WATSON -- Jessica Bonura poked her head through the cracked-open door and blushed when she saw the bouquet of flowers, the celebratory balloon and the “Teacher of the Year” banner on the other side.

When she threw open the door to her classroom, her students started to cheer, exchanging high fives and shouts of “Yeah!”

“We won!” proclaimed 16-year-old Ethan Champagne, one of Bonura’s 10 students at Live Oak High School.

On a day when three Livingston Parish teachers were honored for their work in the classroom, the people who helped make it all possible — their students — got to share in the triumph.

The Livingston Parish Public Schools (LPPS) system recently recognized the parish’s top elementary, middle school and high school teachers for the 2018-19 school year.

Dané Long, a second grade teacher at Live Oak Elementary, Kimberly Lejeune, an ELA and science teacher at Live Oak Middle, and Bonura, a significant disabilities/autism (SDA) teacher at Live Oak High School, were awarded as the parish’s top educators for their respective grade levels.

LPPS Superintendent Rick Wentzel, Director of Curriculum Dawn Rush, Title 1 Coordinator Tammy Kuhn and Title 2 Coordinator Debbie Kropog made the rounds to the winning teachers on Wednesday, proudly presenting each with their trio of gifts in front of their adoring students.

“This is a good day,” Rush said.

Narrowing down the top teachers from a pool of so many worthy candidates was no easy task.

In order to be considered, each school had to submit a portfolio detailing the career of its own teacher of the year. After going through the applicants, the selection committee dwindled all three grade levels down to two finalists, who were then brought in for a face-to-face interview.

During the interview, teachers were asked questions covering an array of topics, from what they believe to be the biggest struggles in education today to how they’d explain the Louisiana school system to someone from another state.

After being named the top teachers in the parish, the next task for Bonura, Long and Lejeune will be to submit a video of them in their natural setting — the classroom — as they vie for recognition on the state level.

What that selection committee will see are three vastly different teachers who have one thing in common — the love for their jobs.

“My specialty is reading instruction”

If Dané Long had one superpower, she says it would be teaching people to read.

She’s done it for nearly 16 years now, the first 12 as a first grade teacher and the last four as a second grade teacher, all at Live Oak Elementary.

Long describes her work like that of a construction worker filling in potholes. But instead of using cement to fill the gaps, she uses knowledge.

“I have to go back and relay some of that foundation so they can stand firm and get the skills to be a good reader,” Long said. “That’s what I’ve done over the past 16 years, and I’ve really been able to hone in on that. Sometimes students get a little bit behind, and it’s our job to help get them caught up.”

But Long’s teaching isn’t just for the students — it’s for the teachers, as well.

Long has led reading workshops for the Live Oak Elementary faculty in the past, teaching the building blocks of reading to her fellow educators who may not be as accustomed to teaching basic reading skills to their students.

In the workshops, Long broke down how phonics and phonemic awareness is the background for reading and how to best teach those sounds and skills so students can become fluent readers.

To Long, it’s important to address the issues before moving forward and leaving students behind.

“If you’re a fourth-grade teacher and you don’t have a lot of experience with reading intervention, you need someone to help guide you,” Long said. “We can’t go to the next level until we fixed what’s broken. We have to address the need with each student and move forward. Each time we address one need, we can then go to the next one and the next one.

“Before you know it, we have a proficient student.”

Long is a also huge proponent of using data to target the precise needs of each student.

The data, compiled from the STAR Reading Assessment and other standardized tests, helps her break the results down to find the specific weaknesses of the child. Once she pinpoints the weaknesses, she can group students together who may have similar deficiencies.

“It’s about meeting the needs of the individual child while also meeting their educational needs,” she said. “When we do both of those things, we can educate the entire child.”

“Get the student involved”

When Kimberly Lejeune was a teacher at North Live Oak Elementary, she received a bit of lasting advice from Dawn Rush, her principal at the time.

Rush’s message was direct and simple: “Get the students involved.”

“That was the main thing — she wanted us up, and she wanted us active so those kids would be actively learning,” Lejeune recalled. “She wanted them moving around and not just sitting in a desk listening to us talk. That’s always stuck with me.”

It seems so.

In a teaching career that has spanned 18 years, all at Live Oak schools, Lejeune has always put an emphasis on activities in the classroom, creating new and exciting ways to engage her students and spark their curiosity.

