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Alachua County teacher one of six state finalists for national presidential award

Cynthia Tennell has taught at M.K. Rawlings Center for the Fine Arts in Gainesville since 2013. (Photo courtesy of Alachua County Public Schools)
Cynthia Tennell has taught at M.K. Rawlings Center for the Fine Arts in Gainesville since 2013. (Photo courtesy of Alachua County Public Schools)

Cynthia Tennell, a fifth-grade teacher at M.K. Rawlings Center for Fine Arts, has been nominated as a Florida finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Tennell is one of six finalists from the state of Florida.

The federal government gives the award for K-12 science, technology, engineering and math teaching. One hundred and ten teachers will be chosen nationwide from the finalists for the award. The award includes $10,000 from the National Science Foundation, an all-expenses paid trip to the ceremony and a certificate signed by the President of the United States.

Once nominated, teachers are required to submit a written application. The award’s website says they specifically look for “evidence of deep content knowledge, exemplary pedagogical skills, student assessment expertise, reflective teaching and leadership that results in improved student learning.” The state then reviews the applications through a committee of mathematicians, scientists, education researchers and others.

“I always wanted to represent Rawlings in a special way, but I never thought at this level,” Tennell said. “I represent my community, my church, the district, my school and those that believe in me.”

The next step is for the National Committee to look at the applicants and choose one teacher to represent math and one to represent science from each state. From Florida, three teachers represent the science award and three represent the math award.

Tennell is up for the math award. She is unsure of when she will hear back about the award, but is proud to have made it this far. She says all of the nominees are winners regardless.

Tennell has been teaching since 2006 and has been working at Rawlings since 2013. As a student in middle school, she recalls having to stay after school to get help with word problems in math. Through this, she learned strategies on how to break word problems down and continues to teach her students similar strategies.

Tennell likes to keep her lessons practical. She emphasizes that learning is fun, and math does not have to be difficult.

“She constantly captures the attention of every student throughout her lessons,” said Dr. Stella Arduser, principal of Rawlings. “We are truly so proud of her.”

Arduser said state officials have recognized Tennell for the progress she has made with her students and classified her as a highly effective teacher based on the scores her students receive.

After summer 2023, Tennell returned to school to find an email saying Laura Creamer, the former principal of Rawlings, had nominated her for the prestigious award. Creamer had not told Tennell about the nomination. When Tennell asked why Creamer chose her to nominate Creamer simply said, “You are a good teacher. Your scores and ethics are good and your students’ gains in levels are good.”

"She just felt as a teacher that I qualified for it and that I needed to be recognized I guess, and I was just honored,” said Tennell.

Layne is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.