Alumni News

Melinda Fitzgerald wins national Disney Award

No goofing, Smith teacher picked for Disney award

BY CAROLYN NORTON, The Herald-Sun
May 8, 2006   5:47 pm

CHAPEL HILL -- A Smith Middle School teacher is one of 44 educators nationwide to be honored by Disney this summer -- earning herself $10,000 and her school $5,000.
Melinda Fitzgerald, who teaches eighth-grade science, has been chosen from 75,000 nominees as one of the recipients of the 2006 Disney Teacher Award. As part of the award, which honors creativity and innovative methods in the classroom, Fitzgerald will travel to Disneyland this summer for a weeklong celebration.
Also, in October, she and Smith Principal Valerie Reinhardt will head to Walt Disney World for a six-day professional development institute.

"Mrs. Fitzgerald takes students and creates scientists," said Reinhardt, in a nomination letter to Disney. "Her commitment to developing her students into scientists, the excitement she brings to the field and her authentic application of science in the classroom make her an exemplary teacher."

During the week at Disneyland, four outstanding teachers will be chosen from the 44, and given an additional $15,000. Fitzgerald is one of three honorees being recognized for middle school science.

As a major classroom project each year, students in Fitzgerald's classes build fuel-cell cars, which they enter in various competitions. Last spring, the students took first place in a national contest in Colorado. Her students also visit a Duke University research vessel on the coast of North Carolina, where they learn about ecosystems and collect water quality data.

"I love playing, exploring and learning with students, especially beyond the regular school day," Fitzgerald said, in a written statement. "I am always evolving my curriculum and incorporating new projects in collaboration with my community and our local university so I can learn along with my students."

The award winners, who come from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education, are chosen by representatives of education associations and former winners. As part of the prize, Fitzgerald will serve as a leader in her school, sharing her creative teaching methods. She and Reinhardt will work with the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston to develop a school-wide plan for making teaching more effective.

"This award has prompted me to reflect on the positives about my career and realize that my efforts, although often unnoticed, are not in vain," Fitzgerald said. "This award has made me proud to be a teacher."