District’s TOY and SREOY Finalists

District’s Teacher of the Year and School-Related Employee of the Year Finalists Announced
Posted on 02/12/2021
Teacher of the Year Finalists

The School District of Palm Beach County has announced its finalists for this year’s Teacher of the Year and School-Related Employee of the Year, and this year, a pandemic didn’t stop these eight stellar members of Team Palm Beach from giving their all to the students and staff of their respective schools.

The four finalists in each category were selected from a pool of nominees from schools throughout the District. Those worthy nominees were whittled down to a finalist for each region. 

The following educators are this year’s finalists for Teacher of the Year:

• Ariana Murphy – Belle Glade Elementary, Glades Region.

Zuleika Acevedo Ayala – Hidden Oaks K-8, South Region.

Alyssa Maddox – South Grade Elementary, Central Region.

Toshimi Abe-Janiga – Riviera Beach Preparatory Academy, North Region.

Ariana Murphy – Belle Glade Elementary

Starting her career as a teacher in another district, an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapist and substitute teacher, Ariana Murphy joined the School District of Palm Beach County as a teacher in 2016. She teaches reading, math, science, social studies, and writing. She started as a second-grade teacher at Belle Glade Elementary School, continuing to move up each year with her students who are now in fifth grade together.

“Her classroom promotes inclusiveness by making everyone feel like they belong,” said Belle Glade Elementary principal, Robera Walker.

Murphy is a Google-certified educator, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher, and a Palm Beach County Trailblazer. She was the first in her school to see 100% participation in distance learning when the District had to pivot in March 2020 and has helped the school’s letter grade go from a D to a C in 2019.

“She values the importance of the relationship between teacher, student, and parent to positively impact her students both emotionally and intellectually,” her fellow teacher Christine Holt said in her letter of recommendation.

Zuleika Acevedo Ayala – Hidden Oaks K-8

Zuleika Acevedo Ayala is a special education teacher with two master’s degrees in exceptional students with autism endorsement and physical education. She had 17 years of teaching experience in her native Puerto Rico before joining the faculty at Hidden Oaks K-8 in 2019 as an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) teacher, working with students living with autism.

Acevedo Ayala says she was drawn to teaching ESE students, as she had "innumerable learning difficulties and behavior struggles" as a student. She found her way by engaging in athletics, and those two passions came together when she was in college in Puerto Rico. She says that when she began working in the District, she could see the need for ESE support was substantial and now finds her work in creating Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) and watching her students excel is the most rewarding.

“During the COVID outbreak, she found creative ways to connect with her students and their families through daily wellness check-ups for the entire family,” said Shari Bremekamp, principal of Hidden Oaks K-8.

Assistant principal Chris Schroeder says that Acevedo Ayala has found a balance with her students that has inspired everyone. “She has mastered the elusive art of being firm but fair, having rules yet maintaining relationships, and keenly remembering that though she teaches numerous content/subject areas, she is really teaching ‘children’ who she freely offers love, acceptance, and grace.”

Alyssa Maddox – South Grade Elementary

Alyssa Maddox teaches fourth-grade reading, writing, math, science, and social studies in an inclusion classroom made up of students in ESE and English Language Learners (ELL). She’s able to create differentiated instruction using visual supports, student collaboration, and scaffolding instruction while also developing test-taking strategies that have helped 100% of her students make gains on the Florida State Assessment.

Maddox is an AVID site team member, lead Technology Trailblazer, and yearbook coordinator who also spearheads holiday gift drives and even delivered supplies to students’ homes after schools closed in March 2020.

“I am inspired by students who begin fourth grade below grade level but end the year proud of their proficient test scores,” Maddox said. “I am inspired by students who come to America not speaking English, but with determination, they end the year reading and writing sentences. I am inspired by students who love learning so much they read to their little siblings, even though they were not read to as a young child. I am inspired by students who overcome trauma to lead a resilient life.” And her list of inspiration continues in her application.

One of Maddox’s students wrote a recommendation for her application that stated: “To everybody, she is just our teacher, but to me, she is like a mother who is just teaching me a lot of things...it would even be a miracle if Ms. Maddox became president. Just imagine.”

Toshimi Abe-Janiga – Riviera Beach Preparatory Academy

Toshimi Abe-Janiga is a native of Japan who has taught in Palm Beach County since 2006. A nationally-recognized expert in Holocaust Studies, her recommendation says, “Her focus on teaching the standards has made a tremendous impact on students’ gains, and consequently increases the graduation rate and college readiness” of students at Riviera Beach Preparatory Academy, an alternative school in Palm Beach County.

