Leading Learning Award - Current and Past Honorees

We're proud of the work our staff does every day. Meet our Leaders of Learning and those who are Going Above and Beyond and nominate your deserving co-worker today.

March 2024 Honorees

Debra Smith, Going Above and Beyond “While she is only temporarily working with us at Empower U South, she has gone above and beyond to make sure the transition for the young adults she serves has been as smooth as possible. She immediately took a new ISS staff member under her wing on the very first day and walked them through all of the duties we just cannot capture in standard onboarding. I am thankful for the time we have her." -Nic Bond, Center Programs Administrator
Faith DeYoung, Being a Leader of Learning “Faith is an effective, responsible, professional team player who has been in our program (Oral Deaf) for 30 years. She is our staff cheerleader and a huge support to our team in and out of school. She was born to work with kids with special needs and her experience raising her own children help her relate with our families. She is a gem and a valued member of our program!" -Debra Burkhardt, Center Programs Program Coordinator

February 2024 Honorees

Elizabeth Schafer, MySchool@Kent “Elizabeth has always contributed outstanding work and shown great dedication to our school. Her compassion, loyalty, and reliability help MySchool@Kent succeed. She shows a genuine concern for the well-being of her students, and she goes out of her way to ensure that all feel supported and valued." - Matt Reda, Instructor, MySchool@Kent
Emily Herrmann, KEC Beltline “Emily is part of a dynamic trio, educating students on our certificate track of completion. She comes to work each day prepared to teach our students daily life lessons, daily living skills, social emotional skills while keeping all students safe. Emily hopes to advance her career and become a certified teacher and we thank her for all she does each day!" - Kevin Zaschak, KEC Beltline
Stephanie Harkema, KEC Beltline “Stephanie is the true definition of an outstanding educator and her efforts do not go unnoticed. She also leads our Student Government, school store, and is an integral member of our Continuous Improvement and PBIS Teams. Stephanie is extremely organized and has targeted lesson plans that meet all her students where they are." - Kevin Zaschak, Principal, KEC Beltline
Thomas Doan, KEC Beltline “Thomas has built fantastic relationships with all students throughout the building. He is proactive in his approach which helps our students find success each day and he educates students on our certificate track of completion. He has served on many committees including our Continuous Improvement and PBIS Teams. We're thankful for all he does!" - Kevin Zaschak, Principal, KEC Beltline

January 2024 Honoree

Melissa Monette Melissa Monette is an American Sign Language interpreter working at Northview Public Schools. In addition to her classroom interpreting duties, she also is responsible for scheduling details. Due to the statewide shortage of certified interpreting staff in K-12 school settings, we often have difficulty covering assignments when interpreters are out sick or in need of time off. Melissa is dedicated to ensuring that each student has the access to communication that is required for them in the classroom. This usually means juggling staff around (sometimes building to building) to cover assignments, yet also trying to make sure that the interpreters get the prep and break time they need to do their job well. She is always supportive and has creative solutions - Anonymous nomination

December 2023 Honoree

Talibah Sawyer Leading Learning Award : “Talibah works with our students who are overcoming the toughest challenges. She does so with both empathy and steadfast patience. Whether students have given up on school or are run down by life's woes, Talibah builds their confidence and encourages them to persevere in achieving their high school diplomas and beyond. We are lucky to have her in our educational community.” - Deborah VanDyke, nominator, MySchool@Kent

November 2023 Honorees

Nicole Burman, Bright Beginnings Nicole recently encountered a dangerous situation involving a family at-home visit. "Nicole remained calm, used excellent judgment under pressure, helped de-escalate the situation and kept the children and herself safe. Nicole is a strong advocate for young children and parents in the community. She is outstanding at building relationships with families and they love having her in their homes. And she does all of these amazing things with a smile on her face!" - Rebecca Hodges, Bright Beginnings
Amy Kerkstra, Great Start Readiness Program “Regardless of the hat Amy is wearing, she radiates positivity. Her attitude is contagious and her heart is always in the right place. We can count on Amy to be a strong advocate for children and families, and also for the teachers we serve. Having worked her way through our program in various positions from associate teacher to lead teacher to ECS she has a valuable perspective.” - Kathryn O'Hara-Wallis, GSRP

