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Nancy Prizito’s place filled with words

(Week of February 10, 2011)

It was a nice life for Nancy Prizito, owning an Ocean Drive boutique.

But Vero had other plans for Prizito, a 30-year resident of the barrier island.

Rather than selling outfits to an affluent clientele, Prizito is coaxing what she calls “million-dollar vocabulary words” from the children in her writing classes, including some for whom lunch money is a luxury.

It was with great enthusiasm that Prizito left a plum post at one of the county’s top schools, the island’s Beachland Elementary, to teach writing to 90 9-and 10-year-olds  at Dodgertown Elementary, an aging facility serving, among others, the children of nearby Gifford.

Prizito has become a local legend in her field, and the envy of administrators seeking to raise FCAT scores.

For her efforts, Claudia Jimenez, a school board member, gives an enthusiastic “Hurray!”

“I was really impressed by her work with the students, “she says, calling her success one of the “great things going on in the district.”

Patty Vasquez, the school district’s spokeswoman, was once a teaching assistant in a classroom near Prizito’s, at Vero Beach Elementary. “I was absolutely in awe of her,” says Vasquez. “She’s a phenomenal teacher. I can’t tell you how impressed I was by her, and I still am now.”

Prizito’s success is measured not only by the extraordinarily imaginative and expressive essays of her children, but by their FCAT scores, the state-mandated testing that has become a near-obsession of administrators, school boards – and by default, teachers. 

Wherever Prizito has taught, writing scores have risen. Beachland principal Carol Wilson worked with Prizito at Fellsmere Elementary when she first returned to teaching, and later, hired her to teach fourth grade at Beachland.

”Nancy has a special way of sparking students’ creativity,” says Wilson. She says Prizito “motivates her students to visualize their stories and to infuse them with robust vocabulary.”

Beyond that, she is talented at something less tangible, outside of any teacher manual. IShe creates a climate in her classroom that fosters acceptance and caring attitudes of respect,S says Wilson. 

In that way, Wilson says, “the spark that Nancy lights is ignited, and students produce work that is exemplary.”

Prizito sums up her success with the one “million-dollar” word, for herself and her students alike:

“Perseverance!” she calls out to a particularly energized class. “Give me some synonyms for perseverance.”

“We keep working and working.”

“Our noses are to the grindstone.”

“We get jiggy with it!” come the answers.

Equally enthusiastic are her volunteers. Island residents Mac and Betsy McKean are in their fourth year of volunteering in Prizito’s Dodgertown classroom. They come to help – and the “knee hugs” are their payment.

“She is a sterling example of a dedicated teacher,” says Mac McKean. “With more like her, we would have no problem educating our youngsters, and we wouldn’t be plunging in our rankings worldwide.”

 Prizito in turn greatly appreciates her volunteers, actively recruiting neighbors and former customers to come and help in her classroom.

“Just a warm body helps, to look over their shoulders as they write,” she says. “I had one volunteer sit with a kid for 45 minutes and I bet she has no idea what a difference it made.”

Dodgertown is a Title One school, a ranking that allows for federal financial assistance based on at least 40 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

“Many of the children just get the one good meal a day at school, and Lord only knows what else,” says McKean. “Concerns for their children’s education are dwarfed by concerns for simple existence,” he says.

Prizito reports every morning to a stark white portable classroom in one of the county’s oldest schools.  Dodgertown draws many of its students from Gifford, a community of low-to-middle-income, mostly minority families.

That is a fact that Prizito is reluctant to point out. Despite income challenges and complicated family lives, she regularly encounters parents as enthusiastic as their children.  “We’ve got some  great parents at Dodgertown,” she says. “They know what I do, and they come all the time.”

Not that they wouldn’t boggle to hear their children call out terms heard in a recent shout-out in Prizito’s class:

“What do I mean by ‘the writer’s craft’?” she asks on a day when the children will read aloud essays culminating a month-long effort. 

The answers come instantaneously.

“Similes and metaphors.” 

“Hooks, zingers.”


Instead of the usual cartoon-character posters, Prizito’s room is filled with words, some of them startlingly advanced. They are clustered in synonym groups, “miniscule” and “diminutive” getting equal play next to “teeny-weeny” – this is, after all, fourth grade.

