Updated by Gary Nager
Among more than 200 nominations for the 2024 Hillsborough County Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year award, just four finalists were selected.
And, although she didn’t end up winning the award, one of those four standout District-wide educators/finalists was Pride Elementary media specialist Suzy Tkacik.
“Mrs. Tkacik is deserving of this recognition because she positively influences every student, teacher, support person, district worker, and visitor who comes our way,” says Pride principal Paulette English. “She is enthusiastic, creative, motivating, and kind. Because of her leadership and love for students, our Media Center is a cheerful, well-organized, welcoming environment, and always buzzing with happy students, teachers and volunteers.”
The Ida S. Baker Diversity Educator of the Year is one of three awards given out each year by the Hillsborough Education Foundation, in partnership with Hillsborough County Public Schools.
According to the Foundation’s website, the award is named after Ida S. Baker, who became the first African-American to serve as Deputy Superintendent for the Florida Department of Education (DoE), after she also was the founding principal of Cape Coral High and the first-ever Black high school principal in Lee County. Baker was known for her efforts to support diverse students and encourage academic success. After her passing in 1992, the DoE created this statewide award in her honor.
Each school in Hillsborough County may nominate one teacher who, “embodies the pioneering spirit of Ida S. Baker by going above and beyond to meet the needs of our diverse student population.”
Suzy says she loves being the media specialist at Pride, where most of the school’s families come from other countries.
“About 60 percent of our families are from India, and then we have students from China, South America, Africa, Europe, Eastern Europe and others,” she says. “I’ve gotten to meet students from all around the world.”
She says that once she meets a student, she tries very hard to remember his or her name. “We have students who have more than 20 characters in their first name alone,” she says. “I take a lot of time to learn their names and learn how to pronounce them. It matters a great deal to me.”
And then, she also makes sure that every student is represented in the Media Center’s library by the books and materials that are available to them.
She says she recently had a seven-year-old ask for a book about her home country of Jordan. Since there wasn’t one already in the library, Suzy found one to be added to the collection. When it arrived in the Media Center last week, Suzy says the girl’s eyes just lit up.
“That’s Amman!,” she says the girl exclaimed as she flipped through the pages. “That’s my city!”
Suzy says the wonderful diversity of her school has had a deep impact on her.
She thinks back to last fall, when she challenged her students to share information about the Hindu festival of Diwali on the school’s morning show. Suzy says she learned about the ways Diwali is celebrated by many of the school’s families who are from India. While it’s a common holiday to celebrate, each family has different traditions and some even have different beliefs about the origin of Diwali.
“When I get to hear their stories of their rich backgrounds, I want to soak it all in,” Suzy says. “They teach me more than anything.”
Suzy has been the media specialist at Pride since she launched her second career 15 years ago. Before that, she earned a degree in public relations and journalism. She says once her children — who are now 28, 25, and 22 — started school, she “discovered school libraries and what cool places they are” and returned to college to earn a Master of Arts (M.S.) degree in Library Information science from University of South Florida (USF).
For the last 15 years, she says she has been surrounded by fantastic educators who do an amazing job of maintaining Pride’s “A” rating year after year.
“I don’t have a degree in education,” Suzy says, “so everything I’ve learned about being an educator has been from watching my great colleagues. It’s a team effort.”
Unfortunately for the timing of our Feb. 6 New Tampa issue, Hillsborough County’s 2024 Excellence in Education Awards Gala was held on Feb. 1, after that issue went to press. The Ida S. Baker Award winner this year was Dr. Ilfaut Joseph of Jennings Middle School. The other two annual awards announced at the Excellence in Education program on Feb. 1 were the 2024 Teacher of the Year Dr. Clayton Nylund of Blake High and Instructional Support Employee of the Year Maria Ortiz of Temple Terrace Elementary
All 11 schools in New Tampa submitted a nominee in each of the three categories. But this year, Suzy was the only New Tampa nominee to be chosen as a finalist in any category. “Our amazing Mrs. Tkacik wears lots of hats and is many things to many people,” English says. “She makes every child feel special and makes everyone she works with feel valued and appreciated.”