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LCPS names 2020-2021 Teacher and Principal of the Year

The 2020-2021 Teacher of the Year and Principal of the Year have something in common beyond their long careers with Lenoir County Public Schools and their passion for education – an unerring faith in their students’ abilities.

Together, Teacher of the Year Ryan Gardner, who chairs the Science Department at South Lenoir High School, and Principal of the Year Lorene Bell, who has led La Grange Elementary since 2016, have more than 50 years’ experience with LCPS and have touched the lives of thousands of young people. They judge their success by the success of those students.

Man accepts a trophy from another man “As a teacher, I feel I have helped to craft an empowered and intelligent flock of students who will make the world better than it was before they were a part of it,” Gardner wrote in a profile that accompanied his Teacher of the Year nomination.

“Every child counts,” Bell wrote in her profile. “The students are the most important members of a school community. Under the appropriate conditions and with the appropriate strategies, all students can and will learn.”

The two educators were singled out for the annual honors during a process that began in the spring before the coronavirus pandemic closed public schools and culminated in the announcement of their awards by Superintendent Brent Williams on Thursday. A ban on large gatherings because of public health concerns had cancelled the April banquet where the awards are usually announced.

Also honored during LCPS's award season were two Northeast Elementary School staffers -- Betty J. Sawyer as the LCPS Teacher Assistant of the Year and data manager Retenner D. Neal as the Non-Instructional Classified Staff of the Year.

Teacher of the Year honorees from each of the district’s 17 schools and its pre-kindergarten program competed for the district awards, providing a written portfolio and interviewing with a selection panel comprised of district administrators. In addition to Gardner, E.B. Frink Middle School science teacher Kristen Davenport and Kinston High School English teacher Barbara Purdie were selected as finalists. The selection panel observed each at work in the classroom.

“The process of selecting the Teacher of the Year is a daunting task indeed!” said district HR Director Pam Heath, who organizes the process. “This year was certainly difficult because all three of the finalists were truly the ‘best of the best’ in education and they certainly all three deserve the honor.”

Gardner has been chosen the most deserving once before. He came to South Lenoir High in 2001 after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina and was named LCPS Teacher of the Year for 2005-2006.

He is a National Board Certified Teacher and was named a Kenan Fellow for Teacher Leadership in 2013.

He is an active member of the N.C. Technology in Education Society and the N.C. Science Teachers Association, serves as a clinical teacher for student teachers and a new teacher mentor and for the past seven summers has worked as part of the national AP Biology Leadership team. He coaches South Lenoir’s Science Olympiad and Quiz Bowl teams.

“Mr. Gardner is the finest teacher on my staff,” South Lenoir principal Steve Saint-Amand said. “He is a tireless worker, giving much more time to South Lenoir High School than is required. However, this is also the very reason our students excel inside and outside of the classroom. Simply put, Mr. Gardner is a born educator. He lives to teach!"

Woman accepts a plaque from a man. Williams praised Gardner as an “outstanding teacher” and recalled “the selection committee members expressed that they were particularly impressed by what Mr. Gardner shared with them in terms of the strong level of passion that he sets forth for the processes of teaching and learning and for the young people that he serves every day.”

Principal Bell “is a strong and confident leader who always seeks to put what is best for the students and staff members she leads at the forefront of all of her decisions,” the superintendent said. “Under Mrs. Bell's leadership, La Grange Elementary School has demonstrated strong and consistent student achievement gains with demonstrated growth numbers that have been at or near the top of the overall growth calculations for our elementary schools over the last three years.”

A long-time teacher at Banks Elementary School, where she started with LCPS more than 30 years ago, Bell became an assistant principal at Rochelle Middle School in 2014 and at the end of that school year was named principal of Northeast Elementary School. She became principal at La Grange Elementary in 2016.

She hold a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, special licensures in K-5 elementary education, gifted education, exceptional children’s education and as a school principal and a master of arts degree in education.

“Mrs. Bell is a principal who leads with great passion and determination to do all that she can to make positive contributions to helping her school and the overall community to reach its full potential,” Williams said. “She deserves this honor very much.”

As county honorees, Gardner and Bell move on to their respective regional selection processes, scheduled to begin in September. Regional winners become candidates for state Teacher of the Year and state Principal of the Year honors.

Of the two LCPS winners, Williams said he was “confident they will represent our school system very well in the both the regional and state competitions to follow.”

Photo captions:

Ryan Gardner, right, Science Department chair at South Lenoir High School, accepts his award as 2020-2021 LCPS Teacher of the Year from Superintendent Brent Williams.

La Grange Elementary School Principal Lorene Bell is presented her award as 2020-2021 LCPS Principal of the Year by Superintendent Brent Williams.