Awarding the 2017 Escalante–Gradillas Prize for Best in Education—an update

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Jose Espinoza, checks, image
Trustees Cynthia Najera and Hector Gonzalez join Dr. Espinoza in receiving the combined grand prize of $20,000.

Great teachers and school leaders change the lives of young people. You may even have your own story of an educator who changed your life for the better.

The Escalante-Gradillas Prize for Best in Education is The Best School’s way to celebrate the legacy in education of Jaime Escalante and Henry Gradillas. Their collaboration in an East Los Angeles high school helped classes of students from which little had been asked find their inner mathematics genius. The film Stand and Deliver recounts their success with doing more with less, asking more of their students(and getting it), and working around excuses to find solutions. In the process these legendary educators helped their students achieve mastery of their studies, find direction for their educational futures, and gain a better chance at a fulfilling life.

My blessing is being the one who awards trophies and cash prizes to the men and women who exemplify that same spirit of educational excellence found in teacher Escalante and principal Gradillas.

During a whirlwind week of December 4–8, I visited Tampa, Philadelphia, and El Paso to present this year’s winners with their winnings and to witness firsthand the difference they are making in the lives of the next generation.

3rd PlacePrincipal Woodland Johnson

Mort Elementary School, Tampa, Florida — Dec. 4, 2017

Mort Elementary, image
Mort Elementary in Tampa, Florida.

The first person to greet me in the early morning at Mort Elementary shared that just that week, she had enrolled a student on Monday and by Wednesday that same student had withdrawn.

“Our transience is an issue that affects us daily,” shared Principal Woodland Johnson. "When teachers have five or six kids who are here today and gone tomorrow, it’s a reality we have to overcome.”

In an area of Tampa known colloquially as Suitcase City, Johnson and his team have performed miracles just attending to basic human needs. They work with churches, hospitals, universities, and the businesses in the surrounding community to ensure that children and their families have a baseline from which education can happen.

Woodland Johnson, assembly, image
Principal Woodland Johnson inspires his students and their teachers.

Johnson, explains: “Last week, we were dealing with a homeless family living in their car. To help them be as stable as possible is what we’re all about. And then we can get to teaching. Trying to level that academic playing field is where we need to be.”

Which is why Mort is known as a “community school,” a designation signaling that though an elementary school, it educates everyone. Something is happening nearly every day of the week that pertains to education, from language classes for non-English-speaking parents, to daycare and résumé-writing services to allow moms and dads to look for work.

Despite operating from a place of meeting basic needs, Johnson keeps everyone’s eyes on the prize.

“The first question I ask parents when they come in is, ‘What college is your child going to attend?’ They don’t have a plan for that, but now they recognize it as a goal. Then we share how we’re going to help you reach it. There are opportunities for kids to gain, and we want them to start thinking about that now.”

Woodland Johnson, awardee, image
Principal Woodland Johnson of Mort Elementary, Tampa, Florida, is all smiles.

Before an assembly of the 850 students and the staff of Mort, Johnson received his trophy and check for $3,000, but not before many of the students received their own awards for excellence that month.

And this is how Johnson wants to use the funds to benefit his students: brag tags.

“When kids know where they need to be, this gives them a goal to work toward,” Johnson shared. The tags attach to the lanyards students wear, and they announce to all how a student has grown in mastery of math, science, writing, reading, and more. The initiative is new this year, but it has been a resounding success as an incentive. "Students can accomplish steps along the way, and that’s what the brag tags show.”

At Mort, growth isn’t just for the students. The principal never stops looking to accomplish more.

“I don’t give up,” says Johnson. "I’m forever thinking about what we can do next to help kids get to where they need to be.”

2nd Place Principal Sharif El-Mekki

Mastery Charter–Shoemaker Campus, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — Dec. 6, 2017

Mastery Charter–Shoemaker, school, image
Mastery Charter–Shoemaker in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“I enjoy being a principal in the neighborhood and school I grew up in. All that has deep meaning,” says principal Sharif El-Mekki. But the former Shoemaker High School, whose halls he once roamed as a student, have blossomed under the ten-year leadership of this visionary educator, who has helped transform it into something much greater.

It was my pleasure to witness in a few hours on an overcast Philadelphia day just how a dedicated principal and his team of educators can bring hope into a community looking for the light. Students prepared for job interviews that morning. Ninth graders got a jump on how to master the ACT test. Banners and flags from notable colleges graced the halls and reminded everyone of the goal—and of the past and present success of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus. Once one of the bottom-dwellers in academic performance, it’s now among the top thirty percent academically in the city—and that despite receiving thirty percent fewer funds than its counterparts.

In speaking of that success, El-Mekki talks of the double-edged sword for an urban charter school that grapples with a ninety percent poverty rate: continuing to raise money to both sustain and grow.

