Meet the Educator of the Year Finalists

The six finalists for PBI’s 2023 Educator of the Year Award think outside the box to create an environment where learning blossoms

Jennifer Petti, Art Teacher, Palm Beach Public Elementary School. Photo by Carrie Bradburn
Jennifer Petti. Photo by Carrie Bradburn

Jennifer Petti

Art Teacher, Palm Beach Public Elementary School 

For the first 16 years of her education career, Jennifer Petti was a classroom teacher and reading specialist. Then she got the chance to do something different: serve as the art teacher for Palm Beach Public, a role she’s held for a decade. 

“I love the freedom and creativity that you can express in the art room,” Petti says. “We rarely do the same thing twice. The art room is magic.”

Petti channels that magic to help students build self-confidence, use their imagination, and take risks. She has forged relationships with the Town of Palm Beach, Garden Club of Palm Beach, West Palm Beach Downtown Development Authority, and Mandel Recreation Center, among others, giving her students the chance to be vital members of the community by participating in special events and initiatives. Her favorite activity, however, is the annual schoolwide art showcase, where each student has at least one piece of art on display. The themed event is attended by the students and their families.  

“It’s an important part of our school community,” says Petti, who believes art unites people from diverse cultures and abilities. “You can have a student who is an English language learner or is terrible at math, but man, can she draw and shine in the art room.”

As a “teacher of small humans,” Petti aims to help them become effective communicators, have healthy relationships, see different points of view, be critical thinkers, and have a growth mindset. “It’s okay for them to make mistakes, to learn and grow from them,” she says. “Make something beautiful through thoughtful decisions and achieve the goals you’re working toward.” 

Jennifer Sabugo, Technology and Innovation Teacher, Palm Beach Day Academy. Photo by Marcos Sabugo
Jennifer Sabugo. Photo by Marcos Sabugo

Jennifer Sabugo

Technology and Innovation Teacher, Palm Beach Day Academy

Today’s generation of elementary-aged children have been exposed to technology since birth, which should make Jennifer Sabugo’s job as Palm Beach Day Academy’s technology and innovation teacher for students in kindergarten to third grade easy. The challenge, however, comes in which side of technology the kids find themselves. 

“The difference with technology in education is how to use it as a creator rather than a consumer,” Sabugo says. “We aren’t just playing a game but creating it.” 

In Sabugo’s classroom, creation comes in many forms. Students are building Lego structures and programming robots to travel through them. They are employing video, animation, and voice-typing for storytelling. They are creating animated ghost holograms and bringing drawings of robots to life through paper circuitry. 

Sabugo, who got her start in technology and innovation education more than 20 years ago after leaving a career in graphic design, says that she loves when she can collaborate with other teachers and use tech to support their efforts. She encourages her students to conceive of ways to tie tech into classroom projects and provides them with the tools and knowledge to make that happen. “I get to see a different side of the kids,” she says. “There could be a child who struggles in math and reading and writing, but they come to my classroom and they’re free.”

Tiffany Cox, Director of Bands, Lake Worth Community High School. Photo courtesy of FAU
Tiffany Cox. Photo courtesy of FAU

Tiffany Cox

Director of Bands, Lake Worth Community High School

Tiffany Cox never intended to be a music teacher—or a teacher at all. She saw the triumphs and trials her mother experienced in her teaching career and instead decided to study music therapy. “I set out to use music for good,” she says. 

Nevertheless, Cox began teaching in Palm Beach County 12 years ago and joined the staff at Lake Worth Community High School in 2017 as director of bands. Her marching band had only nine participants at the time, and to find success, she knew she’d need to do more than teach teenagers how to play an instrument. 

“In Lake Worth, we have a lot of poverty and a lot of less-than-ideal home situations,” Cox explains. “To grow the program, we knew we’d have to support the students.”

She worked with school administrators to foster partnerships with organizations to meet students’ basic needs, as well as provide instruments, supplies, and support for the cost of participating in a competitive marching band program. Now, the band room has become a place where students can get a meal, clothes, school supplies, help finding an internship or with college applications, and more. In return, the school has seen improved grades, better test scores, and fewer tardies and absences among band students, who numbered nearly 200 this past school year. 

“For me, the music is just a small part of what we do,” Cox says. “We want our kids to have the opportunity to be children. The success of our program comes in that we are raising healthy human beings who are contributing to our community and will thrive in our society.”

Mildred Acosta, Fourth-Grade Teacher, Rosarian Academy. Photo by Carrie Bradburn
Mildred Acosta. Photo by Carrie Bradburn

Mildred Acosta

Fourth-Grade Teacher, Rosarian Academy

Every day when Mildred Acosta walks into Rosarian Academy in West Palm Beach, she aims to teach with purpose. With her fourth graders, that means customizing lessons to meet each student’s needs. 

