On Feb. 17 and 18, eight San Antonio educators received a big surprise delivered right to their schools. Six teachers and two principals in the San Antonio area are finalists for H-E-B’s annual Excellence in Education Awards. Each teacher received $1,000 for themselves and $1,000 for their school. Both principals received $1,000 for themselves and $2,500 for their schools.

The San Antonio finalists will be competing with 32 others statewide for even bigger cash prizes of $5,000 to $25,000 that will be awarded in May.

The annual awards are one of the state’s showcase events for public school educators, started 14 years ago by H-E-B and its Chairman and CEO Charles Butt to support public education in Texas and highlight some of the state’s most innovative and successful districts, schools and educators.

The six winning teachers will include one elementary and one secondary teacher in each of three categories:

The Rising Star Award — honors exceptionally promising teachers with less than 10 years of experience. These winners will each receive a $5,000 check for themselves and a $5,000 grant for their schools.

The Leadership Award — honors teachers with 10 to 20 years in the classroom. These winners will each receive a $10,000 check for themselves and a $10,000 grant for their schools.

The Lifetime Achievement Award — salutes teachers with more than 20 years of experience. These teachers will each receive $25,000 in cash for themselves and a $25,000 grant for their schools.

The H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards are the largest monetary awards for Texas educators and one of the largest in the country. They give awards in four categories: teachers, principals, early childhood education programs, and school districts. The San Antonio finalists represent districts across the area, and professionals at every point in their careers. 

  • Anne Peppers, East Central Development Center, East Central ISD (Rising Star Elementary)
  • Melanie Leija, Frank Tejeda Academy, Harlandale ISD (Rising Star Secondary)
  • Carol Anderson, Julia Newton Aue Elementary, Northside ISD (Leadership Elementary)
  • Colin Lang, Alamo Heights High School, Alamo Heights ISD (Leadership Secondary)
  • Alma Gonzalez, Woodridge Elementary, Alamo Heights ISD (Lifetime Achievement Elementary)
  • Donna Tripp, Robert G. Cole High School, Fort Sam ISD (Lifetime Achievement Secondary)

In addition to these, Joanelda DeLeon, principal of Highland Hills Elementary in the San Antonio Independent School District, and Kathy Bieser, principal of International School of the Americas in the North East ISD are finalists in the principal category.

One exciting stop for the H-E-B Buddy and his entourage was the basement of Alamo Heights High School where finalist Colin Lang’s rocketry class was hard at work.

Colin Lang teaches rocketry at Alamo Heights HS. Courtesy photo.
Colin Lang teaches rocketry at Alamo Heights HS. Courtesy photo.

Lang’s face showed his complete surprise as the balloons, cake, and a giant novelty check were delivered among snapping photos and smiling faces. His students beamed with pride, and quickly invited the visitors to have a look around the shop.

Lang’s rocketry program started eight years ago with 17 students. They tested their rockets on the field after lunch (which Lang quickly realized was less than ideal). Now the program has grown into an official course offering, with 150 students across four grade levels. Each year Lang takes his most advanced class to White Sands National Monument in New Mexico where they participate in the Goddard Project. A group of high school students then launch their handmade rocket along side university programs and professional engineers. On the first launch, in 2012, the Alamo Heights High School rocket broke the sound barrier. Students have been going for Mach III or faster ever since.

AHISD Superintendent Kevin Brown shows off a collage of photos from the 2012 Alamo Heights HS rocket launch. photo by Bekah McNeel
AHISD Superintendent Kevin Brown shows off a collage of photos from the 2012 Alamo Heights HS rocket launch. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

“The engineers who work there are blown away,” said AHISD Superintendent Kevin Brown.

Lang loves to see the rockets shooting into space, but he’s more excited about the effect that the experience has on the students.

“As amazing and impressive as these rockets are, they are not the final valuable products of our program. The final valuable products are my students and the skill set they possess when they graduate,” said Lang in his application for the award.

That skill set is often entirely forged in the basement workshop of Lang’s classes. Many students are not mechanically inclined at all on their first day of class.

“A lot of students, when they first come in here, if you hand them a broom they don’t know what to do,” he said.

One student’s mother jokingly reported that before enrolling in Lang’s class, the most advanced machine her daughter knew how to handle was a nail file.

By the end of the program they are using mills, lathes, and other heavy machinery. They are highly sought after, receiving scholarship offers from everywhere from UTSA to Embry-Riddle, and going on to programs like NASA’s SpaceX.

Some of these kids were not necessarily the students first pegged for futures in advanced scientific fields. Lang himself was one of those kids, told by a teacher early in his school career that he would be better off “digging ditches” than pursuing higher education. His own father had only gone to school through 6th grade.

Eventually, his wife persuaded him to go to college. When he did, at age 30, he was surprised to find that ditches were not his only option in life.

“I discovered I had a brain that worked,” said Lang.

He went on to graduate magna cum laude from both UTSA and Our Lady of the Lake University. Lang is certified to teach kinesiology, biology, composite science, physics and chemistry. He started a rugby club at the Alamo Heights HS as well, to further engage students who learn and grow through physical activity.

Those students, the ones hovering on the edge because they have yet to really engage their education, are within Lang’s reach.

“We accept all kids. You’d think this would be a GT or AP course, but it’s not,” said Lang.

The classroom atmosphere is as serious and industrious as the most elite lab on any college campus. The students walk in, and with no prompting, they take out laptops, tools, and rocket parts and begin their work, buzzing around the shop with molds, materials and budget spreadsheets. The students lead the entire project, from fundraising to manufacture.

“I tell my students, ‘When you walk through that door, you’re no longer a student. You’re a professional,’” Lang said.

Students Luis Petitjean and Daniel Moncera gave me a tour of the manufacturing shop off of the main workroom, where 90% of each rocket is made. Professional welders and technicians do come into the class to assist with the more dangerous activities, but the students take ownership of the process.

“He just lets us go, and we do our thing,” said Moncera.

Luis Petitjean (left) and Daniel Moncera show off the rocket shop. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Luis Petitjean (left) and Daniel Moncera show off the rocket shop. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Lang is a prime example of the kind of innovation that forever changes young lives. He certainly deserves recognition like the H-E-B Excellence in Education Award nomination, because his students are winning every single day. That’s what drives Lang. He’s not planning to go anywhere any time soon.  

“I belong in the classroom with my students, so I have no designs on becoming an administrator or anything else that would take me away from my life’s avocation to teach,” said Lang in his application for the award.

His students would agree. Lang belongs in the classroom. Surrounded by rocket parts and technology, the most inspiring piece of the rocketry class is Lang himself. He’s found the funds to create an amazing program, sure, but more remarkable is the wealth of passion and energy he passes to the kids.

As the H-E-B Buddy and his posse made their rounds, they found deposits of such wealth across the city. The eight finalists represent the many fine educators who have devoted their lives to helping the children of San Antonio succeed. 

*Featured/top image: The H-E-B Buddy and his team with Colin Lang (center), AHISD Superintendent Kevin Brown, and Assistant Principal Terri Duncan. Courtesy photo.

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Bekah McNeel

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.