Jackie Weerda

Jackie Weerda of Rockton has 15 years of teaching experience, having taught first grade, early childhood special education and now Kindergarten. For the past 10 years, she's taught at Roscoe’s Ledgewood Elementary. Principal Chad Etnyre says, “She is deeply vested in our students, parents and staff. If you want to know what makes Mrs. Weerda an exceptional candidate, you need to move beyond her expertise with instruction. She contributes to the educational environment unselfishly – allowing a great school to become even better.” She is committed to the “whole child” in her classroom, not just their understanding of a particular lesson. She is committed to collaborating with colleagues year-round, saying “my ideas alone are much less powerful than my entire team’s.” And at the beginning of each school year, she commits to her students’ families that she will keep their children safe, respected, and loved as if they were her own. Jackie creates bonds with her students right away, learning everything she can about them, even contacting their parents to ask how she can be the best teacher for their child. Establishing trust allows her students to feel comfortable trying new things and taking risks in their learning. “They know that even if the work is hard or they do not immediately succeed, I will support them every step of the way and they will finish their kindergarten year with increased confidence, a strong grasp of kindergarten academic concepts and a lifelong excitement about learning.” Jackie knows that the diversity in her class is not just about skin color or nationality, but also about different levels of need. She teaches students with ADHD, language delays, anxiety and Autism alongside students who are at advanced levels. Some students need special accommodation such as allowing them to chew gum or to rock in their chairs. When another student questions these differences, she tells them, “Everyone in my classroom gets to learn and in order to do our best learning, some people need different things.” One writer of a recommendation for Jackie shared a unique perspective – as a peer teacher – and also as grandmother of one of Jackie’s students, who she's seen thrive under Jackie’s guidance. One day, her granddaughter excitedly exclaimed, “Grandma – I bet you are sad you didn’t have Mrs. Weerda as your kindergarten teacher. She is amazing”!

Lori Granite

Lori Granite of Rockford has taught 1st grade self-contained, PK4-6th/Spanish, and now teaches JK4-5th grade S.T.E.A.M at Rockford Christian School, where she’s been for 10 years. Despite having 25 years of teaching experience, Lori continues to seek new information and best practices to add to her “toolbox.” By furthering her education, attending professional development workshops and participating in professional organizations, she feeds her love of learning and models that passion to her RCS learners. Lori knows her students, their backgrounds, learning styles, interests and cultural diversities. She attends their events; participates in service projects and fundraisers; gives notes of encouragement; and calls parents to keep them informed about their child’s progress.” Lori also takes advantage of our community’s amazing technology resources, connecting with Discovery Center Museum, Collins Aerospace, Winnebago County Farm Bureau, Keep Northern Illinois Beautiful and Burpee Museum, just to name a few. These efforts convey how much she cares about the students and their academic success. One parent wrote that her third-grade daughter raves about Lori, “she wants us to think and she always is so happy to answer our questions – and the things she teaches always makes me want to ask so many questions.” Lori’s students delve into class topics so deeply that they often continue research beyond the classroom, creating posters and PowerPoint presentations on their own to share with the class, not for grades, just to satisfy their curiosity about topics she’s introduced. Students also share “treasures” with Lori, such as insects, snakeskins and x-rays, for her to identify and discuss. Several parents wrote in amazement about what their children learn from Lori and how they have even taught them a few things over dinner talk! During anatomy lessons, Lori calls the students “doctor.” They proudly write “Dr.” on their work. In doing so, she says, “they easily become motivated to reach higher academic expectations because they know I believe in them.” Lori applies differentiation techniques to both teaching plans and assessments. Reviews may look like a Jeopardy game or a childish drawing, but by collaborating with parents, colleagues and resource staff, Lori finds and uses the best methods to connect with students at their levels. “I have discovered that when students realize assessments can take on forms to fit their particular learning styles, they have less anxiety about testing and show more confidence in class.” The third-grader’s parent praised Lori for inspiring her students and encouraging them to ask questions. ”Those are the children who can change the world. And those are the things that Mrs. Granite brings into a classroom.”

