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Desire to be an advocate inspires Manatee school board candidate

Heather Felton, a former teacher, wants to continue to help students but in a new role.


Parrish's Heather Felton is running for the District 1 seat on the School Board of Manatee County.
Parrish's Heather Felton is running for the District 1 seat on the School Board of Manatee County.
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When students walked into Heather Felton’s English class at Southeast High School, they weren’t sure what to expect.

She had a pride flag and American flag hanging, Lego sets all around the classroom, photos of her family, a poster of Shakespeare, photos of different authors and tons of books. 

It was Felton’s way of showing who she was and her passions while hoping to get her students to “lower their defenses” and know they were in a safe place. 

But after nine years of teaching in Title I schools in the School District of Manatee County, Parrish's Felton said she made the hard decision to leave the classroom at the end of the 2022-2023 school year. 

She wasn’t sure what would be next until people started asking her if she would run for the School Board of Manatee County. 

“It’s not about being a politician, it’s about being a voice,” Felton said. “I can speak for other teachers who are worried or afraid to speak. I can speak for parents because my kids are out of the schools. I’m not in it for political gain. I’m not setting out to be a politician. I’m out to be an advocate, and that’s really it.”

Felton is running for the District 1 seat on the School Board of Manatee County. 

Felton said the politics and policies coming down from the state “made it so hard to be a teacher,” which is why she left the classroom. She said the book vetting policies and book banning were the final straw. 

“When (the district) came in and told us we had to take our books out of our class that were not in the school library system, that hurt me,” she said. “I sat in my classroom, and I cried because I had over 600 books that I had accrued over my years as a teacher, a lot of them from my own home and brought in to share with my students.”

But all her memories as a teacher are happy ones, she said. Felton said she loved seeing how invested her students would get in the books they were reading in class. 

She said she loved seeing the lightbulb moment when a student understood a literary concept or found love for a book. 

While teaching seventh grade at Harllee Middle School, which closed as a public school in 2017 and is now the Harllee Center, Felton said she had a group of boys with special needs who fell in love with “The Outsiders.” For many, she said it was the first book they read to completion. After they finished the book, her students were asking if they could keep a copy of it because no matter their race or ethnicity they related to the characters.

“I was scrounging all over the place trying to find spare copies of “The Outsiders” to give out to these boys who had never read a book before,” she said. “These kids from 1950 in this little town in the midwest connected with these teenage boys in Manatee County, and that is amazing.”

Felton said throughout her career, she has wanted to be an advocate for people whether as a journalist or a teacher.

She moved to Manatee County in 1997 after being accepted to the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg for its Summer Fellowship Program for news writing and from there interviewed and accepted a position as a night-time police reporter for “The Bradenton Herald.”

After five years with the newspaper, she left to become the editor of the “Florida Catholic,” a newspaper for the Diocese of Venice. Her interest and passion for ministry brought her to Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Catholic Church in Bradenton where she became the director of faith formation.

Working with children at the church, she said she felt called to the classroom to be a teacher in a public school. 

Now she does pre-authorizations for infusion medications for a private practice and advocates for patients. 

“That is my goal, to advocate for people, not to get on somebody’s good side but to do what is right for the people I’m working for,” she said. 

When Felton decided to leave the School District of Manatee County, she was heartbroken for the Southeast High School juniors she was teaching. Of the 150 juniors, she was supposed to be the English teacher for 50 of them during their senior year as well.

She promised them she would be there for them at graduation in May 2024 to watch each of them receive their diplomas.

Following through on that promise and helping her students ensure their caps and gowns were perfect and cheering them on as they walked across LECOM Park was an incredible experience, she said.

 

author

Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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