Competition fierce for Gurnee Teacher of the Year awards

This year's winners of Gurnee's Teacher of the Year awards illustrate how important the honor has become and how fierce the competition is, officials said.

In Woodland Elementary District 50 alone, 135 teachers were nominated. The village has been giving the award for six years.

Village Trustee Thomas Hood told the standing-room-only crowd at the board meeting Monday it's been a pleasure to see the award get more attention from District 50, Gurnee Elementary District 56 and Warren Township High School District 121.

"The schools have really run with this. The superintendents have taken it seriously," Hood said. "They've put it out to teachers, students and parents, and they really come up with some awesome candidates."

This year's honorees were: Kathy Kibitlewski, a library media center staff member at Prairie Trail School in District 56; Vianey Soriaga, a teacher who works with English language learners in District 50; and Jason Jecmen, a longtime Warren Township High School teacher and District 121 teachers union president.

Each winner received a $1,000 prize from Don Henderson of the Henderson Foundation.

District 56 Superintendent Colleen Pacatte said Kibitlewski is a central figure at Prairie Trail School who keeps the building focused on students.

"Not just academic, but she reminds us that our kids are human beings that need to do fun things and spend time together exploring and creating," Pacatte said. "That sometimes gets lost in this very test-driven world we're living in now."

Lori Casey, District 50's associate superintendent of education, said Woodland Elementary West, Soriaga's school, erupted when students heard she'd been named teacher of the year.

"If there were more hours in the day, I'm convinced that Vianey would use them to support the students that she stewards," Casey said, reading from a nomination letter. "Vianey's nurturing, caring demeanor provides students with a stress-free place to learn and develop, free from judgment and unnecessary pressure."

District 121 Superintendent John Ahlgrim said Jecmen is one of the strongest leaders in the district.

"Most importantly, his character is second to none, and he's a tremendous role model for our students as well as for our staff," Ahlgrim said.

For the first time, the winners received special recognition from the state courtesy of state Rep. Joyce Mason, a Democrat from Gurnee. Mason, who was a District 50 school board member before being elected to the General Assembly in January, said the awards have been put into the official state record. Mason also presented certificates to the winners.

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