October 2023 Honorees

Bob Rouse and Mitch Smith “I would like to nominate Bob Rouse and Mitch Smith for going above and beyond each day for staff and visitors at the ESC building. No matter what situation arises, Bob and Mitch are always available to lend a helping hand and make everyone feel welcomed and supported at Kent ISD. They take "all other duties as assigned" to a whole other level and we are so thankful for their dedication to supporting our staff and stakeholders.” - Mandy Lovell, Administrative Assistant Superintendent’s Office
Laurel Minard “Laurel has worked for Great Start to Quality for the past 11+ years. During her time with us, she has been a champion for early childhood, working extremely hard to ensure licensed childcare providers are recognized for their efforts and are given the resources and supports they need. Laurel has formed so many strong, positive relationships with the childcare programs she has provided coaching services to. In the early childhood community, Laurel is well known and loved for her early childhood knowledge and commitment to the providers and families. When we attend community events, we ALWAYS get providers and families telling us they know and LOVE Laurel! Many of them share personal stories of how Laurel has supported their early childhood business or children with her teaching and/or coaching." - Jaime Mueller, Great Start to Quality Program Director

September 2023 Honorees

Chelsea Kittridge-Farrell, Mental Health Liason "Chelsea truly defines what it means to lead learning. In her current role as the Kent ISD Mental Health Liaison and in her previous role as a special education behavior coach to our local districts, Chelsea is known internally and throughout the county for being extremely knowledgeable, considerate of all viewpoints and input, action-oriented, a problem solver, and passionate in advocating for marginalized subgroups and students with social-emotional and behavioral needs. Chelsea is a tireless and passionate employee who deserves recognition for the hours, dedication and passion that she puts into her position." - Kirsten Myers, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services, Kent ISD.
Griffin Gale, Chris Lillis, Eric VanDam - Information Technology "As a result of a storm that left many without power throughout the region for several days, Glen's team navigated a myriad of challenges including maintaining our systems during the outage. Beyond those customary functions of the IT team, they successfully rose to the significant challenges posed by Comcast outage delays at the Lincoln Campus. Had they not been as innovative and diligent in their solutions-oriented work, students at that campus would likely have missed additional school days. We continue to marvel at their collective ingenuity and commitment to supporting Kent ISD programs and all those whom we serve." - Ron Koehler, Superintendent, Kent ISD
Mike Rens, Mike Alanowski, Holly Nichols, Dave LaBotz, Ted Corner - Facilities "Maintaining the grounds at our Beltline Campus is a tremendous undertaking. The site is approximately 75 acres, which demands a multitude of ongoing grounds-related tasks. This summer, those involved in taking such great care of our beautiful campus did an impeccable job! It is very evident that they are all dedicated to our cause and take great pride in their work! I'd like to sincerely thank Mike Rens, Dave LaBotz, Ted Corner, Mike Alanowski, and Holly Nichols for a tremendous job well done!!" - Justin Stonehouse, Facilities Supervisor

August 2023 Honorees

Brian Gest, Early Childhood Special Education - Leader of Learning “Brian is an early riser and is at school very early every morning to check on messages from parents or staff. He reviews his lesson plans and 'tweaks' anything that may need to be adjusted. He knows his students and parents well and has an open, honest relationship. He works with both of them, especially at this level trying to get kids ready for next level of school readiness.” - Paula Sund
Chanelle Charity, Great Start to Quality - Leader of Learning “Chanelle has been with Great Start to Quality since March 2018. From the get-go she has been a burst of energy! She fills our office with positivity, smiles and laughter! Chanelle is a great support to her co-workers and our team as a whole. She is willing to help out another team member with any request because she knows it will support our team." - Jaime Mueller
Wendi Vogel, Educational Consultant Science - Leader of Learning "Wendi was instrumental in ensuring students from Lowell got home safely after they were stranded in Newark, New Jersey while returning from a trip out of the country. According to Lowell Superintendent, Nate Fowler, Wendi was on the East Coast on a trip of her own, heard about the students and stepped in to help. Mr. Fowler says Wendi was "determined, used impeccable judgment, and stayed calm even though [she] experienced many transportation challenges". - Ron Gorman and Ron Koehler

