Teacher Hilda Nanez of Green Valley Elementary wins the Rising Star award. Photo by Michael Cirlos
Teacher Hilda Nanez (right) of Green Valley Elementary wins the Rising Star Award. Photo by Michael Cirlos

Winners of $430,000 in statewide prizes were announced at the H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards ceremony on May 13 at La Cantera Hill Country Resort in San Antonio.

H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt congratulated the eight educators, two school districts, one early childhood agency and a public school board for being among the best in Texas. Over the last 15 years, H-E-B has awarded $8 million in recognition of creativity and best practices in Texas public education, making it the largest monetary program for educators in the state.

“You guys are redefining corporate citizenship,” said Lifetime Achievement Award winner Mark Misage during his acceptance speech.

San Antonio boasted two winners, Sunshine Cottage School for Deaf Children, the winning early childhood facility and secondary principal Delia McLerran of Young Women’s Leadership Academy in San Antonio Independent School District. Sunshine Cottage was awarded $25,000 and McLerran received $10,000 cash for herself and a $25,000 grant for her school.

“As a product of public schools I am very grateful for what was given to me by public school teachers,” McLerran said.

Elected leaders joined in the celebration as well including State representatives Justin Rodriguez (D-125), Doug Miller (R-73), and Diego Bernal (D-123), as well as Council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Alan Warrick (D2), and Rey Saldaña (D4).

In the wake of the Texas Supreme Court’s decision to preserve the state’s funding system, a system considered by most to be inadequate and inequitable, Scott McClelland, master of ceremonies and H-E-B president of Houston food and drug division, looked to the room for hope.

“Today hasn’t been a good day for education in the state of Texas, but that doesn’t preclude us from celebrating the work of teachers and principals in this room,” McClelland said.

While the Texas Supreme Court has not deemed it appropriate to financially acknowledge the monumental work of teachers, schools, and districts, H-E-B continues its commitment to do just that.

One distinguished guest, eighth-grader Tony Rodriguez, performed the national anthem and reminded those in the room of the importance of educating a diversity of students, regardless of the cost or time. Rodriguez, who is autistic, has an impressive list of accomplishments. He is in an 11th grade math class at Clark High School, placed fifth at the Regional Spelling Bee, and can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than one minute.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, arguably the most recognized science personality in the world, delivered the keynote address, encouraging educators to cultivate a love of learning in their students. Tyson is a graduate of public education, and has gone on to earn 18 honorary doctorates, numerous honors in the field of astrophysics, including “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” by People Magazine.

I don’t get big headed about that, because, I mean, consider the category. Who did I beat out?” Tyson said.

In spite of all his accomplishments, Tyson’s own school years gave little indication of his dazzling future. He looks back on his education, and sees how the education system often rewards the wrong things: high grades and conformity.

“Is that who transforms the world, ultimately? The one who obeys the most?”

American Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks at the H-E B Excellence in Education Awards. Photo by Michael Cirlos
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks at the H-E B Excellence in Education Awards. Photo by Michael Cirlos

The geniuses that will change the world, argued Tyson, are those who inquire, challenge and innovate, which tends to be messy for parents and teachers. 

“You don’t have kids to keep an orderly household,” said Tyson. “The act of disrupting the household is scientific exploration.”

Tyson also took issue with gifted and talented programming, “A students,” and IQ testing. In favor of the deterministic label “gifted,” Tyson favors a “program whose students who work hard.” He favors growth over performance and ambition over test scores.

“Do not bring forth your ‘A students’ as evidence that you’re a good teacher,” said Tyson, “Show me the student who was failing and now they’re getting a B-.”

Tyson made strong, and sometimes hilarious, statements in favor of merit pay and firing bad teachers. With an exacting look at teacher quality, he elevated the status of the honorees in the room, the singularly influential “star” teachers changing the lives of their students.

A tweet by American Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on the state of public education.
A tweet by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on the state of public education.

In addition to the San Antonio winners, awards were as follows:

The Rising Star Category recognizes teachers with less than 10 years of experience. Winners Hilda Nanez of Green Valley Elementary in Galena Park ISD, Houston, and Alexandra Edwards of Killeen High School in Killeen ISD received a $5,000 check for themselves and a $5,000 grant for their school.

The Leadership Category honors teachers with 10 to 20 years in the classroom. Winners Tammy Verstrate of LaVace Stewart Elementary in Clear Creek ISD, Kemah and Martha Saucedo of Brady High School in Brady ISD received a $10,000 check for themselves and a $10,000 grant for their school.

The Lifetime Achievement Category salutes teachers with more than 20 years of experience. Winners Laurie Holmes of Popham Elementary in Del Valle ISD and Mark Misage of Westlake High School in Eanes ISD, Austin, received $25,000 in cash for themselves and a $25,000 grant for their school.

Sandy Conklin of Samuel Beck Elementary in Northwest ISD, Trophy Club, Tex. won the primary principal award. Like McLerran she received $10,000 for herself and a $25,000 grant for her school.

Somerset ISD, the winning public school board received a $25,000 cash prize from H-E-B and a surprise matching award from Toyota Manufacturing. 

Valley View ISD in Pharr, TX won best small school district, a $50,000 prize.

Leander ISD, the winning large school district, received a $100,000 cash prize.                                           

All finalists were nominated by community members and selected by a panel of education professionals at every level, including past winners. A team of judges visited each finalist, talking to administrators, teachers, support staff, parents and community members to determine the overall winner.

The process leading up to the statewide award ceremony has already proved valuable for these deserving teachers, principals, schools and districts. Finalists and their schools received cash prizes ranging from $1,000 to $2,500, depending on the category. Each finalist in the large district and early childhood categories, as well as the five recognized school boards, received $5,000; the two finalists in the small district category received $2,500.


Top image: Teacher Hilda Nanez (right) of Green Valley Elementary wins the Rising Star Award. Photo by Michael Cirlos

Related Stories:

Texas Supreme Court Upholds Public School Funding System

Data Shows Racial Inequality in Bexar County Education

Public Education, Finance Dominate Texas Tribune Talk

Sam Houston High School a ‘Choice School’ for Notre Dame-bound Senior

Students, Parents Flock to Fox Tech for Top Tier College Panels

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