SEBRING - A Sebring educator who struggled as a student and wanted to change that for other kids went home with a top state award Monday.
Cracker Trail Elementary Assistant Principal Jeannie Inagawa won the Outstanding Assistant Principal Achievement Award for 2013-14.
State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart recognized Inagawa and Barbara Shirley, principal of Alta Vista Elementary School in the Sarasota School District who won the top principal award, at a luncheon in Orlando honoring district principals and assistant principals of the year.
"I was shaking, I was shocked," Inagawa remembered when she heard her name announced as the winner. She was in the running along with two other assistant principal finalists.
Then Highlands County Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Brenda Longshore, who was with her, prodded her: "Hey, you need to go on the stage now."
Inagawa gets a weekend resort stay at the Walt Disney World Resort and theme park admission, courtesy of Disney Youth Programs. The winner also receives a $2,500 cash prize.
The other assistant principal finalists were Brooke Loyed, Patronis Elementary School, Bay County; and Jo-Anne Misiewicz-Selter, Flamingo Elementary School, Broward County.
Superintendents selected nominees from each district, and their names were submitted to a Department of Education committee comprised of former program winners, representatives from leadership and parent organizations and the current Florida Teacher of the Year, a former Highlands Today report states. The committee recommended finalists, and an overall winner was selected from each category.
"The principals and assistant principals are selected because of their ability to foster cultures that increase student performance, promote safe learning environments, and establish partnerships with parents and community members," a news release from the department of education states.
Inagawa has been Cracker Trail's assistant principal for three years. She taught fifth grade at Sun 'n Lake Elementary School before that. The 12-year educator also taught in Hillsborough County.
When she was in college, she had wanted to pursue a career in health care, then switched tracks because nursing was not what she really wanted to do.
While growing up, school had not been easy for her and she chose a career in education to bolster other students, she said.
Her priority as an assistant principal is to help teachers become "even better teachers," she said. She sees her role as a "lead teacher."
Tuesday, a big congratulatory banner greeted her when she returned to Cracker Trail, not to mention the kudos she has received from students, parents and staff, she said.
"I love, love my school," she said. "Coming to school is not a job."
Cracker Trail Elementary School principal Richard Demeri called it a "very well-deserved honor."
He described Inagawa as thorough and personable who works hard at what she does.
She gets along with others and can see multiple sides of an issue, he said, which helps when dealing with discipline issues or the community or parents.
She also has a talent for matching students with the right teachers, he said, and has given student leadership a boost through some "creative" initiatives, he added.
The school's "The Leader In Me" students help set up a garden, and when the Highlands County School Board takes a tour of the school today to find out what the school's needs are -- from computers to cafeteria seats -- students will be guiding them around and telling them what they would like on campus.
"She is a super assistant principal," he said.
In a news release, Commissioner Stewart said: "Principals and assistant principals are the unsung heroes of our education system. School leaders set the tone and determine the school's path to success. Dr. Shirley and Ms. Inagawa both display extraordinary leadership and dedication to their students, teachers and parents. They both truly deserve this honor."