• 2024 Teacher of the Year Finalists

  • RELEASE DATE: May 2, 2024

    For Grace Barry, being named a Top Five Teacher of the Year Finalist is about much more than herself. It is about the students she teaches at Septima P. Clark Academy.

    “My students wanted to know how we won,” said Barry. “They were filled with joy, exclaiming, ‘We did it.’ They feel that this is their award, too, and it is.”

    Barry said on the day of the announcement, as she wept onto the shoulder of Superintendent Anita Huggins, she thought about the enormity of what was happening. Barry’s mind flashed to the fact that she was the first teacher to be named a Top Five Finalist in any Charleston County School District (CCSD) alternative education program.

    “This is my chance to get the word out about my students and this special little school,” said Barry.

    Barry, an English teacher, hopes to use this opportunity to show the rest of the district the successful things going on at Clark Academy and to combat any misconceptions people may have about the choice program.

    “Clark is not a well-known school, but it is a one-of-a-kind program in the district,” said Barry. “It is often mistaken for a behavioral-based program when, in fact, it is an academic alternative program. We are not a punitive school. It is intended for students that need extra academic support, smaller class sizes, and overall mentorship.”

    The school’s mission mirrors the style of teaching that Barry favors.

    “I am as rigorous of a teacher as any other in the district, but I infuse all things that I do in and out of the classroom with kindness,” said Barry. “Kindness and rigor are not mutually exclusive. You can be both.”

    Barry thinks of Clark as “the little school that could.”

    “Clark is a mix of students from all over the district,” said Barry. “They feel at home here, and they feel capable here. The environment fosters that idea, and you can’t put a price tag on that.”

    Interim Principal Dr. Nakeam Binyard said Barry’s strength is beyond teaching the standards, it’s her character.

    “She is committed to the mission of ensuring that all non-traditional students that attend Septima P. Clark Academy expand their learning,” said Dr. Binyard. “With consistency and efficacy, she teaches with intentionality and kindness.”

    Becoming a teacher

    Barry HugsThis is the second year Barry has been named Teacher of the Year at Clark. She was also recognized as the school’s Rookie Teacher of the Year in 2021. Her awards and recognitions are evidence of the quality teacher that she is.

    Barry said she knew she wanted to pursue an educational career long before entering the classroom. She worked at The Citadel for three years as a tutor in the Student Success Center. She also worked at Sylvan Learning Center, helping students prepare for the SAT, and offered homework support. Her time at Sylvan allowed her to work with CCSD students from second grade through high school. In 2020, she came to Clark after student teaching at her alma mater, Wando High School.

    “Like many educators, I played school as a young child,” said Barry. “The idea of becoming an educator was ingrained in me from a very young age, but the type of educator I wanted to be evolved.”

    Barry describes herself as a theater kid who never aged out.

    “I love an audience,” said Barry. “I love caring about people and helping students in all aspects of their lives. Teaching, for me, is the marriage of content and caring about other people.”

    Barry said that the teachers in her life solidified her desire to teach. Many of those are still with CCSD; she is honored to call them colleagues.

    During her sophomore year, Barry’s English teacher used a moment in a lesson to explain how one verb can change the meaning of something entirely, and it resonated with her. She knew at that moment that she wanted to teach high school English. Barry now uses that same activity in her classes.

    “It is rewarding to work here at Clark because I get to teach these children several times during their years here,” said Barry. “Whether I teach them or not, I see them daily and watch them grow. I also witness their academic growth and evolution as productive and confident human beings. It is special because of the bond we create with one another. I can truly invest in them.”

    According to Dr. Binyard, Barry elicits a variety of thinking from students.

    “Student/teacher relationships, flexibility, and cultural awareness are the elements that are reflective of how Ms. Barry strengthens and improves the teaching profession for all English Language Arts learners at Septima P. Clark Academy,” added Binyard.

    A passion for the work

    Barry has been at Clark for four years and loves it. 

