Channie Frazier, who teaches prekindergarten at Kid's World Learning Center on Statesboro's Savannah Avenue, was surprised Tuesday morning when state officials, with reporters in tow, disrupted class to give her flowers, a framed letter and $500.
Frazier, who has been lead teacher of Kid's World's only pre-K class for nine years, is one of six finalists in the new Prekindergarten Teacher of the Year program administered by the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. Three of the finalists teach in prekindergarten programs hosted by public school systems, and three teach in programs also funded by the state lottery but hosted by private schools and day care centers, such as Kid's World.
"I'm more than surprised. You wouldn't even believe it," Frazier said. "We don't always get recognized, you know, and some people think that all we do is play all day, but we learn. We learn, we definitely do, and it's evident when you see the children grow from August through to May. We matter."
From among the finalists, two 2016-17 Georgia Pre-K Teachers of the Year will be named this fall, one representing public programs and one privately hosted programs. These winners will receive $2,500 each, and their schools will get some money as well.
Frazier always knew she wanted to work with children but wasn't quite sure what she wanted to do, she said. In 2004, she graduated from Georgia Southern University with a bachelor's degree in child and family development and considered herself "geared toward social services."
But after getting a job as a prekindergarten teacher, Frazier has remained one for 11 years so far, including her first two years at a different facility. Since taking this path, she has received a master's degree in early childhood education from Ashford University.
At Kid's World, Frazier arrived as lead teacher in 2007, the same year Maria Smith became assistant pre-K teacher.
"They're a great team," said Kid's World owner and director Michelle Smith Lank.
Only lead teachers were eligible for the state award, and Lank nominated Frazier. Frazier had to supply some information about herself, including answers about her philosophy of education and how she works with children's families. Letters of recommendation accompanied the applications.
"This if the first year that (the awards program) has been available, and when the applications came out, I really wanted to suggest her and showcase her, and also the Kid's World Learning Center program," Lank said. "We just had no clue that we would be in the finalists, so we're very excited."
Besides Frazier's use of activities that incorporate learning into child's play, her teamwork with Smith and the way they involve parents are things Lank suspects made the application stand out.
"Our family engagement is very strong, which leads to having strong foundations for children in the classroom," Lank said. "She just has the experience and the ability to think outside the box and can really bring stability and a scaffolding of learning into the program."
Susan Adams, assistant commissioner of the Department of Early Care and Learning, and Laurianne McDonald, the department's prekindergarten advisor to centers and schools in a 14-county area, came to Kid's World to present the surprise.
A panel of child care experts from the agency used a scoring system to evaluate the applications before the six finalists were chosen, Adams said. The $500 prize is for Frazier's personal use. In fact, the contest organizers insist that its teachers not use the money to buy things for their classrooms, Adams said.
The prizes are entirely funded by private foundations, with the Naserian Foundation, operated by Atlanta philanthropist Stephanie Blank, being the main donor, Department of Early Care and Learning officials said.
To advance in the state competition, Frazier will need to complete an interview and be evaluated on a classroom observation. The state winners are scheduled to be announced at the end of September so they can represent the programs during Prekindergarten Week, Oct. 3-7.
Besides the $2,500 prizes for each of the two state winners, their schools or centers will receive some cash, including funding to cover the teachers' travel expenses and for substitute teachers to fill in while the winners represent Georgia's prekindergarten programs at times during the coming school year, Adams said.
Georgia's lottery-funded prekindergarten programs currently serve about 80,000 children, or about 60 percent of the state's 4-year-olds. This percentage has remained stable for about five years, Adams said. About 5,000 other children remain on waiting lists.
This year, the program is receiving an additional $36 million but plans to use it mainly to improve the pay and benefits of lead and assistant teachers, with an eye on recruiting and retaining teachers, she said.
"We know that teachers make the biggest impact about what goes on in that classroom and affect child outcomes," Adams said. "I do think over the next couple of years, we'll be looking for additional funding to come to look at serving additional children, but we want to make sure our focus is on offering a high-quality program."
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.