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Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

Fort Zackary III of Rockford, a teacher for 21 years, was initially an urban studies and planning major in college. He didn’t think he had the patience to teach. However, a teacher strike landed him in a kindergarten classroom for a week, which he describes as “the most rewarding experience of my life to that point.” A year and a half later, he had his own kindergarten classroom.” Fort has primarily taught Kindergarten, but he’s also taught fourth grade. This is his first year as a Kindergarten teacher at Carlson Elementary. Taren Turner, Ellis Elementary principal, commented that, “it is not the duration of years in the field alone that makes him stellar. Rather, his natural character, compassion, and professional evolvement over time, which have greatly impacted students, families, and school staff, are what make Mr. Zackary unparalleled.” His teaching experience has ranged from “the incredibly affluent to homelessly poor, suburban to hardcore urban, all white to all black, all English speakers to years where I was the only English speaker and everything in between.” At each school, Fort has advocated for, collaborated with and coached new, veteran and student teachers as well as students. The parent of one student wrote that her child was well behaved but quiet and shy. “Mr. Zackary was just what the doctor ordered! He not only helped him come out of his shell, he now excels as a student and a person. I can only thank Mr. Z for that.” Fort has done much reflecting and changing since being named a Golden Apple finalist 10 years ago. Sensing impending burnout, he rededicated himself to teaching by attending conferences and implementing what he learned. He added technological tools to better reach students and their families. He listened to Golden Apple Academy mentors. He brought the fun back into his lessons. And he changed schools. He says, “while I miss being the champion for so many underprivileged children, I have saved myself from burnout and can continue teaching and shaping young lives for the better.”

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Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

Gabriela Nunez-Reagan, another past nominee, came to the U.S.  at age 15, not knowing any English. She’s now been teaching for 19 years. She’s been at Belvidere’s Seth Whitman Elementary for 11 years, with the last five years as the First Grade Dual Language teacher. She helped develop the district’s dual language framework and created the first grade dual language curriculum, which focuses on biliteracy, bilingualism and biculturalism. All her students are second language learners, with 10 speaking Spanish at home and 12 having English as their first language. She shares with the students that she has made and continues to make mistakes in English and it is OK to correct mistakes. “I tell them that learning a second language is hard, but we need to take risks, be positive, and keep trying.” Gaby emphasizes that though everyone has different backgrounds, they can all learn from each other. “We work, learn, laugh and sometimes we cry happy tears together.” She realized what a family she has built in her classroom when talking about slavery and segregation during a lesson about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “My students did not think segregation was fair. While I was reading several books on the topic, I noticed how, little by little, all of my students were getting closer and closer to my only African American student, as if they were trying to protect him.” Jennifer Jacky, CEO of the Belvidere Family YMCA, a community partner with Seth Kids, was thrilled her daughter was in Gaby’s class. “Gaby not only instilled a love of learning in my daughter, but also the importance of being kind to others and a love of giving back to the community.” Gaby is one of the head advisors for Seth Kids, a group  of third-fifth graders whose goals are to be school leaders and give back to the community. One service project she coordinated emerged from her knowledge of and care for students. When Gaby learned about a student’s struggling family, she stepped up to ensure that the family would not miss out on a special Christmas time. She created a themed-tree for which the Seth Kids made the decorations, organized a present drive and even delivered the tree herself. Donating a Christmas tree and gifts to a needy family is now a school tradition. 