“I can understand when people look at a school as a house on fire, and that needs attention. But just because the fire is out doesn’t mean the house is flourishing and doesn’t need support to continue to rebuild.”

Sharif El-Mekki, school, image
Student leader Tatiana and Principal Sharif El-Mekki share what’s happening at Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

And sometimes, rebuilding involves consideration for what might otherwise go unnoticed. To get his most promising STEM students to their internships at local science and engineering companies, transportation is a roadblock.

“When we talk about the opportunity gap that exists in certain neighborhoods, communities, and the schools that serve them, that’s one of them,” he said. “Someone may be interested in supporting your students, but you have to be able to get them there, whether it’s by a bus that’s hundreds of dollars or even by public transportation. Over the course of a year, that’s an extensive cost. But we don’t want to limit opportunities.”

There is a solution.

Sharif El-Mekki, presentation, image
Principal Sharif El-Mekki and Student Government and Leadership students are pumped up for the prize.

El-Mekki finished as our top principal for this year’s Best in Education Prize, reflecting the kind of determination to help students succeed that Henry Gradillas himself showed at an urban Los Angeles high school. For his work, The Best Schools presented El-Mekki with a trophy and a $5,000 check.

“This award allows students who are pushing beyond the school day to be immersed in STEM-related opportunities,” El-Mekki shared.

Shoemaker’s Student Government and other class leaders cheered on their principal. Everyone wanted to be a part of the celebration.

As I was leaving this excellent school and its dedicated principal, El-Mekki added, “Shine the light on what urban education can look like. Share the stories of a school like ours.”

We’ll be happy to.

Winner Superintendent José Espinoza

Socorro Independent School District, El Paso, Texas — Dec. 8, 2017

Jose Espinoza, SISD mural, image
“Tomorrow’s Leaders Learning Today,” part of the student-created mural in the Socorro Independent School District Service Center, where Dr. José Espinoza received the 2017 Best in Education Prize.

The Escalante–Gradillas Prize for Best in Education is so named because of the impact both Jaime Escalante and Henry Gradillas had on education and on the synergy of a school administrator and a teacher working together. We’ve had nominees who are principals. We’ve had nominees who are teachers. But we’ve never had a nominee who had the big picture view over both. Never had one who was making a difference from the very top down, from the district to the schools.

That is, until Dr. José Espinoza of the Socorro Independent School District (SISD) in El Paso.

And part of what caught our eye is that long before our prize, he was championing the educational philosophy of both Jaime Escalante and Henry Gradillas, not only in his writings, but also to all the people who benefit from his leadership.

Espinoza, in short, embodies the prize. And it’s why he’s our 2017 winner.

And WIN is what he’s about, as the celebration of his win brought together those involved in the “school within a school" he fought for in El Paso, the WIN Academy for the most at-risk students in the SISD. And like so much of what happens in this district just a stone’s throw from the Mexico border, with so many students and families battling to make a life here, the effort to overcome is shared.

“This award event was awesome. It meant a lot to our community and our school district,” said Espinoza. “We had parents, the kids, principals, teachers, board members, business leaders, the University of Texas–El Paso, El Paso Community College, Region 19 Service Center, the media—it was nice to see so many here. That way, everyone can hear and see what we teach as a model: We achieve success as a team. This is a team effort. A team award. It puts Socorro ISD on the map.”

José Espinoza, banquet, image
WIN Academy students, principals, and SISD trustees gather to cheer José Espinoza.

Not that people aren’t noticing already, for instance Texas state legislators asking how it’s possible that this district is getting so much accomplished and doing it with less money, with nods to making this district and its leader the model for districts and superintendents across the state.

It’s the kind of leadership people want to endorse, and most of all, the many gathered December 8.

In line with the team mentality, plans for the money will benefit others.

“Everything is going to go back to the students,” Espinoza shared. “One student in the WIN Academy is going to receive $5,000.” Espinoza then told the heartbreaking story of the student for which this is intended—and it’s a much deserved help. Others can enter a merit and essay contest to win a scholarship. “Seniors from each of our high schools would apply to receive $1,000.”

Over the course of the ninety minute presentation event, Team SISD shared a video “love letter" to Dr. Espinoza featuring many who were instrumental in helping him become the kind of visionary leader for which the Escalante–Gradillas Prize for Best in Education is intended. Many in attendance wiped away tears, all the proof one needs that this is a man, a district, and a team that has come a long way together and is continuing to change the lives of students who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the system.

Jose Espinoza, speaking, image
Superintendent José Espinoza of the Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, shares before the many gathered to celebrate his winning the 2017 Escalante–Gradillas Prize for Best in Education.

“When I was in high school and then started college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, what profession I wanted to get into. But I did know this: I want to be in a profession where I help people,” Espinoza shared. “And what a better profession than to help children? No matter what the future holds, I still want to be involved in education.”

Additional Media:

El Paso Herald-Post: Presentation Honors SISD Superintendent for National Best in Education Award

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