2015 excellence in education
award winners

On Sunday, May 3, 2015, H-E-B announced the statewide winners in the 2015 H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards. Winners were announced during the Awards Celebration held in Austin at the W Hotel, where H-E-B gathered 40 educators, seven school districts, five early childhood facilities and five school boards to honor them for their outstanding commitment to education.



2015 Excellence in Education Award Winners

Rising Star Category
This award recognizes teachers with less than 10 years of experience. The two winning teachers each received a $5,000 check for themselves and a $5,000 grant for their schools.

Elementary Category:

Melinda Gaona Schermerhorn | Elsa England Elementary | Round Rock

No matter the culture, background or ability of her students, Melinda Gaona Schermerhorn makes sure each child knows they have a special gift worthy of sharing with the world. As a Next Generation Digital Classroom teacher, Schermerhorn molds her 5th graders into digital learners and global thinkers by embedding technology into learning every single day.

"Our children are surrounded by technology these days, so it's a natural fit for education," she said. "We're doing a great service by teaching them to be digital citizens who will use technology to benefit others."

In Schermerhorn's class, the direct teach method has been thrown out the window, making way for more inclusive, hands-on learning. This allows students to ask questions first and own each step of the process.

"One of my biggest philosophies is that students learn best by doing," she said. "I love students to have their hands on things. When you let students extend their own learning, there's more buy-in and investment."

Schermerhorn ensures her tech-minded students develop a strong sense of community with projects such as inventing new technologies for the future, creating an online school paper and growing an organic garden in support of the local food pantry. "My students are game-changers who will impact the world one day," she said. "As adults, we tend to create limits, but my students say, 'Why not? Why can't we develop that?'"


Secondary Category:

Cindy Jones | Woodrow Wilson Junior High School | Dayton

Cindy Jones always knew her destiny was to become a teacher. From helping her deaf sister learn to fit in to helping her son walk and talk again after a traumatic brain injury, teaching is in her blood. Jones has been able to turn these challenges into a positive experience by bringing history to life for her 8th grade American History students.

"When students step into my classroom for the first time, they feel like they're on a boat because of all my decorations," she explained. "Kids sometimes grow up thinking history is boring. I have to bring it to life for them through fun activities that immerse them in the past."

A few of Jones' activities includes theatrical plays, an outdoor tug-of-war and the creation of a rap song to learn the Bill of Rights.

"When my students discover things about the past in a fun and memorable way, they'll be able to make better decisions for their future," she said.

In addition, Jones created a Pay It Forward program that encourages them to perform random acts of kindness in order to teach them about giving back to society.

"Pay It Forward started out small, but has grown to where other teachers are noticing a change in students," Jones said. "If you're walking in the hallway and smile at someone, for that brief moment that person knows they're recognized and they are not invisible. The gift you get from that is beyond money."


Leadership Category
This award honors teachers with 10 to 20 years in the classroom. The two winning teachers each received a $10,000 check for themselves and a $10,000 grant for their school.

Elementary Category:

Erica Crowder | Windermere Primary School | Pflugerville

From the way Erica Crowder dresses every day to the sound of her voice and the creative instructional strategies she uses in her kindergarten class, many say she's like a Dr. Seuss book come to life. From the moment she takes her first breath in the morning until her class heads home, Crowder's animated personality keeps students engaged.

"I think you have to really love children to be a great teacher because there are tough days in the education world. If you love your kids and make learning creative and fun for them, they're going to love it too," said Crowder. "I think if you have passion, creativity and the ability to let all of it out in the classroom, you're going to build great relationships with students, parents and everyone else around you in school."

Crowder also acts as a mentor to student teachers and interns. In her continued commitment to crafting and sharing tools for the classroom, she created an award-winning blog called Sprinkles to Kindergarten. The blog offers free resources to teachers and parents, as well as educational games for children, many of which she's created herself.

"Sharing creative ideas is a wonderful gift I feel like I can give to other teachers all over the world," she said.

In her 11 years at Windermere Primary School, Crowder has also earned more than 30 Donors Choose grants and an Innovative Technology Grant, all of which have provided an eclectic blend of materials to her classroom.


Secondary Category:

Krystal Watson | Collegiate High School | Corpus Christi

Society doesn't need yes men. It needs critical thinkers who can challenge the status quo and find a better way to do things. Those are the students Krystal Watson is producing at Collegiate High School.

How does she do it?

"By not giving them the answers," Watson said. The students do a lot of writing and projectbased learning, which teaches them how to research, how to analyze the information they find and how to present it creatively.

The level of work is rigorous, but Watson finds that her students rise to the challenge. Amazingly, Collegiate is not for honors or gifted students — it's a dropout prevention program. Watson has some students who are pregnant, homeless, require special education or speak limited English.

"We never let up. The work is continuous, but it works because we are in a small learning community. We have become a safety net," Watson said.

A leader among her peers, Watson leads writing workshops and professional development sessions to help empower teachers to lift perceived limits on their students' abilities or their own. Though Watson celebrates the success of her students and peers, she finds it difficult to rest on her own laurels. She likens teaching to mowing the lawn. No matter how good it looks, you always see the one spot you missed.