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Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

Jean Johnson of Rockford has been teaching for 11 years. She teaches Third Grade Gifted at Thurgood Marshall Elementary.  She started her career as a student teacher under the mentorship of a Golden Apple Academy member who impressed upon her that, “The children are the most important thing. Teachers can cover a textbook, can have fancy borders and posters, can know subject areas inside and out, but what matters most is the children and my ability to know them.” A parent of one of Jean’s former students shared an example of how Jean succeeds at this. This student has autism spectrum disorder. At back to school night, Jean asked about books or resources to learn more about his challenges and how to bring out the best in him. “Jean was the first teacher to ever ask; she remains the only teacher to have done so. Asking us for ideas was a plus in our book, but she actually did the research and worked to really understand how the diagnosis affected him.” Jean was able to tailor lesson plans for him and even helped him develop friendships with classmates, a connection he had struggled with in the past. Jean truly fosters the sense of community in “their” classroom – never calling it just “her” classroom. Students are empowered to make decisions, express opinions and work toward solutions that affect them. She encourages them to express what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. Last year, her students expressed that the playground, originally designed for Pre-K students, was not meeting their needs. Instead of just complaining, they used their STEM skills to think critically, problem solve and do the research. They looked at the equipment’s pros and cons, costs, space limitations and requirements and more. They even found a potential funding source! These students took their findings to the principal, who listened, then went to the PTO. The group agreed to pay for the playground project, which will be built this spring. The parent further stated that, “A teacher can learn the technical aspects of being a teacher – writing lesson plans, selecting appropriate materials, grading homework, etc. It is the unique and special connection that a teacher makes with a student that you cannot teach. It is that trait that makes a good teacher a phenomenal teacher. Jean Johnson is a phenomenal teacher." 

Mary Haas

Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

“I have the best job because I make art all day, every day, with the most beautiful people, my community’s children, and your children.” Mary Haas of Rockford clearly still loves her job after 35 years of teaching. She’s been an art teacher at Holy Family School since 1985, during which time, she has received many honors: member of curriculum committee that created the Fine Arts Curriculum for the Dioceses of Rockford 2004; nominated for Golden Apple and Outstanding Catholic School Educator several times; and recipient of the Advisor’s Award for Leadership/ Catholic Role Model in the Athletic Program 1993. If you can imagine it – when Mary started teaching, it was without computers. She used floppy disks and learned to search the Internet efficiently. To one of her fellow Holy Family teachers, Mary’s best talent is “her ability to see the silver lining in everything and everyone. She sees each individual child’s potential and is willing to work with them, before, during and after school to help them reach that potential.” Mary tells her students, “we don’t do easy, we do our best.” And she does her best to encourage them. “When a student has a fun new idea, or takes the time to do something that requires extra effort, we all celebrate their achievement with the classroom clap.” Though her art classes include lots of singing, giggling, creativity and fun, through her positivity and guidance, Mary has helped many children learn not just about art or history, but also about life. Students who are faced with personal troubles know she is there for them. When her class was grieving a student who had passed away, Mary was right there to respond to their request for chalk so they could make drawings on the playground that she could see from Heaven.  A former student shared that while he learned many things in Mary’s art classes over nine years, what he remembers most was her presence. “Every day, Mary offered me the gift of being seen.  What more can a teacher do to foster healthy psychological development in her students than to offer them the gift of being seen”?  


Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

Rachel Huetson of Rockford has seven years of teaching experience with grades K-2. She’s been teaching first grade at Nelson Elementary the past two years. She’s on the district’s math curriculum and the school’s leadership teams. Amy Huftalin, who worked with Rachel as her literacy coach in her first teaching assignment with RPS205 wrote that Rachel “worked diligently to set up her classroom to be inviting yet challenging for students … she even removed her teacher desk to provide more space for the kids!”  Rachel is committed to being a lifelong learner, seeking knowledge to bring the best practices to her classroom. In fact, in 2012, though newly married, raising a child with special needs and expecting another child, she went back to school to work on her master’s degree. Rachel focuses on the learning process and sets high standards and expectations for her students, yet also teaches that mistakes happen and are learning opportunities. During math, her students sit on the carpet to discuss how to solve number problems. The activity helps Rachel monitor understanding, but also helps students encourage and learn from each other. “We ‘kiss our brain’ and embrace all new learning,” she says. She believes that “teachers need to promote democracy and self-discipline in the classroom by setting limits and using praise… it is my job to allow my students to express their learning through a variety of multiple intelligences so that they become lifelong learners.”  To further demonstrate the importance of education, Rachel enlists the help of her students’ families, regularly sharing lesson content and tips to help them work with their children at home. She has found that when families support and share in the educational process, the students tend to be more successful. 

