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Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

Christy Grace of Roscoe is in her 13th year at Poplar Grove’s Manchester Elementary, where she has taught grades K through 3. Principal Molly Lilja recommended Christy, saying she “will give the true answer, the one that needs to be heard, not just the politically correct one. These traits are invaluable when it comes to advocating for what is best for students.” Christy says, “Educating our future requires so much more than the ability to stand in front of a group of students and deliver the lessons. I believe being a successful educator means I take all my life’s experiences and use them as my guiding force to be an effective educator, one who provides a safe, caring environment for my students … It is vital that students have a sense of security in order to learn.” An opportunity for Christy to advocate for and make a difference in her students’ lives came knocking when a student with albinism was assigned to her class. Because this girl requires special accommodations to maximize her learning, she sits next to Christy. When one girl commented that she wished she were that student, Christy acknowledged the girl’s own special qualities and encouraged her “to appreciate who she is rather than wishing to be someone else.  That moment showed me that the students do not see [the student with albinism] as different; instead, they admire and look up to her.” Though Christy has received many nominations and recognition, she says, “the most treasured gift I have received is having a student named after me.” Christy had taught three children in a particular family. When the children’s mother wrote to nominate Christy for the Golden Apple award in 2009, she stated that the family decided it was an honor to have a teacher like Christy. She agreed with the children’s request and named the baby (now one of her students) after Christy.

Laura Johnson

Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

Laura Johnson of Roscoe has taught the last two of her 10 years of teaching at Rockford’s Nashold Early Childhood Center. She taught at Maple Elementary, Rolling Green and Summerdale previously. Principal, Erin Salberg shared, “last year, Laura received a student functioning at a sixth month age equivalent. Despite having a challenging class already, she took the challenge head on. This student has made huge gains. Laura provides every student in her classroom the same level of support based on their unique needs.”  In recommending Laura, another co-worker added that Laura is determined and persistent when dealing with challenges with classroom, building or department level issues, but that the trait that makes her stand out is humor. “She has the ability to find ways to smile, laugh and connect on a highly positive and personal level with our most at-risk population of students whose lives have been characterized by frequent trauma, regret, inappropriate living conditions, violence, transiency, instability, poverty and lack of enriching life experience opportunities. This ability to foster positive, meaningful, and trusting relationships with her students and their families is what opens the door for learning.” Laura says she is committed to creating a safe, loving atmosphere both inside her classroom and the greater school. “My commitment, as an educator, to create a positive classroom environment leaves my students with a warm and welcome feeling, readying them to tackle any and all of the day’s challenges. My students may not remember everything they learned the day before, but they are eager to come back because of ‘that feeling’ they left with and because they know they will receive more of ’that feeling’ when they return.”  


Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

Lance Tuula of Rockton has been teaching fourth or fifth grades for 13 years, first at Ralston Elementary, the last 11 at Whitman Post.  Known as the “go-to guy” for technology, Lance is a Smartboard trainer for the Rockton School District, sharing his knowledge not just with his students, but also with his peers. This year, he is also leading Whitman Post’s one-to-one initiative; each of his students has a Chromebook to use daily as part of the classroom learning culture. He also uses many non-traditional instructional tools and props. For example, at the start of each school year, Lance hands out blank puzzle pieces to each student to personalize with his/her own skills, favorite things or sources of pride. They then put the pieces together to show that each is unique, but all are needed for the puzzle to be whole. His tactics must work, as his principal, Megan Forsythe, says that every year, she places a student with behavioral concerns in his classroom because she knows he will ”find a way to reach that child and make sure the student experiences success.” Lance describes himself as an “Edu-tainer.” A former student explained that Lance “comes up with awesome ways to teach us new things – it’s like he tricks us into learning.”  Lance says, “the classroom is my stage. My classroom is not just a room; it is an arena of performance, laughter, love and compassion. The teacher on that stage may be my regular self; it may be me in a set of wacky glasses holding Thor’s hammer, talking about what our society has taken from the Vikings. Learning is too much fun to just follow a straight line!” Lance strives to make sure that in his classroom, “no matter their performance level, each student knows the entire arena will always be cheering for them in the end.” 


Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!
AmyCarol Bedows of Roscoe has 14 years of teaching experience in several grades, subjects and even school types (public, charter and private). This is her third year teaching fourth grade at Rockford Christian. She has learned that “the title of teacher is not just for one year; it is the highest of compliments. As teachers, we pour ourselves into the children in our classes, often without realizing the impact we’ve made until years later.” During Chris Buckmiller’s first year of teaching, AmyCarol was his teaching coach. When nominated for his district’s “Teacher of the Year” last year, he immediately knew he owed a huge part of that accomplishment to her teaching him how to connect and educate children in in impactful way. “AmyCarol truly chose the correct profession because she has a gift at helping the people around her excel as they work together,” he said. The parent of one of AmyCarol’s past students recommended AmyCarol as a “fiercely dedicated teacher.” Her daughter had never enjoyed math and really struggled, despite several methods and several tutors being introduced to her. AmyCarol was able to quickly identify her struggles and teach math concepts in a way that made sense to her. As a result, both her math skills and her confidence grew. AmyCarol has even continued to work with this student, who now is in sixth grade, because she is “invested in [her] kids.” AmyCarol summed up what teaching success is to her: “In other professions, success is measured in titles and raises. In teaching, success is measured in a continual growth of knowledge, the ability to manage a classroom, positive feedback from administration and families, aha moments, hugs, drawings, laughs and the list goes on.”

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Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!
Allison Decman of Rockford does double duty at Keith Country Day School. She both teaches third grade (the year she says “students transition from learning how to read and write, to reading to learn information, as well as show critical thinking in their educational written responses) and serves as Director of Lower School, where she oversees teachers, students and families from Pre-K through fourth grade. With 17 years of teaching experience, she has been with Keith for the last eight years. She has been praised for going above and beyond in bringing attention to the need for funds to provide for and fulfill students’ educational needs. With that need in mind, she coordinates Race for Education and World’s Finest Chocolate candy fundraisers. At the start of the school year, Allison sends a survey home to the students’ families so she can learn more about her students. “Parents are my students’ first teachers and they know their child’s strength and weaknesses. I create a partnership with my students’ families.” It is apparent that the families appreciate her efforts to include them as she guides their children. Several parents shared that Allison allows students to learn in fun, creative and effective ways. She has related math problems to soccer or hockey games to gain the interest of her students in those sports and connects reading activities to many cultures. One of Allison’s peers summed up her admiration by declaring that “Mrs. Decman is the teacher all teachers aspire to be. She teaches more than academics. She teaches her students about life and, more importantly, how to be the best person they can be. She encourages her students to dream big and shows them how to reach their goals, no matter how big or small those dreams may be.”

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Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!
Laura Stites of Belvidere has been teaching for 29 years: various grades and subjects in Elgin, Huntley and, for the past 24 years, in Caledonia. She now teaches fifth grade math to three homerooms and English to one homeroom at Caledonia Elementary School. A fellow teacher noted in her recommendation, “many teachers with Laura’s experience would be satisfied to be a very good teacher; fortunately ... Laura is not one of them.” Laura is a Scholastic Bowl coach, Scripps Spelling Bee administer, fundraiser, recycler, Safety Patrol supervisor, field trip coordinator and much more on top of teaching, seeking ways to improve her teaching, collaborating with peers to enhance each others’ skills, and doing her best to help her students succeed. She says, “I challenge, monitor, and manage student learning to ensure that all students reach high standards and expectations. I like to think of my students in the same way I think of my own personal children. If it isn’t right for my own kids, it isn’t right for my students.” Laura says she tries to be firm, yet fun as she teaches by example. The student who nominated her confirmed that she makes learning fun. Her students have set up a Little Free Library at the school, started an art club and a random act of kindness program. “They are truly good people. I’d like to think a little of it is because I've made a commitment as an educator that has positively affected them.” Laura adds, “they say it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to teach a child. Each of us brings different knowledge and insight about the students. We must work together to ensure their success. If I am selected as a Golden Apple finalist, it will certainly be because of every student, parent and co-worker. Each and every one of them has somehow helped shape me into who I am today.”


Suzette 2

Get to Know Our 20 Finalists!