Lejeune is in her first year teaching ELA and science at Live Oak Middle, but her and her classes have already done a slew of projects, most notably the creation of a hydroponics system.

The concept for the project originated after Lejeune had her students read “Among the Hidden,” a young adult novel by Margaret Peterson Haddix that takes place in a dystopian society where food is so scarce that laws forbid parents from having more than two kids.

In the book, one man attempts to circumvent the law by building his own hydroponics system to provide the additional food needed for his third child.

After finishing the book, students in both of Lejeune’s sixth grade ELA classes busied themselves designing and building their own hydroponics systems, which now sit in front of her classroom’s two windows. Sprouts of lettuce are already poking above the soil in the systems.

This project had it all: reading, science, engineering, math, design, writing.

But that’s the way Lejeune prefers it.

“The main thing I try to push is cross-curricular activities,” she said. “I try to hit as much as I can and not just isolate one subject at a time by combining stuff they’re doing in science, math, social studies and reading.”

One of Lejeune’s classes recently built a catapult, or a “pumpkin chunkin’, while studying Newton’s Laws of Motion, and another chose to do a service project after studying universal and cultural themes. In the service project, Lejeune’s students helped local elders in with their gardens, pulling out weeds and getting their hands dirty.

Some of Lejeune’s sixth graders are even getting ready to shoot a commercial for Greek mythology, which they’re learning about in their social studies classes. Her ELA classes already have hydroponics commercials on YouTube.

For Lejeune, the most important thing to remember when managing all these activities is to make sure every voice, opinion, and idea is heard.

“When you give them a little bit of ownership, they really buy into it,” she said. “I don’t have any discipline problems because we’re always busy. I treat them as a person and listen to their ideas. If the ideas are bad, we don’t reject them. We just try to figure out how to make them better.

“At this age level, they really have a lot of input, and whenever you give them the freedom and the control do that with a little bit of guidance, you’d be amazed at how well they do. That’s my job and my heart, to get them to do stuff not because of me, but because they want to.”

“We did it!”

Jessica Bonura’s significant disabilities/autism (SDA) class burst out in excitement when she threw open the door.

Celebratory cries of “Congratulations!” and “You did it!” could be heard loud and proud as Bonura shared a special moment with each of her 10 students, perfectly capturing the family-like atmosphere she has always tried to cultivate in her classes.

“When I walk in those doors, I’m happy every single day,” Bonura said. “It’s not a job to me — it’s a blessing, it’s a service, it’s a calling. I’m happy to just believe in my kids.”

Since starting her career as an SDA teacher 12 years ago, Bonura said it has been her mission to change the “negative stigma” surrounding her students or others like them.

For Bonura, this mission extends to a deeper, more personal level: Her 21-year-old son Benjamin was born with Down syndrome.

Bonura said she felt “scared” and “confused” when she first learned Benjamin’s diagnosis, mostly due to her own lack of knowledge on the subject.

But as she watched her son grow, she saw that he could do things, and if he could, so could others.

“The more you know something, the better you feel about it,” Bonura said. “When I had Benjamin, it was scary because I didn’t know anything about it.

“Then I realized I shouldn’t listen to the negative stuff people say because I’m the one living it, and this is not true. Being his mother, I saw him doing things people said he couldn’t do, so I knew there were other kids like that.”

After having Benjamin, Bonura decided to study special education and eventually began her SDA career at Denham Springs Elementary. Benjamin, a third grader at the time, was in her class.

Bonura and her son’s time together didn’t end when he went to Live Oak Middle and later Live Oak High — it continued at both stops, allowing Bonura the rare chance to watch her son grow and learn both inside and outside the classroom.

She got to watch him graduate high school, get voted by his peers as Mr. Live Oak, and even begin job training. The job: working in Bonura’s classroom as an assistant, helping transition her other students from class to class.

“It’s been a blessing,” she said, “an answered prayer.”

Benjamin was there when his mother was honored as Teacher of the Year on Wednesday, along with several of her students, Principal Beth Jones, other administrators and faculty, and representatives from the Livingston Parish Public Schools system.

Bonura hugged each of her student, who all seemed to be as excited — if not more — than she was.

“We won!” proclaimed 16-year-old student Ethan Champagne. “We did it!”

“Yes,” Bonura said. “We did.”

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