect with students. 

“She is thorough, organized and passionate about students’ learning habits for a healthy lifestyle,” Janis Churchill, Smithland’s principal, wrote in her nomination of Kullander. “She encourages students to be leaders and team players.”

Baker said Kullander provides daily opportunities for students to make meaning and build connections to what they already know, and ultimately serves as a mentor for students and teachers alike.

Kolby Finch: Spotswood Elementary, 3rd Grade

Brendon Derstine, principal of Spotswood Elementary, nominated Kolby Finch for her dedication to “meeting student needs where they are and pushing them to high levels of achievement.”

Derstine wrote that Finch works hard to provide daily opportunities for her students to develop as readers, writers, mathematicians and scientists, while also helping them to develop their social and emotional skills.

Weaver read a student’s comment about Finch: “Ms. Finch taught our whole class to be kind … and she was one of my favorite teachers because she helped me inch toward liking math.”

Jennifer Hammer: Stone Spring Elementary, 4th Grade

Norris Bunn, principal of Stone Spring Elementary, wrote in his nomination of Jennifer Hammer that she “possesses the ability to tailor instruction to meet the diverse needs of her students.”

Bunn wrote that he’s been called to Hammer’s classroom for support in the past, and when he arrived, Hammer would always go with the student in need while he supported the rest of the class. 

“She has the distinction among her peers of being the teacher that most students identify as their number one trusted adult in the building,” Bunn wrote.

Baker added that Hammer is “basically the superhero of teachers,” according to her students.

Rachel Stutzman: Waterman Elementary, 4th Grade

Weaver said Waterman Elementary school teacher Rachel Stutzman is known by her colleagues for the quote above her desk that reads, “In order to teach you, I must know you.”

“Ms. Stutzman truly knows all of her students,” Waterman principal Ian Linden wrote in his nomination of Stutzman. “When you walk into her classroom, you can immediately feel the community atmosphere that she has developed.”

Stutzman is also known for her passion for music that she integrates into lessons. Weaver said the sound of a ukulele can often be heard coming from Stutzman’s classroom, along with a choir of students singing the songs she wrote about the five regions of Virginia or the Jamestown settlement. 

Weaver told the board that a student mentioned Stutzman’s American Sign Language skills in their nomination.

“She even created a sign language routine that we do every day that helps us remember that we are capable, and to show everyone kindness, positivity and respect,” Weaver read the student’s words through misty eyes. 

Rachel Sauder: Skyline Middle, 8th Grade Math

Daniel Kirwan, principal of Skyline Middle, wrote in his nomination that every time he’s visited Rachel Sauder’s classroom, her students are “engaged in high-quality learning individually, as a class and in collaborative groups.”

Sauder is also the coach of the Skyline Middle soccer team, which, under her leadership, has achieved the first winning record for the school. She has also encouraged more girls to participate and learn the game. 

“Not only does [coaching] allow me to combine my love for teaching and soccer,” Sauder reflected. “But it is an incredible opportunity to get to know students outside of the classroom and teach them valuable life skills.”

Kirwan wrote that Sauder “embodies [Skyline’s] motto of peace, love, and learning.”

Jennifer McIntyre, Thomas Harrison Middle, Math

Sonya Bullard, Thomas Harrison Middle School principal, has worked with Jennifer McIntyre for seven years. She said McIntyre’s ability to engage students exceeds that of others, and that she never loses sight of her “compassion and commitment to positively impacting student achievement.”

Bullard also wrote that McIntyre is “always willing to try something new,” despite her years of experience. 

“Jenn McIntyre is the kind of teacher we all hope our children have at least once in their educational experience,” Bullard wrote. “Her talents span a broad arena of skills and her ability to motivate others to follow is significant.”

Geoffray Estes, Harrisonburg High School, CTE

Melissa Hensley, Harrisonburg High School principal, wrote in her nomination that Geoffray Estes is “not just a dynamic teacher who inspires his students to reach their full potential, but also a beacon of passion for teaching.”

Baker read a portion of a nomination from Erich Sneller, a science teacher at Harrisonburg High who has worked with Geoff for the past nine years: “Teaching alongside Geoff and collaborating with him for the STEM Academy is a special professional privilege that I do not take for granted. Collaborating with Geoff always enriches my process, deepens my thinking, and keeps me energized to dream and design experiences for students and staff alike.”

Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ Educator of the Year 2024: Geoffray Estes

City Council Chambers erupted with cheers when Weaver announced that Estes was not only the top educator of Harrisonburg High School but also HCPS’s Educator of the Year. 

Weaver said he’d reached out to the Director of the Governor’s STEM Academy at Harrisonburg High Myron Blosser for congratulatory remarks. Blosser responded that Estes is “a master at his craft.”

“Geoff is constantly shouting the accolades of his students, while not once calling attention to the driving force, the motivator and the engine behind it all: himself,” Blosser wrote. 

Blosser wrote that Estes has volunteered to juggle fire for the Back-to-School Bash, led a seminar on astronomy and spent time after school and on weekends with students to complete projects. He added that Estes’ most consistent quality is his intentionality.

Geoffray Estes, left, accepts the Teacher of the Year award for the Harrisonburg City Public Schools in 2024. (Photo by Haley Thomas)

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