Jennifer Stella

Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

Jennifer Stella of Cherry Valley, who was also a finalist two years ago, has been teaching at Rock Cut Elementary in Loves Park for 17 years. She has taught sixth, then first and, since 2009, has been teaching fifth grade. “Teaching is an amazing responsibility and privilege, and I hope that by teaching my students about respect, compassion, honesty and trust, they will have the skills they need to be successful in the future.”  Jennifer is devoted both in and out of the classroom as 5th Grade Division Chair, Harlem Assessment Team member, School Improvement team member and co-leader of the Summer Reading Committee. She frequently drives the Rock Cut Bookmobile, delivering books to students in the summer. This year she’s also coordinating the talent show.  In response to lessons about global and local issues such as hunger and diversity, her students asked about helping on the local level. So she coordinated fundraisers, which raised nearly $1,000 for both the Northern Illinois Food Bank and a former student’s Eagle Scout project (getting handicapped bleachers installed at HHS football stadium). Jennifer’s innovative ideas and creativity are visible in many ways. PTO president and parent, Lori Romero, shared that her son, who has ADHD, has greatly benefited from being in Jennifer’s class. While at his seat, he uses one of the six stationary bikes Jennifer obtained through a DonorsChoose grant; this activity enables him channel his energy and focus on tasks at hand. In the time he’s been in Jennifer’s class, he’s gained life changing self-confidence.  Romero further praised Jennifer, writing that that “a student of Mrs. Stella is not only challenged academically, they are taught to take responsibility for their own actions, have compassion for others, and always strive for excellence.” 

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Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

Amy Wright of Roscoe has 19 years of teaching experience. First, she taught at an inner-city school known for low-achieving students, no family involvement and dangerous working conditions. After two years, she moved on to a school for gifted and talented, where students could take control of their learning.  Now a first grade teacher at South Beloit’s Prairie Hill Elementary, Amy has worn many hats: learner, listener, presenter, Professional Learning Community mentor and Reading Recovery teacher.  She shared, “When all hope of teaching a child to read is lost, you turn to Reading Recovery, and changes will happen. They actually learn to read!”  Amy enjoys learning about her students and their families. She says, “understanding the child, not just the student, helps give that child every opportunity to live up to his/her highest potential." One parent happy to partner with Amy in her child’s development wrote, “More times than not, my six-year-old daughter says she does not like Mrs. Wright.” Why? She won’t let her suck her thumb; she makes her redo mistakes; she tells her to try her best and she makes her read when she just wants to nap. “From a child's perspective, I can appreciate what my daughter is feeling, but we thank God for consistent, strict and loving teachers like Mrs. Wright, who focus on the important lessons of life.” She further praised Amy for helping expedite the evaluation of her middle child who was showing signs of ADHD. “Our pediatrician commented that we should be very grateful for a teacher who was willing to add so much more to her day just to help our child.” Kerry Driscoll, Curriculum Coordinator for Prairie Hill District 133, says Amy lives the school mission every day: “Student first, always.” Kevin Finnegan, who previously wrote recommendations for Amy as her principal, wrote this year with the added perspective of being the parent of a reluctant learner. He has seen Amy transform his daughter into someone who loves to read and write. When friends come over to play school, Finnegan’s daughter is always Mrs. Wright. “Why? Because just like when you shoot hoops and pretend to be Michael Jordan, when you’re practicing a craft, you imagine yourself as the greatest.” 