Suzette Muck of Caledonia is a special education teacher with 14 years of teaching experience. She has taught for three years at Poplar Grove Elementary, currently teaching first-third grade special education (self-contained cross categorical). Her principal, Heather Walsh, says, “Suzette has worked to empower her student learners, thus creating an individualized environment for …her students to think and reflect, deepen their understanding, and test their ideas against those of their classmates at their level.“ She adds that Suzette is a sincere, thoughtful, compassionate team player who is always serving the best interests of her students and the school. With a classroom full of heavily individualized plans, Suzette’s students often start out complaining that it isn’t fair that one student could do one thing while another student could not. She proactively found a way to eliminate the word “fair” from her classroom with an exercise involving each student’s imagining an injury somewhere on their bodies. Each student was given a Band-Aid on the hand. The children recognized that while the remedy was “fair” to each of them, it did not necessarily offer what the person needed. Many of her students face struggles at home which greatly affect their learning and behavior. While she says that none of her students are ever far from her thoughts, she reflects that “strangely enough, I’ve never truly thought about how my commitment affects the children in my care. The simplistic version is that I have just always wanted to do right by all of them.” 




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Get to Know Our 20 Finalists

Katherine Koehler of Loves Park is in her seventh year of teaching first grade at Ledgewood Elementary in Roscoe. Katherine was homeschooled her whole K-12 education. No one in her family went to college, so lessons were often very frustrating for both teacher and student! Her family didn’t talk about, encourage or expect her to attend college, but Katherine determined that her path was to attend college and become an Elementary teacher, so she made a plan and made it happen. Katherine is certain many students have had more of an impact on her than she’s had on them. In her fourth year of teaching, a student made a significant impact, consistently reminding her that her commitment to her students was the only thing that mattered. Every day, he would throw himself on the floor screaming he hated her and school. He would spit, scream, throw objects and cry. She continued to research ways to help him be successful at school. “In the midst of my exhaustion one day, I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard him whisper, ‘You’re changing my life and I love you!’ This was one of the most defining and meaningful moments in my teaching career.” Katherine says that teaching is a fiber of her being, not just her career. “Teaching has taught me how to love unconditionally, how to put others before myself, how to continually find new ways to get to know that student who is struggling in school, and how to lead by example. It is my hope that my students will remember their first grade teacher as someone who was committed, loving and a person who they could depend on. Teaching has brought me direction and purpose, and for that I am grateful.” 

Wendy 2

Get to Know Our 20 Finalists

Wendy Breit of Rockford has been teaching at Riverview Elementary in South Beloit for 18 years, the first 14 for fourth grade classes. Now she teaches second grade, all subjects except physical education and music. Wendy was nominated by the parent of a girl she taught last year, whose family experienced a lot of hardship that year, from broken bones to multiple deaths in the family. “Throughout it all, Wendy … let me know how she was doing physically … and emotionally.” Ryan Amendt, Riverview’s principal, observes that she “spends many hours planning lessons that challenge the second grade minds with high level cognitive thinking while incorporating Chromebooks, Internet, and online resources to extend the lesson.” She is involved in or has promoted successfully many projects at the school: Food Drive, Family Reading Night, Student Council advisor, Character Counts Coordinator, Yearbook Coordinator, Quarterly and Year-end Awards Coordinator, School Webmaster, Classroom Website, Great America and Magic Waters Read to Succeed programs. “Can’t” doesn’t appear to be a word in Wendy’s vocabulary. In fact, she says, “I establish high expectations for my students and on the very first day of school, we symbolically bury the word ‘can’t’ by pledging never to use that word in our classroom. We even create our own ‘Class Constitution.’ Additionally, we talk about how within life and learning, we make mistakes and learn from them … even teachers.”  

Look for Golden Apple's next "Get to Know Our 20 Finalists" teacher selection on Thursday.  

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Golden Apple Foundation is pleased to announce that 12 local teachers from Boone and Winnebago County were selected to receive nearly $12,000 in grants.  These talented teachers applied for literacy, science and mentoring projects to increase student engagement and learning.

Click here to learn about each individual project and the amount granted.  Golden Apple grants are are available to PreK - 12th grade teachers in Winnebago and Boone Counties and are awarded each year in December. Click here to learn about the grant program.