    “I knew this was the career for me when I attended my first graduation at Clark,” said Barry. “Graduation is a huge accomplishment for these students, and there was a great sense of pride in the room that day as I watched these students realize their dreams. Some students genuinely thought they would not graduate, and many were told explicitly or implicitly that it would not happen for them. They defied the odds.”

    Barry is a young teacher, but she learned quickly that the easiest classroom management tool is getting to know her students and making time for them.

    “I am a teacher and a mentor, so my students know I am there for them,” said Barry. “These students come here for various reasons, and I want them to leave here confident young adults who take pride in themselves. I am developing active citizens of society who will look at the world with a critical lens. I want them to trust themselves and know they can be right and think independently. I want them to leave here with a strong sense of self-worth and academic ability.”

    Dr. Binyard said one of Barry’s greatest contributions to the profession is her leading ability to inspire and support the whole student. 

    “She takes the time to ensure that students who may not have access to reading materials at home are prepared with sufficient materials,” said Binyard. “Students have been heard stating that they didn’t even know that they loved reading until they joined Ms. Barry’s English class.”

    Barry believes in giving back and helping those who need it most. She is an adjunct at the Citadel, teaching in a program that is specifically designed to increase equity at The collegiate level. She also teaches summer school at the Juvenile Detention Center during the summer. 

    “I think all educators should do something like this at some point in their career,” said Barry. “I am not just teaching them academics, but teaching them to have hope for themselves.”

    Barry said it would change her life if she was named Teacher of the Year.

    “I am young, and my career is first and foremost in my life right now,” said Barry. “It would be the greatest honor for me to represent CCSD. I would use it as an opportunity to highlight all that it offers, focusing on the remarkable diversity and richness of the entire district. I want to use what I've learned advocating for Clark and use that to advocate on behalf of the remarkable people who make Charleston County School District so special to me, both personally and professionally.”

  • RELEASE DATE: May 3, 2024

    David Bonezzi didn’t expect to go to college. He had a difficult childhood and while he viewed school as a safe place did not imagine that it would become his career. Mr. B, as his students call him, has spent 11 years teaching in Charleston County Schools, the last five at Carolina Park Elementary as a second grade teacher. Now, he gets to pay it forward by creating a safe space for his students to learn every day. This connection he builds with his students is why he has been named a Top Five Finalist for Charleston County School District Teacher of the Year.

    Becoming a teacher

    David BonezziBonezzi said that as a young student, he had no plans for his post-school life. He recounted when his Chemistry teacher, who was also his football and basketball coach, asked him what he planned to do after graduation and was aghast that such a smart student did not plan to go to college. 

    “He talked me into taking the SATs and made me tell him my scores once I had done so,” said Bonezzi. “He showed me care and kindness and that redirected my life.”

    Once in college, Bonezzi majored in Early Childhood Education at The University of Akron. Choosing this major after being inspired by his Uncle Frank whom he described as a second father and who was a third grade teacher. Bonezzi remembers the impact Uncle Frank had on all the kids he interacted with and how these two mentors in his life helped him decide on this path. 

    After a brief trip to Charleston to visit his brother, Bonezzi fell in love with the area and looked for opportunities to be a teacher here. 

    “After the first week [of teaching] I remember thinking, how am I going to make it through the whole year,” Bonezzi said. “I did make it through and pressed on. For the first three years, I would be at school until 6:00 p.m. I found it hard to put the work down.”

    When speaking about his pedagogy Bonezzi said he had a clear vision of what he wanted his classroom to look like. Bonezzi explained that it had taken him a long time to get to where he wanted his classroom to be. 

    Principal Michael Antonelli said student choice is what he observes when in Bonezzi’s classroom. Antonelli said his students are often found working on self-directed projects using higher-level skills to problem-solve and create.

    “Making the school experience joyful is evident in everything about Mr. B.,” said Antonelli. “Students love being in his class! He leads a classroom where technology is secondary to face-to-face interaction, hands-on opportunities and real thinking are abundant, and his guitar playing and sing-alongs are a consistent part of the culture.”

    Bonezzi views teaching as an art form.

    “As an artist, you’re never done, you just continually evolve,” said Bonezzi. “That’s what I have done with my classroom, turning it into an innovative and valuable learning space.” 

