Yesterday morning, Tracy Martino, the kindergarten teacher at Westbay Childcare Center, got the surprise of her life when she was awarded NBC 10’s Golden Apple Award. NBC 10 news anchor Patrice Wood and Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist made a surprise visit to her classroom to present her with the award.
Wayne Charness, senior vice president of Hasbro Toys, was also there to present Martino with $250 on behalf of Hasbro to be used to purchase supplies for her classroom.
Bill and Christina McGirr nominated Martino, who has taught at Westbay for nine years, for the Golden Apple. Their older son, Kaiden, had Martino as a kindergarten teacher and their youngest son Breckin is currently in her class.
“Miss Tracy provided such a great foundation for both of my kids going into first grade,” said Christina.
“When our children went into first grade, they were more than prepared,” added Bill.
Breckin said he has a lot of fun in Martino’s class.
“She’s a good teacher,” he said.
Kaiden, who is now in the fourth grade at John Brown Francis Elementary School, took the morning out of school so he could see his former teacher receive the award. He remembers having a lot of fun in “Miss Tracy’s” class learning to read and write. He also remembers Miss Tracy visiting on his first day of first grade.
“She came to the bus stop and said have a great day,” said Kaiden.
Christina said that is just another reason that Martino is such a special teacher. She follows her students after they move on from her class.
“She wants to hear how her kids are doing,” said Christina.
Martino is also known for checking on her students outside of school, even stopping by a Little League game every now and then.
“They are a big part of my life and I hope I’m a big part of theirs,” said Martino, who says she does swing by baseball games or similar events if she can and knows her students will be there. “It’s fun to see their face when they look up and see me because they don’t expect me to be there.”
In order for the award to remain a surprise, Maryann Finamore, Children’s Services Division director, did not tell anyone in the school what was happening except the administration.
“I’ve known for two weeks,” said Finamore, admitting that she was busting to tell the secret. “I was over the moon, just thrilled for her.”
To cover up the award, Finamore told her staff Gist would be coming by for a visit.
“We have a state-funded pre-K classroom at Westbay Childcare,” explained Finamore. “So it is reasonable that the commissioner would be coming by.”
When Wood, Gist, the McGirr family, Martino’s husband Michael and others walked into her classroom with a TV camera, Martino was visually shocked. When Wood told her she had won a Golden Apple, Martino started to cry, simply saying, “Oh my god.”
When she was finally able to speak, Martino said everything she does is for her students.
“Every day is an adventure,” said Martino. “It’s something I want to do for them and with them.”
Even with a TV camera and unexpected guests in the room, Martino’s students were still sitting patiently waiting to begin their daily work.
“They know there’s a time for work and a time for fun and silliness. This is a time for work … well it was,” said Martino with a laugh.
But shortly after receiving her award, Martino and her students got right back to work, reciting their holiday themed poetry.
“It still hasn’t sunk in,” said Martino during a phone interview yesterday afternoon. “I never thought it would be me; I’m here to do my job and teach my kids.”
Martino said the best part of teaching kindergarten is watching her students grow and learn, saying they go from young kids to full students who are able to read and write.
“When they are excited, I get excited,” said Martino.
“We heard she has an incredible reputation,” said Gist, who read the McGirrs’ letter nominating Martino. “People in the community talk about the opportunity to have their children in her kindergarten … they leave her kindergarten ready to take on first grade in a powerful way,”
“This is a school filled with extremely dedicated and passionate teachers; they all really go above and beyond,” said Finamore. As for Martino, Finamore said she takes the mission of preparing her students for the next step and giving the students and families a positive experience at Westbay Childcare very seriously.
Martino says kindergarten is often viewed as “a make or break” year and she wants to try to make it the most positive experience she can.
“I don’t want them hating the next 12 years because of me,” she said. “I try to make it fun and exciting.”
Because Westbay’s program is an all-day Kindergarten and the school also serves as a childcare facility, Martino says she and the other teachers really have an opportunity to get to know their students. She loves to talk with them about what they did the night before or plans for the weekend. Because of the holidays, however, the biggest conversation every day has been where her students’ “elf on the shelf” is.
“My kids still have an elf on the shelf too, so every day we compare stories as to where the elf is,” said Martino.
Finamore was not surprised that Martino ended up receiving a Golden Apple, saying she has heard Martino referred to as “the best Kindergarten teacher in Warwick.”
She also believes this honor will do wonders for Martino.
“I think this Golden Apple is her ticket in,” said Finamore, explaining that if the need for more kindergarten teachers comes up, this will help Martino transition into the public school system if she chooses.