Christa McAuliffe Middle School teacher Denisse Hernandez is congratulated by H-E-B leadership.
H-E-B leaders congratulate McAuliffe Middle School teacher Denisse Hernandez. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

With award winners’ surprised reactions, tearful acceptance speeches, and a number of standing ovations, H-E-B’s Excellence in Education Awards had all the fanfare of a major awards ceremony.

As one winner put it: “This is like the Grammy’s of education!”

At Sunday night’s award ceremony in Houston, two San Antonio area teachers took home the top prize in their categories.

Denisse Hernandez of McAuliffe Middle School in Southwest Independent School District and Bonnie Anderson of Coronado Village Elementary in Judson ISD won in the “Rising Star Secondary” and “Lifetime Achievement Elementary” categories, respectively.

The event, organized by H-E-B, recognizes educators from around the state for their contributions to Texas schools.

The grocery giant’s President Scott McClelland described the event as the “best night ever” at H-E-B.

The night began with a speech from Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, a nonprofit that offers online lessons to students around the world.

Khan spoke on how his vision formed for his nonprofit: He started by tutoring his cousins across the country and went on to develop YouTube tutorials in various subjects that today are used by more than 60 million students worldwide.

He told the educators in the room – or “soldiers in this effort,” as he referred to them – that he believed one day education would become like clean drinking water for everyone – a “fundamental human right.”

The educators honored Sunday night work to pursue that goal, he said.

Hernandez, whose category featured other finalists with less than 10 years experience teaching at the secondary level, will take home $10,000 total – half as a personal prize and half as a grant for her school.

She teaches eighth-grade social studies at McAuliffe, where she once was a student herself. Hernandez was the first college graduate in her family and said her family’s work ethic pushes her forward in her career aspirations – to one day become a principal.

“As a janitor, my dad was the first in his family to work indoors, and my grandpa was so proud of him,” she said. “They believed hard work would open the world for me, and now I pass that on to my students.”

Christa McAuliffe Middle School teacher Denise Hernandez reacts to the announcement she has won the Rising Star Secondary award.
McAuliffe Middle School teacher Denisse Hernandez reacts to the announcement as she wins the ‘Rising Star Secondary’ award. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Four years ago, Hernandez implemented a now regular trip to Washington, D.C., so her students could “see government in action” and “walk in the footsteps of heroes.”

On Sunday, Hernandez said she wants children to take that real world experience and use it to understand the history lessons she teaches in her classroom.

“We’re seeing in the news that you have kids that are marching and you have the kids that are actually speaking out,” she said. “Now they can see this is why I need to know [the Bill of Rights.]”

Coronado Village Elementary Universal City, Texas Bonnie Anderson watches a video on her class along with H-E-B President Scott McClelland.
Coronado Village Elementary teacher Bonnie Anderson watches a video featuring her class along with H-E-B President Scott McClelland. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Anderson won in a category of teachers with more than 20 years of experience at the elementary level. She will take home $25,000 for herself and $25,000 for her school.

Anderson, a music teacher, credits her middle school experience in band as life-changing. Teaching music to more than 400 students a week, she said the children in her class have an instrument in their hands at all times.

“Every fourth- and fifth-grade student in my school has the opportunity to be part of a performing music group,” she said. “There is a part for every skill level, and if there isn’t, I rewrite the music so they can successfully perform it.”

As at other award shows, Sunday’s winners used their acceptance speeches as an opportunity to address the current political climate, that in Texas includes an oft-bemoaned public school funding scheme. Several winners closed out their time on stage with a direct message to the policy makers in the room.

Hernandez asked policy makers to bring back funding for after school programs. Anderson echoed that request in her own speech.

“As a music teacher, there is so much research about what playing a music instrument does for the neurological development for a child,” she said. “Go look it up and please fund it.”

Five other San Antonio educators, the school board of Southwest ISD, and Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD were also nominated in different categories.

The H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards started in 2002 and are the largest monetary program for educators in Texas.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.