    Bonezzi also believes one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is that you can, shut the door and close out the noise.

    “In my classroom, I encourage students to learn anything they want to know about the world, think outside of themselves, and how to make the world a better place,” said Bonezzi. “I bring this idea to all dimensions of my classroom. The theme of the song “Mercy” one that the students learned in class, reiterates this as it tells you to, ‘not wait for someone else to solve a problem.’”

    Music is a major aspect of Bonezzi’s classroom. Wielding his guitar, his students learn a new song every few weeks. At the end of the day, whichever student was the helper for the day gets to choose the song the class sings together. It is an inspiring way to build community and connection in his classroom.

    Community minded

    In addition to Bonezzi’s tremendous work inside the classroom, his efforts go beyond that. As a mentor for the Teacher Cadets program, he welcomes students from the high school taking the course to come and learn from him as well. He gives back to the community just the way he teaches his students to do. 

    Bonezzi cares so much about his school community and describes Carolina Park as, “a place that teachers choose to teach, parents want to send their kids and students want to come to.” He sees himself as a part of a larger cooperative to educate the youth following the lead of his principal. 

    “Mr. Antonelli has created a family, and a great place to come to work every day,” said Bonezzi.”  

    This is what drove him to serve on his school's faculty senate, as well as on the school improvement council, and also formerly coach fourth and fifth grade basketball. Those students, who are now seniors in high school, keep in touch with Bonezzi as they apply to college. He’s having the same impact on those youths that Bonezzi’s coach had on him so many years ago.

    “Mr. Bonezzi models kindness, empathy, respect, and making good choices, and his students follow his lead,” added Antonelli. “He is the teacher that children will remember for life.  He is the teacher that will be invited to their weddings. He is the teacher they tell their own children about years from now.”

    That consistency is a core part of Bonezzi’s character. His hard work and dedication were there even at the beginning of his career when he earned the Rookie Teacher of the Year award at Memminger Elementary. 

    That work does not just stop within his immediate community. Bonezzi continues to push for the betterment of all teachers and students in Charleston County.

    A platform to advocate

    “It would be humbling to receive this honor,” said Bonezzi. “I would not squander the opportunity to advocate for my colleagues and kids.” 

    He is already a part of Charleston County’s Teacher Compensation Task Force, where his efforts, combined with those of other advocates, have resulted in a $5,000 raise and a $5,000 bonus for CCSD teachers. This unending belief in education and teachers shows his dedication to fixing the problems he has witnessed in the profession.

    “Dave has incredibly high standards for himself as a professional and also for his students as learners,” Antonelli added. “His work to mentor other teachers, author a book on instructional best practices, and advocate as a key member of the CCSD Teacher Compensation Committee are evidence of this fact.”

    Despite being a self-described private person, he wants to use this opportunity to spotlight the issues that affect teachers leaving the field.

    “Teaching has changed,” said Bonezzi. “The idea that you’re changing the world gets sold to people. With recruiting of new teachers becoming more difficult I want to make education what it can be. I want to improve schools and compensation.” 

    Bonezzi is particularly passionate when he speaks about bringing professionalism back to the job.

    “Top-performing districts understand that the highly complex and specialized nature of teaching and learning can only be performed by a professional,” said Bonezzi. “Through my work, I hope to change the impression that people have of teaching.”

    Bonezzi takes his advocacy seriously. As a member of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, he works to improve the conditions of his fellow teachers. Through all this tremendous work educating children is at his heart. All these inspiring efforts are only the beginning. 

    Bonezzi has begun writing a book on his teaching practices to help spread his knowledge further. In addition to his work mentoring fellow teachers at his school, Bonezzi truly believes in the power of education. It is something that he fights for every day.


    RELEASE DATE: May 6, 2024

    McKenna Hakanson, a K-2 resource teacher at North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary School (NCCAES) said she has been training her entire life to be a teacher. That training paid off, and she is now a Top Five Finalist for Charleston County School District’s (CCSD) 2023-2024 Teacher of the Year.