Danielle Peterson

Danielle Peterson of Rockton is in her 14th year of teaching at Prairie Hill School, where she has taught K-2, been a Special Education Resource teacher, and now teaches Blended Pre-K (regular and special education for children ages 3-6). Prairie Hill Kindergarten teacher and Golden Apple Academy member Shannon Fisher says Danielle has “one of those teacher hearts that you only read about but rarely have the privilege to observe, much less work with. Danielle helped build our phenomenal preschool program, and made the transition from resource teacher to preschool teacher seamlessly.” She often provides parents’ first experience with sending a child to school, so she makes it her goal to provide a good one, and to make sure that at the end of the year, her students are ready for kindergarten. Principal Kevin Finnegan wrote that “nothing seems too unexpected for her.” Whether she is changing diapers, modeling peer relationships, building motor skills, emphasizing language, comforting someone, teaching letters and numbers or designing an engaging classroom, he says, “she has to do it, and somehow she manages to do so gracefully.” A student’s parent wrote in a recommendation letter about how pleased she is that her shy daughter was able to come out of her shell in Danielle’s class. “I cannot imagine my daughter's first year of school going any better … she would go to school seven days a week if she could! And it's all because of Mrs. Peterson and the environment she fosters.” Danielle expects and respects each student’s thoughts and views, creating a place in which each student feels valued and safe to share. The parent added that, “Mrs. Peterson has something about her. It's totally unexplainable or describable but children instinctively trust her. She has an innate way of communicating with kids.” She also communicates well with her peers and her students’ parents. The parent further compared Danielle’s stellar stream of communication to parents as enabling them to feel “like a fly on the wall”! Danielle’s love of teaching is evident in the essay she submitted. Rather than saying, “I have to,” or “I do,” she starts several sentences with “I get to”: “I get to see their excitement when they recognize a number or letter for the first time; I get to hear all their stories; I get to help them figure out how they can solve problems.” She also says, “if you don’t love what you do and don’t love teaching and learning, you can’t teach your students to love learning, which is one of my number one priorities.” During centers/small groups, her students think they are playing with their friends, yet this is when most of the learning and love of learning happens. They learn letters, numbers, direction following skills and more, through games, tasks and craft projects. The students “are the reason [I] love teaching … I want them to be proud of me because they consistently make me proud."

Jan Jones

The Golden Apple Foundation Jan Jones Service Award is named in honor of the late Jan Jones, who served the Foundation from 1998 - 2013. Jan joined the Board of Directors in 2006 and served as Vice President of Awards and Recognition. When Jan passed away in July 2013, the Foundation renamed its educational service award in recognition of her service and commitment.

Jan was a tireless advocate for excellence in local education. After retiring from a successful teaching career, Jan inspired others by continuing to fight for and affect the education of our community’s children. She instructed future teachers as a Rockford University adjunct professor, mentored community educators and activists and participated in such education service organizations as Rockford Promise, Alignment Rockford and Golden Apple Foundation.

The 2020 Golden Apple Foundation Jan Jones Service Award will be presented to an individual, couple, organization, or business for demonstrating a deep commitment to Excellence in Education in Winnebago and/or Boone County through volunteerism. The nominees will be considered based on the following criteria:

•           Recipient will be considered for his/her volunteer work in fields relating to education or additional fields that serve teachers, students, and schools.

•           Recipient will have exhibited a deep commitment to excellence in education in Winnebago and/or Boone County.

Service nominations must be received by the Golden Apple Foundation office by 5:00 p.m. on February 27, 2020.

Recipients will be recognized at the 24th Annual Golden Apple Banquet on Friday, April 24 at Giovanni's. Click here for you nomination form or contact Jennifer Stark at 815-226-4180 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information.

Golden Apple Foundation inspires, celebrates and supports educational excellence in our community. 

Heather Geary

Heather Geary of Loves Park taught multiple subjects at Lincoln Middle School for nine years, but has been at Whitehead Elementary for the past six years, teaching first fifth grade, now fourth. Each day, Heather starts class with a morning meeting including sharing, activity and a message and closes it with a closing circle to reflect on the day and what was learned. She says, “I have made a commitment as an educator to help every student learn and succeed in my classroom and in life.” Heather endeavors to help her students feel secure, while also challenging them to set their own goals to achieve success. She lets them know that “it is okay to not know the answer; however, we take what we do know to figure out the unknown.” She encourages students in her classes to act as a community and have educational conversations with each other, as it “enhances all student learning.” She also encourages them to work hard and act responsibly to help “shape them into citizens that will benefit the greater good of society.” Since students vary in academic, emotional and economic levels, Heather uses differentiated instruction based on MAP data to meet their academic needs, makes accommodations for students based on IEPs, and uses the Responsive Classroom techniques including positive discipline and logical consequences. A student who nominated her said, “Mrs. Geary is the best math teacher. I think she should get the Golden Apple because people really get her math and understand her.” 

