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Milani Elementary School teacher Jessica Farrand is photographed on Wednesday June 16, 2010 in Newark, California. Farrand is the Newark Unified School District's Teacher of the Year. (Aric Crabb/Staff)

It's a commonly held belief that the ability to read and write well will aid in one's studies, regardless of what subject one is learning. That's why it should come as no surprise that all three educators who were named their district's Teacher of the Year in the Tri-City area have a background in literacy work.

The Teachers of the Year are Livia Thomas in Fremont, Michaelene McKelvey in New Haven Unified and Jessica Farrand in Newark. They now will be considered for the title of the county's teacher of the year.

Fremont

Livia Thomas was 4 when she figured out what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. A kindergartner in Texas, she looked up to her teacher, who always greeted students with a smile and made learning hands-on.

Today, she is a Title 1 specialist at Grimmer Elementary School, where she works with English learners and students who are reading and writing below grade level.

Thomas began her career in Texas, then taught in the San Ramon Valley school district before joining Grimmer in 1999. The school, where nearly half the students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, was placed on a government watch list and told it needed to improve its test scores several years ago. This year, Grimmer scored 801 on the state's Academic Performance Index. A score of 800 or higher is considered excellent.

"I stay with Grimmer because I love this community. We are truly a professional learning community. It's easy to be a good teacher here," said Thomas, who completed her 34th year of teaching overall this week.


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"I've found that when you give students a goal and let them track their own progress, kids can do amazing things. I believe there's not one child who can't do it if you give them the tools," Thomas said.

Her advice to new teachers is to model the behavior they'd like to see in their students.

"Be a lifelong learner," she said. "Be what you want your kids to be. Be that person for them."

New Haven

While Fremont's teacher of the year was not old enough to cross the street by herself when she decided to become an educator, New Haven's teacher of the year was one class away from completing her master's in business administration before she realized her calling.

Four units shy of her degree, Michaelene McKelvey decided her true passion was children.

"I realized I didn't love accounting. I just liked it. But I loved working with kids," said McKelvey, who grew up teaching kids to swim. So she committed to more years of schooling to obtain her teaching credential and today is National Board-certified to teach English and social sciences.

McKelvey has taught since 1991, mostly at Alvarado Middle School in Union City. She has also worked as a long-term substitute teacher at Pioneer Elementary School, as an assistant principal at Emanuele Elementary and has spent several years as a literacy and writing specialist in the district office.

At Alvarado Middle School, McKelvey has served as a department head and literacy coach and was the writing coach this school year.

"I don't actually know why I teach middle school, but I love it. The students are independent but they still need your help. And the energy level is just wonderful. "... If you make a joke, they get it. But you can turn around the next minute and talk about something serious going on in the world and they get it," she said.

As much as she loves teaching, McKelvey said it's not the easiest time to enter the profession, given the state budget crisis and the pressure to have kids score high on tests.

"If you're going into teaching, you need to always remember what you love about the job," she said. "You just have to keep that passion going."

Newark

When students are inexplicably failing in their classes at Milani Elementary School, their teachers send them to Jessica Farrand to figure out the problem.

A resource specialist, Farrand runs the Learning Center and works with more than 50 students, teaching them to read and write. She also helps to determine if they need other special education classes.

"It's important," she said of the learning center. "So many times students are failing and falling between the cracks."

Farrand said she was shocked when she heard she was chosen as the district's teacher of the year.

"I was happily surprised because resource specialists often get overlooked," she said. "I am honored, thankful and kind of shocked."

Farrand has been at Milani for four years and came to Newark from Hayward, where she held the same title for a year.

She earned her bachelor's degree from San Francisco State and obtained a dual teaching degree for general and special education. She also holds a master's in education psychology from Cal State East Bay.

Other nominees

The following individuals were Teachers of the Year at their schools and were considered for their district's Teacher of the Year award:

  • Fremont: Deborah Afana, Lisa Alves, Jeanne Aragon, Jan Bergesen, April Bishop, Elizabeth Cooper, Kami Ferguson, Nancy Finney, Ury Gonzalez, Clint Johns, Carmina Lee, Candace Lindskog, Linda Lorenz, Linda Martinez, Shawn Nealy, Rebecca Olson, Seema Pande, Kimberley Pedrotti, Robert Quigley, Silvia Rojas, Maria Romo, Stephanie Ruzicka, Antoinette Schlobohm, Lucia Silva, Jane Turner, Karyn Uyehara, Ryan Willer.

  • New Haven: Rodana Breen, Ivan DeSouza, Jami Hiller, Abigail Noche, Cameron Raphael, Allison Sayavong, Anita Schumann, Maria Spagle, Sheilah Stettler, Joshua Straley, Kamon Turner, Hannah Watson.

  • Newark: Delight Evans-Vasquez, Steven Harrington, Jonathan Hohm, Joanne Hong, Ruthann Hunt, Megan McMillen, Lisa Myhre, Erica Nordman, Jacqueline Rastrullo, Rafael Rodriguez, Danielle Vieira.