Sixteen years ago, former Apalachicola Bay Charter School Principal Don Hungerford recruited a young teacher from his native Michigan, not long out of college, and brought her down to Franklin County to teach here.

Since 2004, when the former Tara Rutila began as a first grade teacher at ABC, she’s team taught elementary school language arts and history, and then established herself for the past 14 years in the middle school.

A year after coming here, she also fell in love, got married, and together with husband Kevin Ward, embarked on raising three daughters.

Earlier this month, Tara Ward achieved a pinnacle of career success, becoming the first ABC School teacher to be selected as the District of the Year.

“It’s a huge honor I wasn’t expecting,” said Ward. “It’s exciting. I can’t wait to go down and do the gala and meet the other teachers.”

In addition to receiving a $10,000 award stipulated by the state, Ward now has a chance to vie for becoming one of five finalists for Florida Teacher of the Year Honors. She’ll take part in a gala this summer for all of the state’s roughly 75 district winners, and will have a chance to learn from conferences and workshops that she’ll be treated to.

Ward was selected by an independent outside committee of school administrators from among four school-level Teacher of the Year winners. These included Franklin County Schools third grade teacher Cheyenne Hartzog, and ABC School first grade teacher Katie Sparks, at the elementary school level, and Franklin County High School English and language arts teacher Kati-Morgan Hathcock, on the secondary school level.

“I kind of feel like a lot of people on our staff could definitely have won,” said Ward. “We have a phenomenal staff; we give each other phenomenal support.”

Superintendent Traci (Moses) Yoder, and District Human Resource Director Karen Peddie, who coordinated the Teacher of the Year program, both praised the top candidates.

“We are very fortunate to have such outstanding educators in our district and would like to congratulate all of the candidates from their respective schools,” said Peddie.

“Franklin County is blessed with very dedicated teachers and I want to recognize the outstanding efforts of all of our Teacher of the Year candidates,” said Yoder.

Originally from Northport, Michigan, Ward earned a bachelor of science in education from Grove City College, and taught briefly in Pennsylvania and Michigan before heading south.

She’s certified to teach kindergarten through sixth grade, as well as to handle integrated curriculum in grades fifth through ninth.

After a year team-teaching fourth and fifth grade language arts and history, she went on to the middle school, where this year she teaches sixth grade world history, and eighth grade language arts.

“The only thing I haven’t taught in middle school is science,” said Ward.

In keeping with the selection process, she provided the committee a lesson plan, a video of her teaching it, and reflections on how it went.

Her lesson was that of Jack London’s novel Call of the Wild, and how it interfaced with the Klondike Gold Rush, a migration by an estimated 100,000 prospectors to the Klondike region of the Yukon, in north-western Canada, between 1896 and 1899.

Married in April 2007, she and husband Kevin, owner of EagleTree Technologies, are parents of three daughters, ABC fifth grader Kate, first grader Leeah and kindergartner Hannah.

“I always have had great students,” Ward said. “My original plan was only to stay for two years, to get the experience. My first year I lived in Port St. Joe; I didn’t really like that as much. I moved to Apalachicola and that’s when I met Kevin.”

She noted that based on her own experience, the community needs to recognize that housing can be challenging in recruiting teachers.

“That’s an issue,” Ward said. “There’s not a lot of places to live for a single person. The places I lived, they don’t really rent anymore. That’s definitely a factor I feel like for new teachers.”