Nikki Gallentine

Nikki Gallentine of South Beloit, has taught fourth grade at Prairie Hill Elementary for five years. Her students’ academic abilities range from first grade through sixth. She previously taught Kindergarten for 10 years. Nikki decided on her perfect career in third grade. Her passions until then were ever-changing: artist, veterinarian, Miss America or President of the United States. But in third grade, she met the teacher who inspired her to be for future students what that teacher had been to her. “Since teaching didn’t run in my family, I did not realize the extent of what I would need to give of myself to be successful in this profession, and likewise, I couldn’t imagine the extent to which this job would fill my heart.” Celebrated educator, Rita Pierson, knew that children first need to feel valued and safe in order to learn. She gave them a saying which Nikki’s students recite daily: “I am somebody. I was somebody when I came. I’ll be a better somebody when I leave. I am powerful and I am strong. I deserve the education that I get here.” Nikki knows that children with different backgrounds, strengths and challenges learn in different ways and considers it her job to make sure every child is learning. Her determination is accompanied by some very creative methods on her part. “It is not unusual to see me standing on a table and students standing on chairs. We are unapologetically loud at times, materials are not always meticulously organized, but some intense learning is happening in here … learning can be messy.” Principal Kevin Finnegan was initially hesitant to bring in a Kindergarten teacher to teach fourth grade, but Nikki’s spark caught his attention immediately. He no longer balks about applicants with Kindergarten experience! “Her creativity is only surpassed by her incredible instruction …. Ms. Gallentine shows daily in her fun, energetic, powerful, colorful, engaging, loving classroom that she has taken the lessons from her kindergarten days and made them perfectly fit an older age.” One day, she may provide detective props for students to use text evidence and inferencing skills to solve a mystery of who kidnapped the principal. Another day, she may transform the classroom into a restaurant for a “book tasting.” All students must listen, watch and participate; their involvement elevates their level of understanding. A lifelong learner, Nikki strives to bring best practices to her class, school and district. She’s completed courses about building student vocabulary, incorporating technology, addressing anxiety and understanding Autism, ADHD and Dyslexia. Her next endeavor is to obtain needed resources to use with Dyslexic learners. “This journey involves my sacrificing months of my time outside of school and a large amount of money in order to do what’s best for my students, but I firmly believe that when students don’t learn the way we teach, we need to teach the way they learn.” 

Karissa Dooley

Karissa Dooley of Machesney Park is a Kindergarten teacher at South Beloit's Clark Elementary, where she's taught her whole 20-year teaching career. Certainly, she’s seen many changes over those years. “When I was first starting in my classroom, I had two blackboards and two desktop computers. Now I'm teachimg 24 Kindergartners to log in with usernames and passwords to individual Chromebooks and using my Smart Board every day.” Karissa says she struggled all through school. Having been diagnosed with a learning disability in third grade, she didn’t learn why reading and writing were so challenging for her until she met a new resource teacher in high school. Once tested, she finally got the help she needed such as books on tape and untimed tests. “These accommodations helped me continue my education in college and understand learning in a whole new way. I now use that understanding of learning difficulties to help my Kindergarten students build the base for their entire educational careers.” Principal Matthew Roer notes that “her ability to identify and provide one on one instruction for her students if they are struggling is one of her greatest strengths as a teacher.” A Clark parent said, “She gives her students the opportunity to make choices in the classroom, whether it be where they sit, who they sit by or what center they complete; she allows them the freedom to choose. Both of my daughters left Kindergarten ready for the challenges that lay ahead of them academically in first grade. They also left with solid social skills, thanks to Mrs. Dooley’s efforts in teaching them more than just what was in the academic books.” Karissa’s dedication is not only to her students, but also to her fellow teachers and all the students in the school. She gives up her lunchtime to help Kindergartners in the cafeteria. She gives up prep time to ride the bus after school to make sure students behave appropriately and get home safely. She mentors new teachers. And she has written several grants which have provided books for the school. Karissa also volunteers in the community, delivering food baskets, reading and helping the food pantry. By being active in the community, she gets another view into the backgrounds and needs of students she teaches and they know how much she cares. She stresses to students that fair is not the same as equal, but is doing what someone needs to be successful, whether that refers to special supplies, seating or time.“During the year, we talk about the many different kinds of Social Emotional Learning, like how to be a good friend and student. In our classroom, we are a family that chooses to treat others the way we want to be treated, and a community that learns how to talk to each other.”