"It's not the 99 percent that pass that are going to keep me awake at night, it's the one percent that doesn't," she said. "I have to try and figure out how to reach that one percent."


Lifetime Achievement Category
This award salutes teachers with more than 20 years of experience. The two winning teachers each receive $25,000 in cash for themselves and a $25,000 grant for their school.

Elementary Category:

Norm Sands | Tabasco Elementary | La Joya

For Norm Sands, teaching elementary music is like building a house. When you lay the foundation, you have to know where the beams are going, where the plumbing will be laid and how the electricity will be wired in order to have a sturdy house.

"People sometimes ask me, 'What are you doing in elementary school ?'" Sands said. "It's because these kids matter. They need to have the best foundation they can get before they leave this school."

Sands tries to expose his students to as many instruments as possible — voice, guitar, piano, harmonica, recorder — and to make sure they feel safe enough to express themselves. Not all will go on to become virtuosos, but they will have a deeper appreciation for music.

"Academics are paramount in school, but I also think it is important to be a human being," Sands said. "If they do not have a deeper knowledge of any of the arts, I feel like they are missing half of their identity."

After 30 years of teaching, Sands never lets the lessons get stale. He keeps up with new ideas through a national email list of music educators, creates and publishes music for other teachers to use, and explores new technologies that will help him in the classroom.

"I don't measure success with money, awards or degrees," Sands said. "It is all about, 'Did I make a difference today?' I think about that every morning on my way to work."


Secondary Category:

Michael Clark | Bellaire High School | Bellaire

As a 12th grade Advanced Placement (AP) economics teacher, Michael Clark eliminates the intimidation factor of the course by using fun, real-world examples in each of his memorable lessons. From student-produced plays to parodies of the hit HGTV show House Hunters, Clark helps students build confidence in the material through engaging lessons.

"It's my job to believe in them and show them their potential to do anything they want to do in life," he said. "At the start, they think there's no way they can do well. It's so exciting to see that by the end of it, they're making the highest score possible on the AP exam."

Clark's incredible commitment to student success is reflected both in and out of the classroom. Last year, his students won the National Economics Challenge, a competition held in New York City where students are tested in macro, micro and international economics. Clark has helped a total of eight teams from Bellaire High School reach the finals of the national competition.

"I wouldn't do competitions like that if I couldn't integrate it into the classroom and allow everyone to be a part of it," said Clark. "We have our own competitions every day in the classroom, and it's great to see these kids work so hard. The fact that they make sacrifices of their free time so they can study and learn even more is really the biggest reward I could ever have."


School Principal Category
The winner in this category received $10,000 in cash and a $25,000 grant for their school.

Elementary School Principal:

Aaron Pena | Woodway Elementary | Waco

Aaron Pena loves animals. He has two snakes in his office, as well as reptiles, dart frogs, a rabbit and a sugar glider in the school science lab.

"We need to bring more things from outside of our walls into the school," Pena said. "Kids get excited when we bring our own passions into the building to share with them. Schools should be anything but sterile. The walls should teach. There should be color everywhere."

When Pena first arrived at Woodway four years ago, there was little focus on science, and teachers were not accustomed to using data to hold themselves accountable. Pena hired a certified science teacher, built a new science lab and slowly changed the culture.

"I challenge teachers to ask themselves why they do certain practices. Is it because we have done them for 20 years, or because they actually work?"

Today, Woodway has fielded a state champion robotics team and was voted the top elementary school in Waco by readers of the Waco Tribune-Herald. Teachers are taking on more leadership roles and even killing "sacred cows" to make way for practices supported by research.

Pena believes the real secret to success is getting kids fired up about learning. From bringing a hot air balloon to campus to taking a break to play outside during a rare snow day, Pena is always looking for ways to "ignite a passion" in his students.

"I'm like a big kid myself," he said. "I get excited about the things kids get excited about."


Secondary School Principal:

Larry Berger | Pearland High School | Pearland

Pearland High School is like a small, diverse city and Principal Larry Berger is the mayor. From the minute the bell rings in the morning to the time school ends, he's walking the halls, visiting classrooms and ensuring teachers and students are embodying the schoolwide philosophy of "Pride, Honor and Success."

"From the custodians and teachers to students, parents and ultimately me, everyone is responsible for the success of this school," Berger said.

In his six years as principal, Berger has tripled the amount of Advanced Placement tests given, increased graduation rates to 98 percent and increased average SAT scores by 62 points. Under his leadership, Pearland High School has been recognized as one of the top high schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report and the The Wall Street Journal.

"Academic data is certainly important, but it's not the only determining factor of success," Berger said. "For me, social success is even greater than academic success. When my kids walk through that door in the morning and walk out after four years, I want them to be better citizens."

Berger also encourages teachers to promote learning through discovery in the classroom rather than the traditional "sage on a stage" method that often puts kids to sleep.

"I want our students to be hands-on, asking questions, making mistakes and learning from that so they actually discover the process of learning," Berger said. "It's not necessarily about the facts, but more how they apply what they've learned outside of the classroom.