Abe-Janiga has repeatedly been a Dwyer Award finalist. She was also named Teacher of the Year for Florida Atlantic University’s Center for Holocaust and Human Rights as well as a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow.

In addition to Holocaust studies, she has also earned several grants for curriculum “designed to incorporate a school-wide reading initiative while teaching African-American history and ways to dismantle systemic racism in American society,” according to her principal, Mark Simmonds.

Additionally, Abe-Janiga has received several grants to provide funding for her students to take the ACT and SAT after providing intensive boot camps for the rigorous tests. She has secured funding for the AVID curriculum, as well as subsidized and conducted college tours for her students.

School-Related Employee of the Year The finalists for School-Related Employee of the Year are:

• Candy Bartolon – Congress Middle School, South Region.

• Jeffrey Sears – Rosenwald Elementary School, Glades Region.

• Joy Cabot – Osceola Creek Middle School, North Region.

• Hernan Avila – Wellington Community High School, Central Region.

Candy Bartolon – Congress Middle School

Candy Bartolon is the first smiling face people see when visiting Congress Middle. As the main office clerk, her principal Denise O’Connor says that she is a wizard at multitasking. “She can simultaneously answer the phone and assist a substitute while sorting and preparing the mail for distribution without being flustered, and always with a smile.”

O’Connor says Candy’s name exemplifies the “sweet and pleasant” denotation. “I instantly fell in love with her ability to connect with adults and students."

Aside from her duties at the front desk, she is the school’s document custodian, Single School Culture secretary, and has also assisted with the girl’s dance team. 

Jeffrey Sears – Rosenwald Elementary School

Jeffrey Sears is the lead custodian on the campus of Rosenwald Elementary. Sears can always be counted on to fulfill his duties, and he has never been more needed or determined to dedicate himself to the cleanliness and safety of the students and staff of his school since campuses reopened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rosenwald Elementary School is consistently amazed by the performance of Jeffrey Sears and his team. Sears will let his presence be known with the sound of his music while he enjoys his daily tasks,” principal Bruce Hightower said. “Born and raised in the small town of South Bay, Jeffrey Sears is the seventh child of his family. His spirit is warm and welcoming with an incredible work ethic and responsiveness that is truly unmatched. He is an inspiration to us all!”

Joy Cabot – Osceola Creek Middle School

Joy Cabot is an administrative assistant to the principal at Osceola Creek Middle who has dedicated her entire career to serving the students and schools where she has worked in Palm Beach County.

“Joy is all of the things you want in an employee, including dedicated, professional, thorough, open-minded, supportive, understanding, compassionate, but yet, she is so much more once you get to know her,” principal Brian McClellan said. “Her tireless work ethic and dedication to the school results in her working anywhere from 55 to 75 hours in any given week. Although she is often encouraged to leave something until tomorrow, it’s not in her character.”

Hernan Avila – Wellington Community High School

Hernan Avila, or "Coach H" as he is known by everyone on campus, has been nominated by the entire team at Wellington Community High. Formerly a behavior intervention associate, he was recently promoted to be the school’s Instructional Technical Support Assistant (ITSA), overseeing the school’s computers and systems. 

When distance learning was implemented, Avila had already begun work on Chromebook distribution and helped the school prepare for virtual events such as new student orientation. However, Avila doesn’t let a title or job description define his work on campus.

“The word ‘no’ is not in his vocabulary,” according to assistant principal Elizabeth Calvente-Torres. “Avila can be seen stepping in to de-escalate student issues, providing support whenever needed, and providing a rapport with faculty and students alike.”

“Coach H has a sixth sense when it comes to what a student needs to hear,” said school counselor Julia Saye. “He finds innovative ways to meet them where they are.”

When one student was struggling after the death of his father, Avila conducted a home visit and discovered the student’s love of fishing. Avila developed a cost-free incentive for him and the student to go fishing together. A letter of recommendation on Avila's behalf noted that “while the student had been offered therapeutic services, it was this quality time with a caring adult that helped the student find the motivation to go on.”

These inspiring finalists and the winners of each category will be honored during an event on March 30 at 5 p.m. The Teacher of the Year/School-Related Employee of the Year virtual ceremony will stream live on palmbeachschools.org, Comcast channel 234, and AT&T U-Verse channel 99. The winners will then be submitted for consideration for the state of Florida’s top awards.


The School District of Palm Beach County