Lisa Istad 2019 2020

Lisa Istad of Rockford has six years of teaching experience and is in her fifth year of teaching fifth grade at Durand Elementary. Kurt Alberstett, Lisa’s past principal and current superintendent, calls her “an intelligent, caring, innovative teacher who is well liked and respected by students, parents and colleagues. She works effectively with students of all abilities.” Lisa struggled in elementary school. But, because of her fifth grade teacher who reached her through engaging lessons, contagious enthusiasm, praise and love, she knew she wanted to be a teacher like that. One who changes lives. You know the Maya Angelou quote, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”? Well, Lisa found that to be true when she attended the 8th grade graduation of a student who’d been in the first class she’d taught. The student’s mother told Lisa that her son had called his friends because he’d heard she was coming to graduation and that he still talks about her all the time: about class lessons and activities, but mostly about how she made him feel and how much he enjoyed school because of her. Lisa considers creating relationships with students a must. At the beginning of each school year, she learns about her students’ learning styles, areas of expertise and challenge, cultural backgrounds and personalities to adapt lessons to meet their academic needs, since each year she teaches new learners who learn differently. When Lisa went back to get her master’s degree, her students weren’t just aware of it; they thought it was “cool.” She says “they were more motivated to do well in my class, because they knew that I was being expected to do the same in my classes.” Lisa considers it her job to collaborate with everyone: peers, specialists and parents. She also works hard to meet student’s emotional needs. Each day, she greets students with their choice of a hug, high five, fist bump or thumbs up. Lisa’s classroom motto is “Choose Kindness.” To instill this mindset, she reads “Have You Filled a Bucket Today: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids” by Carol McCloud the first week of school. “The story discusses how everyone has an invisible bucket that follows you everywhere and you can either dip [by being rude or non-inclusive] or fill other people’s buckets [by being kind and doing nice things for them]. My students write Bucket Slips, compliments/notes of encouragement, to their classmates every Friday, which allows them to fill their classmates’ buckets.” She has even turned trips to the principal’s office into positive experiences by sending them, “with a written note from me that explains their positive behavior and how proud I am of them.”

Tui Harned

Tui Harned of Rockford has 10 years of teaching experience. She has taught Pre-K at Rockford’s Nashold Early Childhood Center for the last 4-1/2. She finds inspiration in the motto, “You’ve got this. We’ve got you,” shared with new families becoming part of the Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network. As a mother to a child with Down Syndrome and a teacher to many children, Tui embraces the motto, changing the “We” to “I” because she wants “students, parents and colleagues to realize the power and potential they have and I want them to know I am here to support them in any way I can.” Nashold implements the inclusion model, with students who have developmental delays, autism, cognitive or medical diagnoses learning alongside peers. Tui’s class contains 20 students, five of whom are special education eligible and more than half who are English Language learners. Her afternoon class includes students whose first language may be Spanish, Laotian, Burmese, Karen, Hindi, Urdu, Tagalog, French, Turkish, Arabic or Korean. Tui handles all challenges with patience and understanding. “I know they have it in them to succeed and I am here to support them along the way.” Tui says that, “trying to figure out the reason [for a behavior issue] and meet a need when students are not quite verbal is the tough part.” Sometimes, it takes years to see some students progress, but Tui knows that with effort, patience, resourcefulness and persistence, they can and will make gains. She works with families, colleagues and specialists to ensure that they do. She communicates with families daily at drop off/pick up time, as well as weekly through Class DoJo, meetings, intakes and conferences. One day, a student’s mother said that her son had been complaining that he was so “mad at Ms. Tui”! Instead of troubling Tui, this information excited her. He had verbally expressed himself after years of her working with him, modeling language, consulting with resource teachers, social workers and speech therapists. “Mom and I laughed and high-fived each other. It had been a long time coming … but we supported each other so we could each support him in any way we could.” In Tui’s classroom, the students also support each other. Nashold Principal Erin Salberg describes Tui’s classroom as a community of trust and cooperation, in which the students “are held to an extremely high standard of accepting others’ difference, acknowledging all strengths and working together.” She added that, “It is not often that one can walk into a classroom of 3- and 4-year-olds and listen to students tell a new student, ‘we don’t act like that in this classroom; we listen.’” 