June 2023 Honorees

Photo of Kassandra Gober
Kassandra Gober “Kassandra is the Deaf and Hard of Hearing teacher at Crossroads Middle School. She has worked hard to build a strong team with general education staff in the building, educational interpreters, ISS, parents and students. Kassandra focuses on the whole child and is flexible in her communication modality, following the student lead on their preferred communication style. Her classroom is a calm, safe environment where students know they are respected because of the work Kassandra does to build relationships."
Photo of Olivia Niemiec
Olivia Niemiec "Olivia Niemiec is a constant professional who not only rises to meet all challenges, but she also encourages those around her to exceed expectations. Ms. Niemiec's support for our young adults does not stop at the instructional level; she is the ultimate team player who collaborates with other service providers to provide exemplary special education service."
Photo of Marlene Raffler
Marlene Raffler "Marlene plans and facilitates hundreds of playgroups a year for families with little ones all over Kent County. She has a love and enthusiasm for play with families, is filled with energy and smiles, and is an exceptional team collaborator with not only our staff, but with local district staff. Families absolutely love her playgroups and follow her around the county so their children have fun socialization opportunities to help them prepare for school."

May 2023 Honorees

Photo of Nate Cooper
Nate Cooper Working with Nate Cooper is always a pleasure. He makes himself available for technology consultations, installs, repairs and Capital Outlay recommendations. He is the epitome of service that is second to none. We rely on his experience with different equipment and programs. Nate's advice gets us back on track when we have questions or delays.
Photo of Nancy Sullivan
Nancy Sullivan Nancy is extremely dedicated to her job and every child/family in our room. She is great at building relationships with parents and children. She makes an intentional effort daily to build on those relationships and it is second nature to her. She goes above and beyond her job requirements. If someone needs something, Nancy is one of the first to step up (making meals, sending cards, checking in on people...) and is never too busy to help anyone.
Photo of Officer Steve Toonstra
Officer Steve Toonstra “I want to give a positive shout out to Officer Steve. He shows up to KEC Beltline every day and goes above and beyond. His relationships with students, parents and staff are amazing, and he pulls weeds out front, sweeps wood chips off the sidewalk, cleans tables and this week I came back in the building from a meeting, and he was cleaning the floor on his hands and knees. Kudos to Officer Steve!"

April 2023 Honorees

Kelly Cleveland, Leader of Learning
Kelly Cleveland Kelly Cleveland has always been an exceptional teacher and learner. She never stops thinking of how students can have better outcomes and how she can better her practice to make that happen. She is a top-notch teacher, advocate, role model and leader within our county, state and even nationally. Because of her early, specific auditory work with students, we have seen them go from being fully mainstreamed in their elementary years, to being fully mainstreamed by kindergarten. or preschool in some instances. It has been an incredible shift to see children who are deaf and hard of hearing have the level of auditory skills, language and vocabulary skills and the confidence to be at school in their home districts.
Crystal Gumbs, Going Above and Beyond
Crystal Gumbs Crystal has been a part of our Great Start to Quality team for the past 8 years. Since the start of her employment with us, she continually strives to 'do more and be more.' Crystal is the type of employee who will volunteer for specific tasks/roles because she knows it will benefit the good of the group. She has volunteered to be one of our McKinney-Vento trainers, a Child Care Business Course trainer, a Birth-to-Three Literacy Essentials trainer and more. She has also taken on the role of direct support for all refugee licensed child care providers and helps lead a monthly community of practice for these providers which focuses on current developmentally appropriate practice and how to translate that into their businesses.
Jeff Miller, Leader of Learning
Jeff Miller Jeff has served as Custodial Supervisor at Kent ISD for 19 years and his commitment and dedication to serving students, staff and guests truly exemplify what it means to lead learning. He often comes in early, stays late, or gives up time on weekends to assist with meetings and student activities, or to ensure that our buildings and grounds are safe and secured. Jeff is someone that values helping others and will go out of his way to accommodate even the smallest need or request. It is evident that Jeff has instilled this service-oriented approach to the staff he supervises, only further extending the positive impact Jeff has had throughout Kent ISD.
Nicole Mulder, Leader of Learning
Nicole Mulder Nikki has made a tremendous impact with her work as the Complex Communication Needs Team Lead at Early On Kent ISD. Over the past couple of years, Nikki has been instrumental in pushing conversations related to early and equitable access to communication and empowering children with delays or disabilities by helping them find their voice. In partnership with other Early On staff and administrators, Nikki has led a strong team that focuses on educating and supporting Early On with all things related to augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and assistive technology (AT). Nikki and the Complex Communication Needs team are currently supporting over 60 children with the trialing of AAC and AT devices.