Graphic with three pictures, reading: 2020 Kentucky Special Education Teacher of the Year. Finalists Amber Ervin and Jessica Tipton. Winner Savannah Boone

  • Boone teaches collaborative English and literacy skills at LaRue County High School.
  • Tipton teaches at Madison Central High School, and Ervin teaches at Old Kentucky Home Middle School.

By Jim Gaines

Savannah Boone, an exceptional child instructor at LaRue County High School, is Kentucky’s 2020 Special Education Teacher of the Year.

Jessica Tipton of Madison Central High School (Madison County) and Amber Ervin of Old Kentucky Home Middle School (Nelson County) were the other finalists for the honor, jointly awarded by the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Office of Special Education and Early Learning and the Kentucky Council for Exceptional Children (KYCEC).

The finalists receive a one-year membership in the Council for Exceptional Children, a certificate and legislative citations, and $250 from KYCEC.

As the winner, Boone will receive a scholarship to attend the Special Education Legislative Summit in Washington, D.C., in summer 2021, a plaque and $500.

Finalists normally are recognized during the fall KYCEC conference. That was canceled this year due to COVID-19, so the three  will be recognized at the Kentucky Board of Education’s virtual meeting on Feb. 3 instead.

Each nominee submits an application with three letters of recommendation, including one from their principal or supervisor and one from their district director of special education (DoSE). Finalists also must submit a short video, linked below.

Special Education Teacher of the Year: Savannah Boone

Boone intended to teach history, but found her calling teaching literacy.

Picture of a smiling woman.

Savannah Boone

“I’m in my 13th year of teaching, and this is my fifth year at LaRue County, my 10th year as a special education teacher,” she said. “I have taught it all from 2nd grade to 12th grade, and I have loved it all.”

Boone is a native of Campbellsville and a graduate of Taylor County High School. She graduated from Murray State University in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in history education. Boone didn’t intend to teach any other subject, but as a December graduate, she had a hard time finding a job. So she began working as a substitute teacher and was eventually emergency certified to teach 7th-grade English.

Part of that job was teaching a Reading Recovery class, intervention for students with low levels of literacy.

“That was the first time that I realized there were students who made it to 7th grade and couldn’t read,” Boone said. She was heartbroken and shocked, she said.

Boone changed her focus and took a job with Hardin County’s alternative school system. She taught English and social studies to children who spent days or weeks in the mental health hospital system.  Her students, who struggled with mental health issues, substance abuse, and troubled home lives, also struggled to read and engage in school.

“It was a trend that students who were struggling in life were struggling in school,” Boone said. Yet education often was their chance to escape a cycle of abuse or poverty, she said.

This trend led Boone to the University of the Cumberlands for a master’s degree in special education, which she received in 2011, and spent another year teaching at the alternative school.

“Once I earned my special education teaching certificate, I thought, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do,’” she said. “It feels like where I’m supposed to be.”

Boone moved on to teach special education at the elementary level, also in Hardin County, but then her current position in LaRue County came open, which was a much shorter commute.

She teaches not just basic literacy, but guides students through classic literature in collaborative English classes.

“We’re really preparing them to be critical thinkers and good comprehenders of information, because you need that for any job that you’re going to do and to participate in your community,” Boone said.

She earned her Rank I through National Board Certification in 2017 and a teaching certificate in secondary English in 2019.

Boone said she was nominated for Special Education Teacher of the Year by Rhonda Simpson, DoSE for LaRue County Schools.

She is excited for the chance to speak up for others.

“My goal after winning this award is to be a voice for my students and for my fellow teachers, to tell people about the things that we do and about the things that our students need,” Boone said.

Watch a video about Savannah Boone.

Finalist: Jessica Tipton

Jessica Tipton is a social skills teacher and special education facilitator at Madison Central High School, the same school from which she graduated.

Picture of a woman smiling

Jessica Tipton

Tipton earned a bachelor’s degree in learning and behavioral disorders from Eastern Kentucky University and a master’s from the University of the Cumberlands as a reading and writing specialist. She holds National Board certification as a teacher of exceptional learners.

She has taught at Madison Central since 2009. Tipton started teaching history, but when the social skills teacher retired, she was eager to move into that position, where she stayed for seven years.

“That’s kind of where I found my niche, I guess,” she said.

Tipton’s strong sense of empathy and desire to care for others drew her to special education, she said.

Her students have diverse needs, which often require different teaching approaches in the same classroom, she said. One student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may need to learn when not to speak, while a student with severe anxiety needs to be coaxed to participate.

Tipton said she tries to get to know her students as individuals, and prepares them with skills they’ll need for the future. Her goal is for each of them to reach their optimum degree of independence.

Tipton saw an email about the competition and asked Shanna Reeder, her district’s DoSE, if she should apply. Reeder not only said yes, she also helped Tipton assemble the necessary documentation.

“I was honored to be one of the top three finalists,” Tipton said. “I guess I kind of pride myself on building relationships and rapport with students.”

Watch a video about Jessica Tipton.

Finalist: Amber Ervin

Amber Ervin teaches students with moderate to severe disabilities at Old Kentucky Home Middle School, but that’s not what she thought she’d be doing with her life.

Picture of a smiling woman.

Amber Ervin

“I never wanted to be a teacher. If you had asked me when I was in high school and even when I was in college, I would never have believed it. I didn’t have the patience,” she said.

Ervin graduated from Taylor County High School and went to Campbellsville University, majoring in business administration. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in 2001, she worked in a law office. But “it was just a job,” not a fulfilling career, she said.

Looking for something more meaningful, Ervin took a long-term substitute teaching position in Marion County, which led to a job as an instructional assistant for special needs students.

“I was hooked after that. I found my niche, I found my joy,” she said. “And the rest is history.”

Ervin returned to college, this time to Western Kentucky University, for a master’s in special education, learning and behavior disorders. She completed that in 2005, followed by certification as an exceptional needs specialist in 2009, level I and II certification as a director of special education in 2011 and 2016, and endorsement for moderate to severe disabilities in 2019.

Ervin has been teaching for 17 years, first in Marion County Schools, then moving to Nelson County Schools in 2014. In that time, she has worked in elementary, middle and high school settings, and held administrative posts.

While she was isolated at the start of the COVID-19 shutdown, Ervin saw KYCEC was taking applications for special education teacher of the year. With plenty of time on her hands, she decided she might as well apply. Ervin thought some activities her class had participated in during the previous year were worth publicizing, and that some helpful community partners should be recognized, she said.

“It’s been an honor to be recognized as one of the finalists for Special Education Teacher of the Year,” Ervin said. “I’m excited to see that efforts in my classroom and my district have been recognized.”

Watch a video about Amber Ervin.