At Charles W. Duval Elementary School in Gainesville, there was one teacher who stood out for her fun-loving teaching techniques.
“The kids knew, when you get to fifth grade, you get to have Ms. Merriex,” said Wanza Wakeley, former Duval curriculum resource teacher.
Shortly after Duval became the first school in Alachua County to receive an “F” grade after the 2001-2002 school year due to poor FCAT scores, Gloria Jean Merriex became the math teacher for all fifth grade students in the school.
Her teaching methods proved instrumental in helping Duval receive an “A” grade for four out of the next six school years before she died of a brain hemorrhage on May 16, 2008, at age 58.
On Sept. 26, Lincoln Middle School will host an event at 6:30 p.m. to celebrate Merriex’s contributions with the unveiling of a documentary film, “Discovering Gloria.”
The documentary, which was written, directed and produced by Boaz Dvir of the University of the Florida Lastinger Center for Learning, highlights Merriex’s teaching methods as well as her contributions to the school.
The event will begin with a welcome from Dan Boyd, superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, and conclude with a tribute from Merriex’s former students who will perform her “Math Rap,” a song she wrote to teach students vocabulary words in mathematics.
Wakeley, whose son C.J. had Merriex as a teacher, said her son used the math journals Merriex made her students keep well into high school.
“What made her unique is that all of the kids learned, every kid,” Wakeley said. “She always believed that, no matter what, you could learn.”
Leonard Marshall, math teacher at Lake Forest Elementary School who co-taught with Merriex for a year, said she brought an enthusiasm and energy that engaged every child in the classroom.
“We all learned from Jean,” he said. “She had a big heart and she shared it.”
Marshall said some of Merriex’s methods included using everyday objects from around the house to make math more tangible, as well as creating raps, songs and dance routines to get every student involved in a fun learning process.
Merriex’s methods attracted attention beyond the walls of Duval and earned her a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to help publish and distribute her curriculum.
She also received a grant from the Frances C. and William P. Smallwood Foundation to install cameras in her classroom so her teaching could be shown worldwide.
“There was so much still in her,” Marshall said. “She died at a high in her life. She was getting ready to do great things, she was on her way.”
Merriex’s care for the children went beyond math class and into the community, providing the resources for students to participate in extracurricular activities.
Leanetta McNealy, school board member and former principal at Duval, recounted how Merriex made white dresses for every girl in the school for the fifth grade graduation ceremony and bought every boy a bow tie and cummerbund, using her personal money and time.
“Here is a teacher who has gone well beyond the call of duty,” McNealy said. “Tears came to my eyes.”
McNealy, who helped plan the commemorative event, said Merriex would involve the children in plays and performances that she wrote and produced. The students would perform around town and across the state for other schools.
Children would “clamor” to be in Merriex’s productions, McNealy said.
“For the lives of the students that she touched, they will not forget the actual touch that Gloria Jean Merriex put on their lives,” she said. “They cannot.”
Don Lewis, current principal at Lincoln and former director of secondary education for Alachua County, worked closely with the Department of Education to assist Duval when the school had an “F” grade. His job involved visiting Duval regularly to offer assistance and sit in on classes.
He said when he visited Merriex’s class he was impressed by her focus and the children’s participation, especially when doing the “Math Rap.”
“Kids were answering complex questions,” he said. “It wasn’t just a gimmick; the kids really knew the concepts and had fun with it.”
Lewis said that Merriex could “charm the eyes out of a snake,” and that her charisma played an important part in turning around Duval’s school grade.
“When you combine the personality, the drive and the enthusiasm, that’s teaching,” he said. “These are kids that needed motivation, and that’s what Ms. Merriex did.”
The memorial is at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 26 at Lincoln Middle School. It’s free and open to the public.