Educators honored for their dedication to special education students

Educators honored for their dedication to special education students

Teachers, instructional assistants (IA) and others who make a difference in the lives of special education students and their families were honored May 16 at the 13th annual Staff Appreciation Awards given by the Charles County Special Education Advisory Committee (SECAC).

Awards were given in the categories of elementary, middle and high school teams; elementary, middle and high school individual educators; related services personnel and support service workers. Parents, families and students nominated the recipients, writing letters of support, detailing how educators have helped students — and by extension — the child’s family and community.

“It is such a great feeling to know that your child is in great hands, and is loved while safely at school, rather than to feel that he is just another number,” wrote parent Chris Bikowski on behalf of his family in nominating the William A. Diggs Elementary School team of fifth-grade teacher Natalie Wagner, special education IA Rebecca Bursheim-LaFontant and Jordan Hess, a special education teacher. “In this time in our country where teachers haven’t been shown the proper appreciation they deserve; we would like to show our gratitude for these three teachers who have provided such exceptional care to our son,” Bikowski said. 

Paul Little, the father of a Milton M. Somers Middle School student, credited the team of Pamela Jenkins, a pupil personnel worker, Kathleen Burke, a compliance facilitator, and Karen Attick, the school counselor, with helping his daughter. “Without question, this team has gone above and beyond the call of duty to shepherd her down the path of recovery,” Little wrote in nomination materials. “I don’t know where she or I would be today without their help. This team may have saved her life.” He isn’t the only one who noticed the Somers’ team work. A doctor told Little, “I have never seen a school system in Maryland or Virginia try this hard,” he wrote.

Some educators all but become members of a student’s family.

Brandi Goldring, the mother of six children, said she was used to getting phone calls at work about her son’s behavior. The phone calls stressed her out and turned her day upside down. Once Mary B. Neal Elementary School special education teacher Shanita Watson entered the picture, things changed. The number of phone calls didn’t lessen, but they became less stressful. “To know that I can trust Ms. Watson with my child, and that he trusts her as well, means so much,” Goldring said. “I want to simply thank her for being a teacher who has become part of my family.”

Parents aren’t the only ones who recognize the impact teachers and others have on the lives of their children. Students understand it, too.

Gerik Babiarz, a freshman at St. Charles High School, honored his theater arts teacher Timothy LaBelle. Babiarz credits LaBelle with helping him become more sociable. “Last year I had three friends, now I have too many to count,” Babiarz said. He thanked LaBelle for helping him with communication skills. “He helps me understand when someone is joking or when they’re upset,” he said. “And the hardest of them all — sarcasm.”

Lydell Vines, a former Maurice J. McDonough High School student now at the Robert D. Stethem Educational Center, hailed Monique Robinson Poole, the center’s job coordinator, as someone who believes in him — a belief that goes a long way. “It’s amazing that she looks at me as a human, not like a nobody,” Vines wrote. He will be the first person in his family to graduate high school, an accomplishment he thanks Poole for. It’s she who helped him set goals and strive for his diploma. “She has a great heart toward myself and others,” Vines said. “I wish I could do more than write this letter.”

Other teachers are credited with giving their students the boost of confidence they need when life gets overwhelming. The Davis family nominated Nicholas Gardiner, a fifth-grade teacher at Berry Elementary School, for guiding their son after he received a life-altering medical diagnosis. After Gardiner spoke with the Davises, he “had a heart-to-heart with our son, speaking of how he’s a leader and recognizes those leadership qualities within him,” the nomination read. “His talk not only motivated our son, but resonated so much with him he began to cry. Not from sadness, but from hearing someone else say they believe in him.”

The SECAC received more than 100 nominations. The winners are:

  • Elementary school team — William A. Diggs Elementary School

Natalie Wagner, fifth-grade teacher; Rebecca Bursheim-LaFontant, special education IA; and Jordan Hess, special education teacher.

  • Middle school team — Milton M. Somers Middle School

Pamela Jenkins, pupil personnel worker; Kathleen Burke, compliance facilitator; and Karen Attick, school counselor.

  • High school team — North Point High School

David Mitchell, special education teacher; Maryann Krayer, psychologist; and Albert Coleman, long-term substitute.

  • Elementary school individual — tie

Nicholas Gardiner, fifth-grade teacher, Berry Elementary School; and Shanita Watson, special education teacher, Mary B. Neal Elementary School.

  • Middle school individual

Katherine Fitzpatrick, special education teacher, Benjamin Stoddert Middle School.

  • High school individual — tie

Nancy Anderson, special education teacher, North Point; and Timothy LaBelle, theater arts teacher, St. Charles High School.

  • Related services

Monique Robinson Poole, job placement coordinator, Robert D. Stethem Educational Center.

  • Support services

Jim Thorne, driver of Bus 332, Dr. James Craik Elementary School.

About CCPS

Charles County Public Schools provides 26,900 students in grades prekindergarten through 12 with an academically challenging education. Located in Southern Maryland, Charles County Public Schools has 36 schools that offer a technologically advanced, progressive and high quality education that builds character, equips for leadership and prepares students for life, careers and higher education.


The Charles County public school system does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or disability in its programs, activities or employment practices. For inquiries, please contact Patricia Vaira, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 Coordinator (students) or Nikial M. Majors, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 coordinator (employees/ adults), at Charles County Public Schools, Jesse L. Starkey Administration Building, P.O. Box 2770, La Plata, MD 20646; 301-932-6610/301-870-3814. For special accommodations call 301-934-7230 or TDD 1-800-735-2258 two weeks prior to the event.


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