    “I was meant to teach,” said Hakanson. “I have three younger brothers and was often called upon to pitch in and look after them. It always felt natural to be in a caretaking and leadership role. From a young age, I knew the value and importance of teachers. I saw how they impacted my life and the lives of the surrounding students throughout my education.”

    Not only was Hakanson meant to teach - she was meant to lead. She is the Exceptional Children team leader, Ron Clark Academy House leader, a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support team member, and serves on the Title 1 school-wide planning team.

    As a child, school was an anchor for Hakanson. Her family moved around a lot, resulting in her attending seven schools during her K-12 years. 

    “Each time we started at a different school, often in a new state, it was the teachers who made me feel welcomed and a part of the community,” said Hakanson. “I knew I wanted to give that same gift of belonging to my own students one day. I always appreciated that education was something no one could take from you. I saw how it unlocked opportunities and gave people more autonomy in their lives. I believed that education was a gift you could use to gain a sense of control through action from a young age.”

    Teaching Exceptional children is special

    “I love the aspect of being a cheerleader and mentor for my students,” said Hakanson. “The skills they are learning in my classroom can be taken back into their general education classrooms and translated there.”

    Hakanson considers herself a bridge between special education and general education. She supports all aspects of her students’ academic endeavors as well as their social and emotional learning.

    “They are learning strategies to meet goals and help them to find success and confidence in the general education classroom,” said Hakanson. “Additionally, I am teaching my students to advocate for themselves and create action plans.”

    An example of that was when an Asian-American student was feeling a bit left out. With some coaxing and reassurance, the young student came up with an idea to celebrate Asian-American Heritage Month.

    “The student created and ran the whole project,” said Hakanson. “He took ownership of the initiative and, through his efforts, saw the impact it had on the school. I want all of my students to feel a sense of independence through education, just like he did.”

    According to Principal LaToya Smith, Hakanson is driven by the same pillars of success of the district, whose mission is educating and supporting every child in achieving college, career, and citizenship readiness. 

    “Ms. Hakanson provides engaging rigorous instruction for all her students based on their goals,” said Smith. “She uses data effectively to inform her instructional practices and assess students' progress in order to make informed decisions that enhance teaching and learning outcomes.”

    Hakanson’s position allows her to work with all age groups and across the school with all staff. She also gets to know each family as they work together to navigate each individual student’s journey.

    “It’s a rewarding position to be in,” said Hakanson. “My role is to find strategies and accommodations to encourage success for each of my students, and to do that, I get to collaborate with all of the educators in my building and other systems of support which ensure a solid path forward for each student.”

    Smith said Hakanson goes above and beyond to ensure the academic, social, and emotional growth of students. 

    “She brings positive energy and inspiration to everything she does,” added Smith. “She's always professional and is a reflective practitioner who strives to learn new ways to support her students and colleagues. She consistently demonstrates a willingness to learn from experiences, embrace challenges, and accept change, which encourages her peers to also have the same growth mindset.”

    A growth mindset

    Hakanson considers herself a lifelong learner with a growth mindset. She pays close attention to what her colleagues are doing and learns from their successes. She hopes to use her position as a Top Five Finalist to learn from her peers and district leadership, so she can continue to evolve in the profession.

    “I am grateful for the opportunity,” said Hakanson. “I love this school and the colleagues and administration that pour so much into me. It will be amazing to shine a spotlight on North Charleston Creative and the City of North Charleston as well. I am looking forward to lifting up this school and the Department of Exception Children.”


  • RELEASE DATE: May 7, 2024

    Despite an unfortunate breast cancer diagnosis in July, West Ashley High School French teacher Julia Royall was determined not to miss the start of the school year. In fact, she didn’t want to miss any day of school. But, not all things were in her control, and surgery was scheduled on the same day that the 2023-2024 school year started. However, just three short weeks later, Royall was where she wanted to be, back in her classroom with her students.

    “Being in this classroom lets me forget about the cancer treatment,” said Royall. “I just want to be with my students.”

