Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, educators have earned a new level of appreciation—whether from parents who have had to work through the challenges of virtual learning or from their students, who appreciate the inventive ways they make class engaging, no matter where it is held.
Despite the many challenges of working in education, there are some who have gone above and beyond to achieve success and make a difference. In this story, meet four of the many Saint Leo University alumni educators who are among some of the best, receiving top honors by their school districts and the state for their extraordinary work in our schools.
Andrea Altman ’14, Brittany Brown ’18, Joel DiVincent ’05, and Melissa Forsyth ’08 are passionate educators who remain touched by those who inspired them and motivate students with their all-in attitudes.
Altman is a diligent organizer, leaving no stone unturned.
Brown is passionate about reading and helping students find a love for books.
DiVincent is an inspirational mentor to so many.
Forsyth challenges students with a curriculum that includes only advanced learning courses.
But what they each have deep in their hearts is a true love of learning that enables them to be effective.
They are difference-makers, putting to use lessons learned while obtaining post-graduate degrees in educational leadership from Saint Leo University. They value that the university taught them to set the bar high for their students, provided them reliable networks comprised of those they attended university classes with, and set them up for administrative success.
Andrea Altman discovered her mission in life early. Her elementary school teacher, Alicia Gelaro, planted the seed.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to be a teacher because I had a third-grade teacher who I really looked up to,” Altman said. “And ever since then, I knew that I was going to go into education.”
Altman, by displaying true diligence, made her mark quickly after moving from teaching into an administrator’s role. She was named Assistant Principal of the Year for the Pasco County (FL) School District after only two years in that position at Quail Hollow Elementary in Wesley Chapel, FL.
“I was surprised,” Altman said about receiving that news, “and also just grateful for the recognition for all the work and all the contributions that I’ve made to our system.”
What have been her primary contributions?
“I would say just the dedication and commitment to providing all students with the opportunity to be successful in school,” said Altman, now the principal at Watergrass Elementary, also in Wesley Chapel.
She said a strong game plan is essential in order to put students in a position to reach their full potential.
“The biggest obstacle is just recognizing and being able to utilize the resources that we have in a systematic way in order to be able to be impactful for students,” Altman said. “It really takes thoughtful and careful planning in order to be able to use the people we have and the curriculum that we have to create a concerted effort in order to provide support for all of our students.”
Altman, a California native, was an elementary school teacher for five years before becoming a literacy coach, and then an assistant principal and principal. She earned her undergraduate degree at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed a master’s degree in educational leadership at Saint Leo University in 2014.
Saint Leo, she stressed, prepared her for administrative success.
“The classes that I took at Saint Leo really held me to high expectations,” Altman said. “And the content of those courses has taught me to think critically about schools and how schools operate, and really how to think systematically about running a school.
“It was really all of [my instructors] who made an impact on me,” she said of her Saint Leo education.
What appealed most to her about teaching when she entered that field? “Seeing students learning and experiencing success,” Altman said.
Altman said there was one student whose story has stayed with her.
“When I was an assistant principal at a middle school (Raymond B. Stewart in Zephyrhills, FL), there was a student who was in advanced courses and really didn’t want to be there,” Altman said. “But I knew that he could do it, and I would not take him out of the advanced courses. He persevered through those courses, and when I left there, he thanked me for that. He said, ‘There were times when I wanted to give up, and you wouldn’t let me.’”
Is it harder to experience that feedback as an educational administrator?
“I think it’s just different,” Altman said. “As an administrator, you have that whole-school view. You get to see those experiences all across campus, across different grade levels, and also across content areas, too.”
Mrs. Gelaro, her third-grade teacher at Vista Grande Elementary School in San Diego, would be proud.
While Brittany Brown says she didn’t become an educator to win accolades, being a 2022 Florida Teacher of the Year finalist was a special moment for her.
Brown earned a Master of Education degree with a specialization in educational leadership from Saint Leo in 2018. Her work as a third- and fourth-grade language arts teacher at Wildwood Elementary School in Sumter County, FL, propelled her into the finals, which she describesas a “mind-blowing experience.”
She was one of five finalists selected from 185,000 teachers statewide for Florida’s top teaching honor, with Pinellas County’s Sarah Ann Painter earning Teacher of the Year status.
“I never sat and thought about how many teachers there were in the state of Florida,” she said. “Once I had time to really sit and process it all, I was in shock. I just show up every day and do what I love doing the most—teaching kids. Never in a million years did I think that I would be here, receiving this type of honor.”
Brown wasn’t named the winner, but recognition for the impact she makes at Wildwood Elementary continued as she recently was named assistant principal.
“I was inspired to teach because of some of the dynamic teachers that I had in my life,” said Brown, whose undergraduate degree is from the University of Florida. “They were just what I needed in my life. They helped me overcome some really tough challenges, and school became a place that I was excited to get to every day! I wanted to learn, I wanted to be with my teachers, and I wanted to be successful. I wanted to be able to do the same thing to help other children.
“I love everything about teaching,” Brown continued. “I think what I love the most is that I have the power to change a child’s life forever. I can be a light in their life, a safe space for them, and someone who helps them reach their greatest potential.”
Brown, a mother of four, described the joy of watching children acquire a love for reading: “It is honestly one of the best feelings in the world. Especially when students come in struggling to read or just not interested in reading at all. To see them develop a love for reading is just amazing. It’s something that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.”
Saint Leo University played a role in her development as an educator, Brown said. And one professor stands out.