“I want lessons to be meaningful, for the children to draw from their own experiences,” says Acosta, who achieves this goal through differentiated learning. She makes an assignment for the entire class, but then breaks her students into smaller groups in order to tailor instruction to their skill level. This enables and empowers students to learn through their own lens, supported by a personalized approach and enhanced by their passions. 

“I had a child who struggled with reading but had a great affinity for fishing and marine life,” she explains. “When we read a book about the ocean, they can learn from each other. It works because the goal is for them to acquire knowledge.”

In 2022, Acosta shared her approach with students far outside her classroom when she traveled to Kenya to volunteer with the Kijana Global Innovation School. She worked alongside Kenyan teachers, introducing the idea of differentiation and helping them develop hands-on activities for their students. Acosta picked up a few techniques in Kenya that she brought home to Rosarian, as well. 

“They have a beautiful way of celebrating their mistakes,” she says. When a child made an error the class would stop, do a small dance, and repeat a phrase that indicated the student was brave to try. “The practice tells the students that you learn when someone makes a mistake. There’s no shame in a mistake. When you have a safe, nurturing environment, you learn that it’s okay to give it a shot.” 

Brianna Riley, Fourth- and Fifth-Grade Teacher of Students with Autism, Jerry Thomas Elementary School. Photo by Carrie Bradburn
Brianna Riley. Photo by Carrie Bradburn

Brianna Riley

Fourth- and Fifth-Grade Teacher of Students with Autism, Jerry Thomas Elementary School

Brianna Riley’s role as a teacher of fourth- and fifth-grade students with autism at Jerry Thomas Elementary School in Jupiter doesn’t begin and end in her classroom. In fact, her goal is to teach all students, teachers, and community members to have empathy and awareness of the challenges that students with autism face. 

“As teachers, we have a job to be part of the community,” says Riley, who holds an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) endorsement and has taught Palm Beach County students with autism for eight years. “It’s important to lead with kindness and empathy.”

Those qualities create an environment where students feel comfortable and safe to make mistakes. “A world opens for them and that’s when they begin to grow,” she says. 

Riley has worked to have her pupils included in the same field trips and activities available to other students, such as the school’s Safety Patrol and fourth-grade field trip to St. Augustine. “With my students, we have some challenges,” she admits. “We want them to be in a setting where they’re comfortable and home in on what they can do and how we can make things accessible.” 

Riley has also been a part of the Special Olympics community for eight years and is building a team at the school. She says her work has only just begun, as each student presents unique needs and the world of autism is only beginning to be understood. 

“I don’t have it all figured out,” she says. “Each year, I continue to grow. It’s a continual learning process, but I think a sense of community is important for my students. They’re capable, but they just need tools to be successful.” 

Jessica Jackson, Third-Grade Teacher, Hagen Road Elementary School. Photo by Carrie Bradburn
Jessica Jackson. Photo by Carrie Bradburn

Jessica Jackson

Third-Grade Teacher, Hagen Road Elementary School 

With 20 years of teaching under her belt, Jessica Jackson, a third-grade teacher at Hagen Road Elementary in Boynton Beach, knows one thing for certain: “Teaching changes dramatically each year,” she says. 

In the 2022-23 school year, the greatest challenge she faced was the interest and abilities of her young readers. Fifteen students in her class had been identified as at risk for retention, which is mandated when specific proficiencies aren’t met.

“A lot of these kids had virtual kindergarten, and there [was] a huge drop in phonics recognition,” Jackson explains. Exposure to screen time is at an all-time high, as well, shortening attention spans and interest in books. Rather than fight the wave, Jackson leaned into it. 

“The kids are into TikTok and dance movements, so I foster engagement though body movement and singing,” she says. “We take a hands-on approach to reading with little chants and jingles, standing up, moving, and hand movements.”

Jackson says getting her students where they needed to be was an all-hands-on-deck effort that involved a team of specialists. She also credits taking time at the start of each day for a morning meeting, when she and her students gather on the carpet to talk about what’s happening in their lives, in and out of school. 

“We practice greetings, how to talk to people, and how to ask questions,” Jackson says. “Creating a warm, safe environment and letting them know we’re on their side—that’s our goal and our priority. No learning comes before that.”

Shot by PBI on location at the Boca Raton Museum of Art 

PBI would like to extend a special thanks to the Boca Raton Museum of Art. On view now through October 22, “Sri Prabha: Resonator – Reanimator” fuses ideas from Eastern philosophy and Western science in a psychedelic multiverse of saturated colors that pay homage to our connection to the natural world. 

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