Diane Tomko impacted Flagler Palm Coast High School for 15 years, and what's now Buddy Taylor Middle School for 15 years before that.
With 40 years in education, Flagler Palm Coast High School teacher Diane Tomko is retiring with the peace of mind that everything she’s poured her heart and time into will continue.
For the last 15 years, Tomko has bled green and white as a Bulldog. Before that, she taught at what is now Buddy Taylor Middle School for 15 years. It was there that then-Principal Buddy Taylor, who died in 1991, encouraged Tomko to find a way for the middle school students to write well, she said.
From her 10 years of teaching in West Virginia before moving to Palm Coast in 1988, Tomko was familiar with Future Problem Solving Program International — a program that molds students into creative thinkers and practical doers.
In 1993, Tomko launched the first FPS writing team at BTMS; the small team earned third in the state.
The FPS program of Flagler County has grown from those few students to now several hundred students participating yearly.
“I think that it shows students and families that school isn’t just four walls — it’s a community, and it’s global,” Tomko said. “It shows them that all the skills that they’re learning in class are really applicable in the real world.”
“I definitely will continue to help Flagler Palm Coast High School because, you know, ‘Once a Bulldog, always a Bulldog.’”
- DIANE TOMKO, FPC teacher
Tomko said watching her former students go on to do great things — like start their own businesses based on the projects they created in FPS — is what makes all the work worth it.
“It’s humbling, and it’s inspiring,” she said. “And it keeps us, we as teachers, moving forward — to say we have this group of students every year that surpass whatever the bar is you set for them.”
John Birney Jr., now an apprentice at JBirney Financial in Flagler Beach, said he considers himself “pretty lucky” to have had Tomko as a teacher for seven years, as she transitioned to teaching at FPC just as his class was moving into ninth grade.
“Mrs. Tomko had that special sauce,” Birney said. “When she saw creativity blossoming in someone, she was right there alongside you nurturing that and poking and prodding and trying to get you to think that way, because it’s more than just math and English.”
He said the way of thinking that FPS teaches makes a difference in his life to this day — tackling real-world problems he comes across.
“She’s really created a dynasty,” Birney said.
Flagler School Board member Andy Dance got to know Tomko through his involvement fundraising for FPS, as a parent of Flagler County students.
“I think her reputation might even have proceeded me meeting her,” Dance said, laughing.
He said that when his daughter Kayla Dance was in ninth grade at FPC, she showed no interest in joining FPS. But through regular interactions with Tomko, she was able to see how some of her talents would be best utilized in FPS projects. Kayla Dance went on to go to the FPS International Competition with her sister.
“I think the most striking thing is how she is able to get the most out of the students and get them to come out of their comfort area in order to excel,” Dance said about Tomko.
But Tomko is quick to deflect personal praise; her focus is always the students.
“People only know about me because of the wonderful things the kids have done,” she said.
Before she became a teacher, Tomko wanted to be a surgeon or neurologist.
She said that during the ’70s, society pushed her into medical avenues like nursing. It was when she started volunteering as a candy striper in a hospital that she realized this field wasn’t the best fit for her.
“I was in a burn unit, and I couldn’t do it. I have too much empathy; I just couldn’t do that,” Tomko recalled. “So, I volunteered for Special Olympics and I thought, ‘I think I’d like to teach because I’ll work with the brain, one way or the other.’”
Over her 40 years in education, she’s taught every grade level except kindergarten. But her involvement leading FPS has impacted her more than she can even describe.
Tomko’s husband died when he was 48. As a widow, she said, “This program has saved my life in many ways.”
“Working with young people that have vision and want to make more positive their futures is encouraging, and I think it keeps you young at heart,” she said.
What’s to come now?
Tomko’s not sure. But she’s excited to wake up without a schedule for once. She plans to travel a bit, spend time with her son and daughter-in-law, her grandsons and her parents — and maybe even learn Spanish and Italian.
“I definitely will continue to help Flagler Palm Coast High School because, you know, ‘Once a Bulldog, always a Bulldog,’” she said.
As for FPS, Tomko is confident it will continue to thrive, as two of her former FPS students, current FPC Media Specialist Sarah Reckenwald and FPC language arts teacher Caitlin Hutsell, will have the reins.
“I’m planning for right now to stay in Palm Coast — but I’m a Future Problem Solver, so whatever the future brings, I’m ready for it,” Tomko said. “I feel comfortable that the youth of today are going to be the citizens of tomorrow that are going to be taking care of me in my old age.”