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Bravacado! Team FIESTA wins OMLA Award
Team FIESTA (L to R): Brian Shaeffer, Monica Borsani, Julie Gunkelman, Andrea Riley and Erin Sholtis. (Note: Pre-COVID photo from 2019.)

When your name is Team FIESTA, every day is a celebration. But there’s a reason for some extra excitement at Cloverleaf Middle School: Team FIESTA teachers have received a 2020 Middle School Component Award from the Ohio Middle Level Association.

The award goes to schools that implement middle school concepts in an exemplary manner -- making them a model for aspiring educators and middle schools striving to develop or refine their programs. OMLA is a 10,000-member professional organization of middle level educators whose purpose is to promote the middle level concept and provide a platform to share ideas.

Team FIESTA’s five eighth-grade teachers will receive the award on May 6 at OMLA’s annual conference in Sandusky. The teachers are: Monica Borsani (science), Julie Gunkelman (math), Andrea Riley (intervention specialist), Brian Shaeffer (social studies) and Erin Sholtis (language arts).

Everyone loves a party, but the name “FIESTA” goes a little deeper. It’s an acronym for “Friend,” “Integrity,” “Extra,” “Self-advocate,” “Truth” and  “Attention.”

“They’re lifeskills/concepts we believe will help eighth-graders succeed academically and personally as they move forward in school and life,” said Sholtis.

Plus, the FIESTA theme lends itself to fun activities and awards, added Gunkelman. The inspirations include: “Nacho Average Student,” “Bravacado! It’s your birthday!” and “Like guacamole … so extra.”

At Cloverleaf Middle School, teachers from different subject areas work side-by-side in teams to meet the students where they are. It allows for the integration of concepts across the curriculum and places every student’s needs front and center for the entire team. Each child has a teacher-advocate who looks out for that student, academically and emotionally.

“The greatest strength of the middle school concept is it feels like a family; the students feel cared for and the teachers feel supported,” said Borsani.

That approach hit home when the team planned a virtual fiesta for students via Zoom while schools were closed to in-person instruction during COVID-19. Team FIESTA teachers personally delivered an invitation -- plus a bag of Doritos -- to every student on the team. It was an important moment of connection.

“It was really awesome to see and talk to the parents and students -- from a distance,” Borsani said. “We could tell that it really meant a lot to both the students and families that we took the time to hand deliver a treat.”

Resilience, creativity, caring and trust are essential to a successful team approach.

“Team FIESTA approaches every problem as something that can be solved,” said Riley. “We put our minds together and come up with unique solutions. Our team is extremely flexible in our approach, including arranging the schedule to fit the current needs of the team, ensuring we consider individual student abilities and strengths, and creating and implementing valuable learning experiences -- Innovation Day, Exit Interviews, Passion Projects, etc.

“What I enjoy the most is the light-heartedness of this team that incorporates humor and fun into daily interactions with the students with a focus on building relationships,” she added.

Receiving the award from OMLA is a reflection of the culture that exists throughout Cloverleaf Middle School, Shaeffer said, not just on Team FIESTA.

“We appreciate the recognition, but we are not alone. Our fellow colleagues and our administration have allowed us to think outside the box without judging, encouraged us to act on new ideas, and supported us when our plans haven’t panned out as expected,” he said.

“Collaboration, flexibility, and innovation are the foundational pillars of the Cloverleaf Middle School staff,” said Principal Brian Madigan. “Teachers are challenged to think differently about how we can use our time to maximize our students' learning. We want our school day to be a day of learning, not a day of subjects taught in isolation. Therefore, teachers from across the building and grade levels invest a great deal of time to plan cross curricular lessons that promote students to problem solve and connect concepts and ideas across the different contents. Teachers focus on application of concepts not simply memorization of facts.

“Team Fiesta has truly embodied the culture of a learning community,” added Madigan. “A learning community is not only an environment where students learn. It also promotes adult learning. The teachers are willing to try new instructional strategies and projects that may be a bit out of their comfort zone to engage students in learning. This attitude is not only beneficial to students, but it also has a way of energizing teachers and other staff to be excited to come to work every day to try something new and meaningful.  

“Although Team Fiesta is receiving this award, I feel every team in our building could have been recognized,” Madigan said. “Team Fiesta’s recognition is only possible because of the culture of our building and the comradery among our entire staff. The staff works relentlessly to provide the best educational environment anywhere! I could not be more proud of the work of Team Fiesta and our entire teaching and support staff!”