    Royall knew that teaching was the career for her, the first day she ever taught in a classroom. Her passion has grown even stronger over the last 20 years. That kind of drive is what makes Royall stand out among her peers. As a result, she was named a Top Five Finalist for Charleston County School District’s (CCSD) 2023-2024 Teacher of the Year.

    According to Principal Ryan Cumback Under Royall's leadership, the World Language Department at West Ashley has flourished. 

    Julia Royall“She has been instrumental in recruiting and mentoring a team of excellent teachers, thereby enhancing the quality of language education at our school,” said Cumback. “Her initiative in establishing the school's National French Honor Society marks a significant achievement, inspiring other departments, such as Spanish, to follow suit. This initiative not only enriches our school's academic offerings but also fosters a deeper appreciation for cultural diversity among students.”

    Royall said that not only has she embraced her role as department chair, but she is also the co-chair of the school's Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) committee.

    “Her efforts have resulted in nearly 100 percent staff participation, contributing substantially to a positive shift in the school's climate and culture,” added Cumback. “This transformation under her guidance speaks volumes about her leadership skills and her ability to unite and motivate her colleagues toward a common goal.”

    Becoming a teacher

    Royall became a teacher, because of the influence that teachers had on her life. 

    “Throughout my adolescence, I struggled with low self-esteem and often made bad decisions as a result,” explained Royall. “Fortunately, I had several teachers who were able to relate to me, who I was able to trust and respect, and who were a constant support when I needed them. Thanks to the support of my teachers, my self-esteem improved along with my grades.” 

    The encouragement given to Royall by her high school French teacher pushed her to enroll in the AP French course where she excelled In college, a professor confided that she was the best student in the class, and that made Royall realize she could teach French. That is when her dream of teaching French was born.

    “My love for and desire to become the best French teacher I could possibly become led me to take a year away from college to be an Au Pair in France,” said Royall. “I quickly realized that the best way to better understand a language and a culture is to live it. So I did, and that has had the biggest impact on my teaching career.”

    Royall was afforded a student teaching opportunity with CCSD in 2002. She was assigned to Staci Attafi’s classroom. The two share a special bond now as colleagues.

    “I rely on her as our "go-to-teacher" in the district when I need her to support other teachers with best practice instruction,” said Attafi, CCSD’s Instructional Specialist for World Languages. “She worked with me on the South Carolina curriculum team in 2020 to write curriculum for all state content teachers and most recently on the CCSD curriculum writing team to write complete, proficiency-based units for our district teachers.”

    While Royall has taught in various schools and received distinguished designations throughout her career, her dream was to join the team at West Ashley High School. The stars aligned, and she joined the faculty three years ago.

    ‘This is a very diverse school and I enjoy that we all come from all different backgrounds,” said Royall. “Our administration is very supportive and my colleagues and I all work very well together. Our parents are outstanding and they support and appreciate us.”

    Everyone has the ability to learn

    “My own personal background and experience with my students are proof that having a teacher who has high expectations and believes in their students can change lives,” said Royall. “I am an outstanding teacher because of my belief that all students can learn, my relentless effort to motivate them, and my willingness to learn and adapt to their individual needs.” 

    Royall is a fierce advocate for learning foreign" languages and said it can benefit every student.

    “South Carolina is leading the state in foreign companies and opportunities with 9,5% of South Carolina’s private workforce employed by an international firm,” said Royall. “Students can take what they’ve learned in French or any other world language class into the professional world and excel. Students in my classroom are not only learning an important target language but are encouraged to be global citizens and are given regular opportunities to make cross-cultural connections as well.  ”

    Royall believes that in order for teachers to impact students, they have to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect, and they have to want to get to know their scholars as individuals. 

    “I work very hard from the beginning of each term to earn my students' trust and to find a connection with them,” said Royall.

    Cumback added that her resilience in the face of adversity has served as an inspiration to both her colleagues and students, exemplifying the strength and dedication of a truly outstanding teacher. 

    “Ms. Royall embodies the qualities that the Teacher of the Year award seeks to recognize: dedication, innovation, leadership, and a profound commitment to student success,” said Cumback. “She is not only a credit to West but also to the teaching profession as a whole.”