Since the program's inception, Golden Apple has provided more than $124,000 to classroom teachers to address student learning needs. Projects have included STEM and Robotics programs, literacy-building activities, conserving and cleaning up ground water, international business, leadershill skill building, peer mentoring, fine arts projects, improving student's self esteem and more.

If you are interested in supporting these efforts through a sponsorship or gift, please reach out to Jennifer Stark, Executive Director at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Photo:  Standing (L-R): Ashley Smith of Nashold Early Childhood Center; Tiffany Aurand and Kristin Schmidt, both of Marquette Elementary; Jeff Powell, GAF board president; Meg Hodge of Andy's Books for Kids (sponsor); Laura Benkovich of Whitman Post Elementary; and Anne Hart of Stephen Mack Middle School.Front (L-R): Meghan Hembrough of Loves Park Elementary; Amy Maier of Whitman Post Elementary; Suzette Muck and Carrie Norder-Pagan, both of Poplar Grove Elementary; and Cindy Maten of Capron Elementary.

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Golden Apple Foundation is pleased to announce the names of 20 teachers from Winnebago and Boone County who have been selected to move forward in the process for the 2018 Golden Apple Awards for Excellence in Teaching.  These talented PreK - 5th grade teachers were chosen by a selection committee of community volunteers who had the difficult task of selecting only 20 teachers from a large group of worthy nominees.

Please join us in congratulating the following excellent teachers….

AmyCarol Bedows
Rockford Christian - Rockford
Fourth Grade

Wendy Breit
Riverview Elementary - South Beloit
Second Grade

Allison Decman
Keith Country Day
Third Grade

Heather Geary
Whitehead Elementary - Rockford
Fourth Grade

Christy Grace
Manchester Elementary - Poplar Grove
Second Grade

Mary Haas
Holy Family - Rockford
Kindergarten - Eighth Grade Art

Rachel Huetson
Nelson Elementary - Rockford
First Grade

Ingrid Hyde
Machesney Elementary - Machesney Park
First - Sixth Grades General Art/Fine Arts Academy

Jean Johnson
Marshall Elementary - Rockford
Third Grade - Gifted

Laura Johnson
Nashold Early Childhood Center - Rockford
Early Childhood

Katherine Koehler
Ledgewood Elementary - Roscoe
First Grade

Sylvia Landreth
Fairview Early Childhood Center - Rockford
Early Childhood - Bilingual Spanish/English

Suzette Muck
Poplar Grove Elementary - Poplar Grove
First - Third Special Education

Gabriela Nunez-Reagan
Seth Whitman Elementary - Belvidere
First Grade Dual Language

Ashley Schwabero
Prairie Hill Elementary - South Beloit
Fourth Grade

Jennifer Stella
Rock Cut Elementary - Loves Park
Fifth Grade

Laura Stites
Caledonia Elementary - Caledonia
Fifth Grade Math and English

Lance Tuula
Whitman Post Elementary - Rockton
Fifth Grade

Amy Wright
Prairie Hill Elementary - South Beloit
First Grade

Fort Zackary III
Carlson Elementary - Rockford

These teachers will be observed in their classrooms by trained community volunteers on three separate occasions between Jan. 16 and Feb. 16, 2018. The next step in the selection process after observations is an interview. The process culminates with the selection of five teachers who will receive the prestigious Golden Apple Award in surprise classroom presentations featured by WREX-13 and the Rockford Register Star.

Each Golden Apple award winning teacher will receive a cash award; a professional development stipend; a Rockford University Scholarship and a laptop computer compliments of Entré Computer Solutions. In addition, they will be inducted into the Golden Apple Teacher Academy where, as members, they will work to increase public awareness of educational excellence in our schools, promote the profession of education and provide professional development training and mentoring to new and veteran teachers.

Golden Apple Foundation is celebrating its 22nd year of taking positive steps to achieve improved education in Winnebago and Boone counties. The Annual Golden Apple Banquet recognizing Excellence in Education and honoring the Golden Apple finalists will be held Friday, April 27, 2018, at Giovanni's, sponsored by Bergstrom Inc. Charitable Foundation.

Golden Apple Foundation inspires, recognizes and supports excellence in education in our community.

For more information, contact Jennifer Stark at 815-226-4180 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..