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New School-Related Employee of the Year making a difference in the lives of students

Press release from Alachua County Public Schools

Months or even years after they’ve left Ft. Clarke Middle School, former students will reach out to behavioral paraprofessional Tameka Rollins with notes of thanks.

“Ms. Rollins, thank you for helping me when I got into trouble,” reads one. “Ms. Rollins, thank you for being nice and understanding,” reads another. “Ms. Rollins, you’re pretty cool,” says yet another. 

Rollins has the challenging job of addressing behavioral issues that are affecting a student’s ability to focus on schoolwork. That means she’s interacting with a lot of students when, to put it mildly, they’re not at their best. And yet Rollins says former students have told her that at first they thought she was tough with them, but they later recognized her positive influence.

“They’re very appreciative, and that really does my heart good,” she said.

Ft. Clarke’s principal Jared Taber says even the so-called ‘best’ students can have a rough day and that they need people like Rollins, who can talk to any student and get them back on track.

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“You can tell through her interactions with students that it’s not just a job with her,” said Taber. “She really cares about the students. They can be difficult at times, and she is put in a lot of challenging situations, but she never loses her cool, and the kids respond to her.”

For her 16 years of supporting students, Rollins was recently selected as Alachua County Public Schools’ School Related Employee of the Year for 2021, and she will now go on to represent the district in the statewide recognition program. 

Rollins has a family history with the district. Both her parents were long-time educators. Her father was a teacher and psychologist in a local high school, and her mother was a teacher and dean who, like her daughter, helped address behavioral issues at Ft. Clarke. Rollins says their influence helped prepare her for her life’s work.

“I love to learn, to teach, and to help others,” she said.

Taber says Rollins has been instrumental in transforming the school’s discipline plan to include a restorative justice process, a holistic approach that involves building relationships, addressing root causes of behavioral issues, helping students resolve conflicts, and allowing them to ‘repair’ any harm they may have done rather than simply issuing penalties. 

As part of the process, Rollins helped establish a ‘restart’ room at the school, a popular option when students are creating a disruption or having a conflict that does not rise to the level of requiring in-school detention or out-of-school suspension. While they’re in the room, Ms. Rollins and a fellow paraprofessional work to calm the situation, address the underlying causes, and redirect the students’ behaviors and attitudes. 

The room also helps the school transition students back from an out-of-school suspension by helping them address the issues that got them suspended in the first place. 

Taber says the school has seen a reduction in the number of days students spend out of class. 

“We’ve been able to keep more students in school and increase instructional time,” he said.

In addition to the typical stresses of adolescence, Rollins’ students are also dealing with the many negative impacts of COVID, not just on their school, but on their lives. Rollins says many of her students are scared and lashing out.

“It’s tough out there for some kids,” she says. “I just want them to know that it’s OK, that we can make it through. They just have to know that someone is cheering them on and believes in them.”