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Shaping excellence: UCPS U Awards celebrate education's finest

Union County Public Schools (UCPS) hosted its U Awards on May 9 to honor the best in education across multiple categories: Beginning Teacher of the Year, Teacher of the Year, Assistant Principal of the Year and Principal of the Year. The event also honored Teachers of the Year from all 53 schools. It was more than just a celebration of outstanding educators; it was a chance to recognize the hard work, dedication and passion that goes into shaping the next generation of leaders and innovators. 

Excitement filled the air as finalists, joined by their loved ones and guests, gathered at the Dowd Center Theatre. The Central Academy of Technology & Arts Mixed Quartet, under the guidance of Choir Director Bradley Stiver, mesmerized the audience with their performance of The New World by Jason Robert Brown, showcasing the diverse talents nurtured within the Music Production and Recording Arts Academy and the Theater Academy.

Dr. Andrew Houlihan, UCPS Superintendent, Kathy Heintel, the Board of Education Chairperson, and Sarah Lefebvre, the 2023-2024 Teacher of the Year from Health Sciences Academy at Monroe Middle, gave remarks before the announcement of the winners.

Heintel spoke about the essential role that educators play in the lives of their students, from imparting knowledge to motivating them to pursue greatness. Reflecting on her tenure, Lefebvre learned the following three lessons: advocate by sharing your stories, grow yourself and others by understanding your unique genius and always show gratitude to those who have shaped your journey. 

“Tonight's U Awards honor exceptional administrators and educators whose dedication shapes students' lives. Their commitment, passion and hard work inspire us all. Congratulations to all finalists and winners," said Dr. Houlihan.

The winners for 2024-2025 in each category are:

Beginning Teacher of the Year

Raven Symone Spencer, Wingate Elementary

Before joining UCPS in 2023, Spencer served as a student-teacher at Lilesville Elementary in Anson County Schools and a County of Anson Cooperative Extension 4-H youth Promise case manager, where she worked with youth and parents. Now a teacher at Wingate Elementary, Spencer prioritizes her students' needs, emphasizing well-being and academic growth above all else. With patience, support, and adaptability as core principles, she ensures every student feels valued and empowered, promoting peer learning and collaboration.

"What inspired me to become a teacher was my mom and playing a teacher when I was a kid. "I always wanted to help my elementary school teachers set up their classrooms. I also love helping people," she said. "Teaching was something I always wanted to do. Even when I was little, I used to get chalk and grade books."

Teacher of the Year

Yaronda Kilgo, Rock Rest Elementary

Kilgo is a kindergarten teacher at Rock Rest Elementary. She has been an educator since 2017. Kilgo's teaching style prioritizes meeting students' basic needs and supporting social-emotional development alongside academics. Using whole-brain teaching techniques, Kilgo sets high expectations, encourages peer teaching, and empowers students to manage their emotions through mindfulness and sensory strategies. "Throughout our day, I ask my scholars, 'Are you ready?' Their reply with kindergarten gusto and full belief, 'We were born ready!'"

"I focus on the whole brain concept, especially social-emotional learning. Working with kindergarteners, we maximize academics and incorporate how they can manage their emotions so students can have a strong foundation,” she said. "If they have that foundation, they can manage their behaviors and identify and process their feelings. That helps them know what is appropriate for school and their community."

 Assistant Principal of the Year

Elizabeth Gobble, Weddington Middle

Gobble has been the assistant principal at Weddington Middle since 2018. Gobble joined the school's staff as the sixth-grade assistant principal and special needs administrator after teaching Language Arts there for numerous years. Before teaching at Weddington Middle, Gobble taught at Holy Trinity Catholic Middle and at Princeton Middle when she and her family moved back to West Virginia for a brief stint.

"The role teachers have in our community is the most important. I am honored to be able to support them in whatever they need. If it's resources they need, I will do everything in my power to ensure they have those resources," she said. "I will also be in that classroom consistently to hold them accountable and ensure students benefit from their resources and excellent teaching." 

Principal of the Year

Kelly Frycz, Sardis Elementary

Frycz has been the principal of Sardis Elementary since 2022. Frycz worked as a teacher and math curriculum coach at Wingate Elementary before joining Sardis Elementary as a curriculum and instructional coach in 2014. She later taught math and STEM at Cabarrus County Schools and returned to UCPS in 2018 as an assistant principal. Frycz prioritizes the well-being of students and staff through servant leadership principles. She focuses on creating a nurturing environment for students while also supporting teachers. Frycz emphasizes the significance of being present in the school community, regularly visiting classrooms and engaging with students to better understand their needs and aspirations.

“The vision for Sardis is to have student and teacher leaders. It builds a culture where everyone contributes and gives input. It's everyone doing their part, so they feel it is their school,” she said. "I lead my team by letting them assist with decisions. Next year, we are shifting to more student advisory groups because we have untapped leadership that we want to grow."

Union County Education Foundation awarded checks to each of the winners. Spencer was granted $500, Kilgo received $1,500, Gobble received $1,000, and Frycz was awarded $2,500. 

The beginning teacher of the year, principal of the year and teacher of the year will represent UCPS in the regional teacher programs.