 Tiffany Russey Headshot

Tiffany Russey of Rockford is in her second year of teaching second grade at Rockford’s Conklin Elementary. She has seven years of teaching experience, though according to her mother, she has wanted to become a teacher since she was three years old! She says her daughter “knows that education is freedom and it is her passion to pass that on to her students.” Tiffany says, “it’s not just about learning outcomes for me. I am in the business of creating lovers of learning.” Tiffany knows how important family support and diversity representation can be to a student’s confidence and success. She also knows first-hand that families come in all different forms and sizes, so sometimes family members can’t attend scheduled parent-teacher conferences. To accommodate them and encourage open communication about achievements and issues, she uses ClassDojo and student portfolios or will find alternate times to meet with them. By working together, parents and teachers can better boost positive learning outcomes. She emphasizes that “it isn’t just my job to teach learning outcomes, I am in the business of cultivating thinkers, motivators and innovators.” To be world changers, she tells students, “you have to know the world,” so she teaches them about the world and its many cultures and people. “When we incorporate a variety of perspectives into our own teaching and offer students new ways of looking at their discipline, we prepare our students for the diverse work force.” Tiffany cites the book, Bossypants by comedienne Tina Fey, as an inspiration. She uses the “Rules of Improv,” saying “yes” and “yes, and” as well as considering mistakes just opportunities. She adds, “I feel that these principles are relevant to teaching because as teachers, we are often handed a situation and asked to react to what develops, much like a sketch comic.” “Yes, and” is a way to answer student questions, but to go a step further, asking students to expand on their responses. She encourages questions, discussions and even challenges to history. After she shared a picture of the Founding Fathers during a lesson about the Constitution, a student asked why there weren’t any people who looked like her. A conversation ensued about what her classmates would do if re-writing the Constitution now to include different people so that everyone’s voices would be represented. Tiffany also wants students to feel seen and respected. The student who nominated her for the Golden Apple award clearly feels seen and respected. She wrote that this teacher “believes that we can do anything”!


Alli Schmidt

Allison Schmidt of Huntley has taught second or third grade dual language at Washington STEM Academy in Belvidere for nine years. A staunch supporter of the dual language program, she constantly challenges others in her school and district to think outside the box and to consider a multi-language lens to approach education. As a leader, she has attended and given presentations about achievement, integration in a dual language classroom, calm corners and project-based learning at school, district, state and national levels. She gets to know her students’ interests, backgrounds, and families, and how best to encourage them to achieve success. Though relationship-building, Alli assures students that in her class, they’re safe. They know she will do anything she can for them. She aims to make lessons meaningful and interesting for her students, which, to her, means including them in choosing what resources they need on the walls, how to form the classroom furniture for lessons and the guidelines to which the class should hold each other accountable. A former Washington principal said, “when spending time in Alli’s classroom, it is apparent that the classroom is the children’s classroom; not one created just by the teacher.” Alli says she “empowers students to take ownership of their learning and clearly discuss their academic and behavioral goals.” By doing so, she sees a dramatic increase in the students’ motivation, understanding and commitment to learning. She draws in peers and family members to support and celebrate goal achievement. Alli developed an alternative style of homework because, “teaching at a STEM school and serving a population with lower socioeconomic status, [I] realized that homework might need to look different in order to engage students and fit the needs of each family.” Each month, students receive hands-on, interactive tasks and activities for each STEAM category: Science, Technology, Engineering, Art/Literacy and Math. They can involve all members of the family. There are tasks that don't require buying materials and tasks for students who have support in the home and can complete tasks with an adult or those who may be the one in charge and need to entertain younger siblings. “The activities are engaging, spark curiosity and help students extend learning and problem solving skills from the classroom into their homes."