Alamo Heights ISD and Pre-K 4 SA were among those honored at the “Oscars of teaching” in Texas, the H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards. Elected officials and business leaders gathered with a room of educator peers to honor and applaud leaders in the profession at the Austin Hilton Sunday night.

As many of the honorees said, the event makes the educators feel like “rockstars.” Over the past 16 years the awards have given $8.8 million to state schools, districts, and teachers. This year, the program awarded $430,000 across the state.

San Antonio area schools were represented among the finalists in nearly every one of the 12 categories, taking home the top prize in four.

Pre-K 4 SA won $25,000 in the Early Childhood Education category.

The directors of Pre-K 4 SA turned the spotlight to the citywide system that funds, supports, and partners with Pre-K 4 SA. “This honor also belongs to our incredible ISD partners,” Pre-K 4 SA South Director Belinda Gonzalez said.

At Alamo Heights ISD, every decision made – from the school board to the central office, to the classroom – is based on what’s best for students, said Superintendent Kevin Brown accepting the $50,000 award for small school district.

In his speech Brown also seized the opportunity to speak against standardized tests and for the democratic value of traditional public education. “This is a uniquely American and patriotic endeavor we engage in,” he said.

Brown choked up speaking about Alamo Heights ISD’s community. “There’s a lot of love in our school district,” he said.

Michael Bailey, Texas history teacher at Bradley Middle School in North East ISD won the Lifetime Achievement Secondary Award, $25,000 for himself, and $25,000 for his school. Bailey is committed to bringing history to life for his students. His history classes run an on-campus history museum for 4th grade Texas history students who take field trips to Bradley. The Lifetime Achievement category is for those with more than 20 years experience in education.

San Antonio's Michael Bailey from Omar Bradley Middle School accepts the 'Lifetime Achievement' award for secondary schools.
San Antonio’s Michael Bailey from Omar Bradley Middle School accepts the ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award for secondary schools. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Also representing the San Antonio area was kindergarten teacher Ricky Davis, who won the Rising Star Elementary award, $5,000 for himself, and $5,000 for his school, Schertz Elementary in Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD. Rising Stars have less than 10 years in the classroom.

“Well rounded students are going to be the ones running our country,” Davis said. Knowing that, he strives to impart a love of learning – in the classroom and beyond.

Those remarks were particularly resonant after the words of former Defense Secretary, CIA Director, and President of Texas A&M University Robert Gates, the keynote speaker at the event. Gates honored the teachers gathered at the gala and celebrated their potential to profoundly influence the state’s 5 million children. “You will determine how many of those 5 million will be prepared and motivated to meet the future,” Gates said. “The future of the nation truly is in your hands.” 

Former Defense Secretary, CIA Director, and President of Texas A&M University Robert Gates takes the stage at the H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards in Austin, Texas.
Former Defense Secretary, CIA Director, and President of Texas A&M University Robert Gates takes the stage at the H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards in Austin, Texas. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Teachers work in a large bureaucracy, Gates said, one in need of transformation. The presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders tapped into a surging dissatisfaction with the nation’s bureaucracies.

“If we don’t fix our institutions and do so with some urgency it will be disastrous for us all,” Gates said. “Hardly a day passes in the life of an American without having to battle one or another bureaucracy. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Not only does the institution of education need reform, but it is the nation’s public education system in which tomorrow’s institutional leadership will be formed.

While Gates does not claim to be an expert in education,“I do have a lot of experience transforming and reforming institutions,” he said.

Gates will serve on the board of the Holdsworth Center, a new educational leadership development center in Austin. The Holdsworth Center will be founded on a $100 million legacy gift from H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt.

Chairman and CEO of H-E-B Charles Butt applauds as kindergarten teacher Ricky Davis recalls the story of meeting his wife while he was employed as a bagger at H-E-B.
Chairman and CEO of H-E-B Charles Butt applauds as kindergarten teacher Ricky Davis recalls the story of meeting his wife while he was employed as a bagger at H-E-B. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Gates shared critical components of transformation and characteristics of leadership. He encouraged teachers, principals, and administrators to model humility, humor, courage, hard work, and integrity within their schools.   

Gates encouraged leaders to listen to teachers and principals, and share information and responsibility. “Those on the front lines often have the best take on what’s not going well and what can be done better,” Gates said.“Any fool can, and too often does, dictate change from the top.”

The sentiment was echoed by winning Secondary Principal Julie Diaz from Travis High School in Fort Bend ISD. She thanked her school board for empowering her to take action in her school, and encouraged other school boards to “let your people lead.”

The event honored those on the front lines, as well as those who listen and delegate as leaders.

The Rising Star Secondary award went to Richard Embrick from David Crockett Middle School in Fort Bend ISD.

In the Leadership category (teacher with 10-20 years of experience), earning $10,000 for themselves and a $10,000 grant for their schools, were Raul Munoz from George Evans Elementary in Corpus Christi ISD and Jamie Flint from Spring Woods High School in Spring Branch ISD.

Rhonda Peña of Bryan Elementary in Mission CISD won the Lifetime Achievement Elementary Award.

Winning principals took home $10,000 for themselves and a $25,000 grant for their schools. Myrtha Villarreal from Col. Santos Benavides Elementary in United ISD and Diaz were the winners in that category. 

The Fort Bend ISD school board won $25,000 for its district. The winning large school district, Grand Prairie ISD left with $100,000.

The acceptance speeches of the teachers and school leaders revealed the personal commitment, passion, and sacrifice of those who excel in the teaching profession. They highlighted the participation of spouses and children, the investment of parents and mentors, and the students inspire all their efforts.

Their sentiments exemplified the spirit Gates referred to in his speech when he said, “Leadership is more about the heart than the head.”

This story was originally published on May 7, 2017. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.