“Dr. Jodi Lamb impacted me the most,” Brown noted. “I was on the fence about getting a master’s degree, but I went ahead and enrolled. She was my first instructor, and honestly [she was] the first impression of Saint Leo University. I completed her course wishing that I could have her for every course. She was amazing! She made herself available and worked to build relationships.”
Now as an assistant principal, Brown will continue to build relationships with her students, using her leadership training from Saint Leo, and encouraging them to be lifelong readers and learners.
Joel DiVincent’s parents weren’t educators, but his father, Richard, and mother, Rosalie, provided the perfect guidance to form an impactful educator, first as a teacher and later as a school administrator.
DiVincent, who received his master’s in educational leadership from Saint Leo University in 2005 said, “My father and my mother—he in particular—inspired my brothers and my sister and me to consider others above yourself, and really inspired me in that life of service. My mother, on the other hand, taught me how to be a good person, a good, caring person.
“The two of them together inspired me and all my siblings to consider what it really means to consider others above yourself in a life of service. At my Saint Leo graduation ceremony, Dad told me that my mother would be very proud of me.”
DiVincent became choked up recalling that memory, and said his father, a U.S. Marine who became a police officer and firefighter, also passed away recently.
He added, “My mother would’ve been excited about me at Saint Leo, particularly because of its Christian teaching and the spirit of Jesus Christ there.”
DiVincent was named this year’s Pasco County Schools’ Principal of the Year for his impact at Paul R. Smith Middle School in Holiday, FL, continuing to honor the spirit his parents instilled in him. He serves as an inspiration to many of his students, but particularly treasures turning on the “educator light” for Danielle “Dee” Johnson, principal of Pasco Middle School in Dade City, FL, located near Saint Leo’s residential campus. Johnson earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Saint Leo in 2011.
“What’s interesting is she still calls me ‘Mr. DiVincent’ or ‘Mr. D,’” he said. “She stood out as a very talented person who decided to become a teacher and then a principal. That’s quite inspiring to me. She’s an amazing person and an amazing leader. To see how I inspired someone else to do the same thing I do is quite enjoyable.”
He attended schools in his native New Jersey and eventually Countryside High in Clearwater, FL.
“Probably the biggest factor for me was having so many wonderful teachers who positively impacted and influenced my life,” DiVincent said. “It’s about finding a connection for young people to their passions and how connecting their passion to learning can translate into a career that they love. It’s truly a blessing to be able to help connect those dots for young people.”
DiVincent, who received his undergraduate degree in education from the University of South Florida, taught for 10 years before moving into administration in 2005 after graduating from Saint Leo.
“I learned a lot at Saint Leo University—not only about what it means to be a servant leader and a school leader. I learned a lot about myself and a lot more about what it means to be a good person. I’m still in touch with many of the students I attended with, and we have a network of principals and assistant principals. We support each other, and I carry what I learned there with me every day.”
Melissa Forsyth was sure about one thing.
She didn’t want to be a school principal. Her grandmother, Rebecca Jarrell, had been a principal at several elementary schools. Her mother, Terri Forsyth, has been a principal for as far back as she can remember.
“I could never get away with anything!” said Melissa Forsyth, chuckling. “And my mom always took the teacher’s side of things when I was growing up. So, I had to do what was expected of me, and do it right. She wasn’t going to hear any excuses from me.”
When Forsyth majored in social studies education at the University of Central Florida, her intention was to teach—something she noted that her grandmother and mother did inspire her to pursue.
She began post-graduate studies at Saint Leo University’s Ocala (FL) Education Center, and later attended classes in St. Leo, FL, at University Campus. And even after earning her master’s degree in educational leadership in 2008, she didn’t immediately go into education administration.
However, by 2012, she became a convert to the virtues of leading from the principal’s office by becoming an assistant principal at Liberty Middle School in Ocala.
“Although I tried really hard not to,” she said. “I think it’s in my blood to be a principal.”
Forsyth, who was recently named Principal of the Year in Marion County at Liberty, actually has students coming to her school from the school where her mother is principal—College Park Elementary School.
She was honored for her work at the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID®) school, and recognized for her implementation of revolutionary concepts at Liberty. AVID, like Saint Leo, implements a student-centered approach, encouraging career and college readiness.
Her school incorporates the district’s mantra, “Find your E,” that is designed to help them find their path after high school. Forsyth explained the E as, “Are they going to Enlist in the military? Get Employed into the workforce? Enroll in college?”
“I have 1,400 students,” said Forsyth, “and what I have loved most about this position is that we’ve changed the community’s viewpoint, perception, and expectations. We were a very average school for a long time, and didn’t have the bells and whistles. We had to create a culture of really high expectations where we weren’t going to take excuses. Once we did that, we’ve seen a huge shift.
“We don’t have any regular courses here. All the courses are advanced courses. It’s a little bit of an experiment. We did this so kids know we expect big things out of them. Typically, when you expect big things, support them to attain that, they’ll show you they can do it. Students who might be struggling with that have an elective course where they learn study skills and peers help them through it, too.”
Dr. Roberta Ergle, who taught a course on how children’s relationships with adults affect them, inspired that line of thought for Forsyth at Saint Leo.
“She was the one who talked to me a lot about high expectations and how when you show them, they can do it with enough support,” Forsyth said.
“I have two kids myself [daughter Rainey, 12, and son Maddox, 8] and every classroom that I walk into, I want it to be one where I would be OK with Rainey or Maddox being in it. And if I can help teachers in my classrooms create a learning environment I’d want my own kid in, I know it’s good for everyone else’s kids.”