The 2018 Golden Apple Foundation Jan Jones Service Award will be presented to an individual, couple, organization, or business for demonstrating a deep commitment to Excellence in Education in Winnebago and/or Boone County through volunteerism. Explain why your nominee deserves consideration according to the following criteria:

•           Recipient will be considered for his/her volunteer work in fields relating to education or additional fields that serve teachers, students, and schools.

•           Recipient will have exhibited a deep commitment to excellence in education in Winnebago and/or Boone County.

Service nominations must be received by the Golden Apple Foundation office by 5:00 p.m. on February 28, 2018.

Recipients will be recognized at the 22nd Annual Golden Apple Banquet on Friday, April 27 at Giovanni's.

Click here for you nomination form or contact Jennifer Stark at 815-226-4180 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information.

Golden Apple Foundation inspires, celebrates and supports educational excellence in our community. 

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Golden Apple Foundation has partnered with the family of Sunil Puri to recognize exceptional principals each year with the Outstanding Principal Award.  This year Primary School Principals are eligible and parents, colleagues and community members are encouraged to nominate their prinicpal.  The selected principal will be be surprised in their school and they will receive $1,500 to be used in their school and $500 in Volcano Falls gift certificates to reward excellent students. Click here for the nomination form and a list of past principal recipients.  Photos: Jennifer Stark, Golden Apple Executive Director, Sunil Puri, President of First Midwest Group, Ben Commare, 2017 Recipient of the Outstanding Principal Award.


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Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

Heather Geary of Machesney Park taught multiple grades and courses in nine years with Lincoln Middle School in Rockford. She then went to Rockford’s Whitehead Elementary, where she has been teaching for four years:  first to fifth graders and now to fourth graders. Heather encourages her students to have a growth mindset. “My students have learned to set goals, revisit goals and re-set goals to drive their learning.” One goal they accomplished was to raise enough money to buy a classroom pet. Sharing in the education about and care for the pet has bonded them as a community, as well as helped with behavior and social-emotional needs. Her students have a wide range of needs academically, emotionally, racially and economically, but she says, “despite the diversity, my students know that when they walk into my classroom, we are one family. We all strive to pull each other up and support each other.” A colleague who recommended Heather for the Golden Apple award said, “Heather is one of those teachers you come across once in a great while. She is popular with students, families and colleagues. Many [students] who once feared math often say that math is fun! Heather’s ability to spark a love of learning is truly an art form.” Heather shared that her goal is “to challenge, monitor and manage student learning to ensure that all students reach high standards and expectations.”  She is committed as an educator to help every student learn and succeed both in the classroom and in life. 


Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

Ashley Schwabero of Roscoe taught Kindergarten at Walker School, then Ledgewood for her first seven years of teaching. She is in her second year teaching fourth grade at Prairie Hill Elementary. Ashley is a master collaborator: she works with teachers, administrators, parents, therapists, paraprofessionals, special education teachers and other staff members to provide the best educational experience possible. Ashley’s principal, peers, students and their parents commend her communication skills, classroom environment and dedication. Principal Kevin Finnegan noted that she has “developed ways to better monitor the struggles of students in danger of falling through the cracks because, while low, they were not low enough to receive extra services.” In an exercise about fairness, each of Ashley’s students was instructed to reach for candy inside a bucket tied to the ceiling. Only the taller ones could reach. As chairs or steps were added, each child was able to succeed, demonstrating her philosophy that, “in order to reach the same goal, different students need different levels of support.” Ashley wants her students to feel safe and encouraged. Once trust is established, they can focus on learning. That trust carries over to students’ families. One parent shared, “When you find a person you completely trust with the well-being of your child, you’ve found an outstanding human being! Our child is a better person and we are better parents because of her.” Another wrote, “we trust her beyond measure to embrace what our child needs to soar! She takes time to inform parents of content and skills being learned and offers options [for supporting] that learning.” Finnegan also wrote, “Good teachers are great with students. Awesome teachers are great with students and parents. Truly transcendent teachers make an indelible impact with the students, their community and their building.”