ELYRIA – Stacie Starr went right back to work.
Moments after sitting in a classroom at Elyria High School and watching right along with the entire student body as Michael Strahan called her name as one of 12 semi-finalists in the national LIVE with Kelly and Michael’s Top Teacher Search, Starr gathered her composure – and the flowers and balloons gifted to her by EHS staff – dried her eyes and went back to doing what she does best.
“I have had no time to process,” she said near the end of the day, still fighting back tears. “The day keeps going. You fall back into teaching.”
Friday was an odd, but truly unforgettable day, for Starr, a 14-year veteran of the district.
Up until that day, she thought the highlight of her teaching career was last June’s commencement ceremony, where she personally handed diplomas to 10 male students she had mentored over the years. That was the moment – watching those young men who started out as a group of at-risk boys walk across the stage to finish their high school careers with diplomas in hand – that let her know her job as a teacher had purpose.
“No one dropped out,” Starr said days before the 2013 graduation. “I didn't lose one.”
On Friday morning, school officials knew that Starr was up for the award, but were sworn to secrecy. That’s why the unusual, school-wide announcement went across the public address system telling all teachers and students to turn their classroom televisions to Channel 5 just before 10 a.m.
Starr said she thought a national disaster had taken place.
She was even more puzzled when she hustled into her classroom and found the district’s Communication Director Amy Higgins and Videographer Marty Yadon there. They couldn’t tell her, of course, but they were there to capture the moment.
The TV was tuned to LIVE with Kelly and Michael, not a news station, and she admitted afterward she was still pretty confused. She said she didn’t immediately grasp what was happening.
“My first thought was, ‘Did he just say my name?’" Starr said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I was totally clueless.”
As the shock wore off and it sunk it that she was being honored, she quickly did the only thing she could think of. She called her mom.
“Mom. Mom. I just got voted for a national teacher something. I don’t even know what it is,” Starr can be heard saying on the video shot by Yadon. “They just had me on the Kelly Ripa show for a national teacher – top 12 teachers in the United States and I just wanted to tell you.”
It was just the news Starr said her mother needed to hear. She is battling a two-year bout with pancreatic cancer and recently received some bad news.
“I called my mom because I wanted her to know something awesome was happening so it could lift her spirits,” Starr said.
Locally, Starr already is known.
She’s the teacher who had her male students wear ties to school so they were dressed for success, had them read books like “Tears of a Tiger” and “A Child Called It” and pen letters to a trio of New Jersey doctors after reading the biographical account of how they formed a pact and made it out of the ghetto together. She coached football when at Northwood Middle School and instituted an open door policy in her classroom when she was transferred to the Elyria High.
But she wasn’t expecting or seeking out any kind of national honor as she went about her days.
“I just live my life and remember Erin Gruwell and `The Freedom Writers Diary.’ You can say she’s my mentor,” Starr said about a teacher who taught students deemed unteachable.
But Parent Maryann Verlotti, the mother of 16-year-old Dominic Zullo, could not let Starr be a wonderful secret exclusive to Elyria Schools. She wanted the world to know Starr and penned a poignant letter to the nationally syndicated show in hopes it would choose the 36-year-old teacher and mother of three in its nationwide search for the best educators.
“Please consider Stacie Starr for your contest. She is the hardest working, most selfless woman I have ever had the pleasure of knowing,” Verlotti wrote to close out the letter that detailed her son’s struggles after a diagnosis at age 3 of Asperger syndrome and how it affected his school life.
The show has said it will not disclose how many submissions were received since early March, when the 2014 contest started. After receiving all of the nominations, “LIVE’s” producers selected the 12 semi-finalists whose names were announced on Friday’s show.
Online voting will determine the five finalists who will be featured one per day the week of May 12. The educator chosen as the 2014 Top Teacher will be announced on LIVE the week of May 19.
Starr said she has never been to New York and is hoping she is chosen to go. If not, she said she will be happy just the same.
“They are probably all really good teachers,” she said of the other nominees.
But to Verlotti, none are like Starr.
“She’s the assistant athletic director, teacher, intervention specialist, and 'mom' to many,” the mother wrote. “I can’t walk with her in the hallway of Elyria High School without being stopped at least five times for hugs, or words of encouragement.”
Starr entered Dominic’s life as his assigned intervention specialist in seventh grade. The now-16-year-old boy explained Friday how that relationship blossomed into what it is today.
“No one saw me better than my mom until I met Ms. Starr,” he said, answering interview questions with confidence. “She totally understood me and knew how to work with me from the beginning.’’
Dominic was involved in Starr’s mentoring group the last year she was at Northwood. It scared him to think he would go onto high school without her, but Starr also moved to the high school in 2012. The relationship between the two continues to this day.
“It’s funny, but he has never had a locker of his own,” Starr said. “He has a locker in my room and it’s been like that since day one. When he was a ninth-grader, I saw a lot of him because I had him for five classes. This year, he’s a sophomore. I like to say he has wings now because he’s soaring on his own and doing great.”
Dominic is quick to point it was Starr who made him feel like it was OK to be who he was, that people would accept him.
“I wouldn’t be here sitting with you today if it wasn’t for her,” he said. “Not just me, but she has saved – I couldn’t count with my own fingers how many people who she has changed just by being there.”
Vote for Starr online here. Voters can vote once every 24 hours between now and 5 p.m. Monday, April 28.