Small School District Category
The winning small school district received a $50,000 grant.

Small School District:

Burnet CISD | Keith McBurnett, Superintendent | Burnet

Burnet Consolidated ISD closes the achievement gap between urban and rural populations with groundbreaking opportunities usually reserved for students in larger, urban districts.

Burnet ISD is the only rural district to implement the Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID) College Readiness System. The nationally recognized program teaches skills and behaviors needed for academic success.

AVID is especially helpful for students who are underrepresented in higher education. Students who have never been part of an honors class are placed into at least one AVID honors class. Organizational lessons on managing increased workload and bi-weekly tutorials enable all students to pass the end-of-course exam.

The district also works with the community to respond to workforce needs. Data gathered from area business leaders led the district to adopt Project Lead the Way as a projectbased, pre-engineering curriculum for grades 7-12. The hands-on lessons show students how math and science skills are integrated into the workforce. In addition, Agile Mind's Intensified Algebra helps students by integrating curriculum with interventions from social psychology to motivate students to believe in their own academic abilities.

In addition to frequent constructive feedback sessions between administration and instructional staff, teachers on each campus can participate in the Leadership Academy. Each participant leads an initiative highlighted in the campus improvement plan. Through conversations, readings, and presentations, the participants learn how to influence change on their campus.


Large School District Category
The winning large school district received a $100,000 grant.

Large School District:

Humble ISD | Dr. Guy Sconzo, Superintendent | Humble

More than a decade ago, Humble ISD trustees sought a visionary superintendent who could guide the district through rapid growth. Since Dr. Guy Sconzo took the helm in 2001, enrollment has increased by more than 10,000 students. The trustees and Dr. Sconzo work as a team to meet community needs and provide an exceptional education to all students.

When Humble ISD lost $32 million in the Texas budget shortfall, the board responded proactively. Strategic decisions kept the district viable with no need to make additional cuts going forward. To influence lawmakers, trustees formed a public legislative committee. In 2012, Dr. Sconzo was the first superintendent to testify in the school finance lawsuit. The board's commitment to budget planning enabled salary increases over the last three years, moving Humble ISD salaries from among the lowest in the area to competitive.

Board members participate in many programs that allow the community to experience the schools' creative and energetic environments. They listen to the community's needs at events like Breakfast with the Board and monthly BizCom meetings. With the community's support, the district has recently passed three bond referendums and a tax rate election.

Trustees support outstanding opportunities for students. Two high school campuses host a renowned aero science engineering class in which students design, build, and launch rockets. An inclusive preschool program allows the district to offer early childhood education at no cost to qualifying children with disabilities.


Early Childhood Award
The winning early childhood facility received a $25,000 grant.

Early Childhood:

Aldine ISD | Dr. Rosalinda Rodriguez, Area Superintendent | Houston

At Aldine ISD's eight pre-K centers in suburban Houston, 92 percent of students are lowincome. To help at-risk students achieve success, the center provides free transportation, breakfast and lunch for all of its students. Center staff members also connect families with social workers and behavior specialists. Special education students are integrated into regular classrooms, with the dedicated support of trained teachers and aides.

Because family members are a child's most important teachers, each center offers workshops that help parents make connections between home and school. They mentor parents on how to help children with routines, good manners, sharing, and communicating feelings. Combined with parent-child activities, the workshops allow teachers and parents to develop mutual respect and cooperation.

More than half of pre-K students are still learning English. Students with limited exposure to English language experience speech delays and vocabulary deficiencies. All teachers are trained to meet the needs of these students, and literacy specialists develop workshops to help parents develop language skills alongside their children.

Children apply academic and social skills during guided play. Classroom management techniques are based on intrinsic motivation for students to act responsibly and excel. Teachers encourage a positive relationship with learning by emphasizing daily habits of reading and working with peers. In 2014, more than 70 percent of pre-K students were ready for kindergarten.


School Board Award
The winning school board received a $25,000 grant for the district they represent.

School Board:

Arlington ISD | Bowie Hogg, Board President | Arlington

For many years, budget constraints prevented the Arlington ISD from addressing facility and capital needs. Trustees knew that positioning the AISD as a premier district that offered leading-edge learning experiences depended upon a long-term plan for building and renovating facilities. After gathering extensive feedback from business leaders, community members, parents, and a board-appointed steering committee, the district called for a bond election in 2014.

The proposed bond of $663 million was the largest in Tarrant County history. To ensure success, board members visited campuses, attended community meetings and knocked on doors to share information about items included in the package. They held multiple question-and-answer sessions to help the community understand how new facilities and upgrades to technology infrastructure would enable the district to use its resources more efficiently. They also explained the need to invest in higher quality security, transportation, and fine arts materials. When it went to the polls, the bond passed with nearly 70 percent voter approval. It is expected to transform the district and its students.

The school board fosters a culture of respect and transparency. During the intensive planning process for the Achieve Today, Excel Tomorrow strategic plan, they provided regular updates to the community. They have recently created a parent and community engagement department to promote community involvement. In 2014, the board's ability to marshal widespread support for premier learning opportunities earned recognition as the Outstanding School Board of Texas.