On another board are phrases the kids themselves came up with:  “As fast as lightning on a summer night.”

 “As tight as a bug on a windshield.”

And the somewhat enigmatic: “I felt like an apple without seeds,” a simile it may take the mind of a 9-year-old to interpret.

Prizito started college intending to teach, and earned a master’s degree in education with a reading specialization in Indiana. But after one year teaching in a suburban school that was undergoing a drastic demographic shift and suffering disciplinary problems as a result, she left the field.  “I saw a teacher friend beaten up, and I said, ‘I’m never teaching again.,’” she said.

She moved to Vero Beach, started a family, and eventually bought a women’s dress shop on Ocean Drive called Vicki’s. “I never loved anything as much as my store,” she says. “My customers were so great and we had so much fun. But life takes such interesting turns. We are here on this earth to fulfill a purpose, I believe. Sometimes it takes us a while to get to that path.”

 Prizito sold her store in 1991, and was offered a job teaching fourth grade at Fellsmere Elementary, another school serving an economically depressed population.

It was there that Prizito first realized an alarming fact of standardized testing: that regardless of the circumstances they are raised in and the range of stimulating books, toys and conversation they are provided, all students are measured by equal standards on the FCAT.

 “When I realized these children are being compared to all these other kids in Florida, it became my mission to help all the kids regardless of circumstance become successful.”

In 1999, she and her fellow fourth grade teachers at Fellsmere saw the students’ writing scores soar to the highest in the district, a rise over two years of 67 percent. The fact is even more astonishing given that 70 percent of her students spoke English only as a second language.  At that time 45 percent came from migrant families.

And when she transferred to Beachland, she and her fourth-grade team of teachers saw their students earn the highest writing FCAT scores in the state, tied with a gifted school in Sarasota as well as F.K. Sweet in St. Lucie County.

She taught at Beachland for three years before getting an offer at Dodgertown.

“That was my calling, to help with writing at Dodgertown.  It has become my passion, helping these kids.”

Last year Dodgertown’s writing FCAT scores averaged third highest in the county, only a tenth of a point behind second-place Beachland, and six-tenths of a point behind the top-scoring Osceola, a magnet school drawing heavily from the barrier island.

“That’s big,” says a beaming Prizito, “when you consider Dodgertown is a Title One school.”

In less than a month, Prizito’s fourth-graders will sit for the FCAT, given a prompt and asked to write a cohesive structured essay. It isn’t easy to quantify writing skills in children, yet it is an important measurement of skills mastery.

But with only weeks to go, as that deadline loomed, Prizito challenged her children to let their brains follow imagery unfettered, inspired by the paintings of French impressionist Claude Monet. The resulting first-person writings, some Joyce-ian, some  journal-like, were diligently penciled into notebooks decorated with their own Monet-like drawing.

Among teachers, it almost goes  without saying that Prizito paid the $60 for the oil pastels they used.

She also buys fresh flowers from the grocery store every week. “They know I want this classroom to be a special place for them.”

For the Monet project, one of Prizito’s favorite former cohorts, the art teacher from Fellsmere Elementary, Renee Fraker,  got the OK from her principal to visit Dodgertown with an “art gallery” of Monet prints. The children listened to her talk about the Impressionists, and the place that Monet painted, Giverny.  Then each chose a painting to enter in their minds.

“The whole purpose was to connect with the art in writing, as well as feel emotion, and write to the reader, ‘How did we feel when we were in that painting?’ “she says. “It was a way to get them to feel these emotion and sensory words.”

Many of their essays  did just that.

“A mockingbird was mocking the melody of the hummingbird,” wrote Jimmy Talley,  “It was like heaven.”

“Sitting here in my rowboat empties my mind,” wrote Charlie Boswell, a dark-eyed boy of 10, describing a breeze that “feels as good as my mom scratching my back.”

 Vonisha Kaigler, 9, was perfectly composed as she began to read her essay. She moved to Vero with her family from Namibia when she was 3. “The majestic morning is so vivid with adventure,” she said in a clear voice.

Prizito would have to agree. “I wake up every day and I just can’t wait to go see the kids and get to work,” she says. Then she adds, laughing with the pleasure of a winning coach:  “That’s all we do is work.”