10 Stellar Teachers: Meet the 2016 Escalante-Gradillas Prize Best in Education Finalists

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Government estimates place the number of teachers working in the U.S. at roughly 3.5 million. Here at TheBestSchools.org, we present to you 10 of the very best, the top 0.000285%.

For consideration for our $20,000 Escalante–Gradillas Prize for Best in Education, we are pleased to announce our 2016 top 10 finalists. These finalists are primary and secondary school classroom teachers who demonstrate a wide range of gifts, experiences, and accomplishments. Every one of these educational leaders is a community asset, has a proven ability to do more with less, and leads students to new heights of scholastic achievement.

The finalists are listed here in alphabetic order.

The 2016 Escalante–Gradillas Prize for Best in Education Finalists

Socorro AmentThomas Jefferson Elementary School

Socorro Ament, Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, 2016 Escalante-Gradillas Prize Finalist

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Teacher Socorro Ament is a finalist in the $20,000 #BestInEducation prize!
As a teacher, mentor, and leader on campus, Socorro Ament has inspired Anaheim youth for 24 years. A culturally proficient educator, who values diversity as an asset in the classroom, she makes learning relevant and transferable into different settings through the real world experiences she creates. Whether at academic competitions, community outreaches, or instructional classroom moments, Ament nurtures a vision from inception to completion. Her high expectations, dedication, and creativity help students thrive and believe in themselves. In a largely Hispanic school, and as an immigrant herself, she maintains a heart for English language learners, and has a remarkable track record of transitioning English-deficient speakers into proficient. She also assists students and their families with legal documents and agency support. Ament has been a Teacher of the Year winner in her district, a 10-year Academic Pentathlon coach (in addition to being a county-wide leader and award winner), helped found and run a student-led news team and a student community service team, and has also worked as a Master Teacher with universities to further develop fellow teachers, especially in STEM disciplines.

Tammy DeVries Sequoia Middle School

Tammy DeVries, Sequoia Middle School, 2016 Escalante-Gradillas Prize Finalist

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Teacher Tammy DeVries is a finalist in the $20,000 #BestInEducation prize!
Tammy DeVries, who teaches in the same school where she and her parents attended, turns her students into those who both love and excel in science. She does this by learning what makes students unique and listening to their stories, which builds a classroom family. She tells them, "Tomorrow, I'll give you your first tool—it's about yea long. It helps us draw lines and measure stuff. Yep, a ruler. If you take care of it, we'll move onto plasticware, glassware, fire, chemicals, and dissections!" Tammy's teaching philosophy is simple: If you don't model exactly what you want, you can't be mad when they break your rules—or rulers. It all starts with a connection—and a ruler. Overcoming a high student poverty rate, DeVries and her fellow teachers have worked hard to raise the Academic Performance Index at her school by 38%. With 14 years as a teacher mentor, she has also worked to develop a district partnership with Kaiser Permanente and the Hippocrates Circle program to assist students in pursuing medical careers.

Christine Girtain Toms River High School South

Christine Girtain, Toms River High School South, 2016 Escalante-Gradillas Prize Finalist

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Teacher Christine Girtain is a finalist in the $20,000 #BestInEducation prize!

"Learn it, love it, make it your friend." Christine Girtain's thirst for knowledge inspires students in Toms River to learn and to investigate the world around them. Such knowledge can feed them for a lifetime. Her passion for the Earth and her country cultivates a love of nature and a respect for the sacrifices others have made to give us the opportunities we have today. Her research students are truly "standing on the shoulders of giants." Girtain's students call her "a role model for all young women who hope to break barriers and remain true to their ideal self." Girtain has been a tireless grant writer and has received Teacher of the Year honors in her school, local VFW group, legislative district,  and from the National Association of Geoscience Teachers. In addition, she has advised or coached over a dozen extracurriculars and sports teams at her school, including a new DNA Sequencing Club.

Ashley Greenway Elm Street Elementary

Ashley Greenway, Elm Street Elementary, 2016 Escalante-Gradillas Prize Finalist

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Teacher Ashley Greenway is a finalist in the $20,000 #BestInEducation prize!
Ashley Greenway is an innovative educator and STEM advocate at the elementary school level. Ashley remains vigilant in her persistence to provide something special for her students, and as a result, she is the recipient of over 45 grants. Her dedication to addressing the needs of her students and to integrated STEM learning has led to over 14 national and state recognitions, including the 2016 Allen Distinguished Educator Award, DENny Award, Georgia STEM Laureate and Teacher of the Year. Academic performance of her students exceed one year's growth. Her most noteworthy initiative is Sugar Kids Beauty, an education corporation designed and run by students, which was recognized by the Georgia state legislature. She coaches a First Lego League robotics team, makes home visits in her impoverished district to work with parents to improve learning outcomes in students, and chairs the fundraising team of her school's PTO.

Leticia Ingram Basalt High School

Leticia Ingram, Basalt High School, 2016 Escalante-Gradillas Prize Finalist

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Teacher Leticia Ingram is a finalist in the $20,000 #BestInEducation prize!
Leticia Guzman Ingram has transformed the English Language Development (ELD) program at her school to better meet the academic, social, and cultural needs of her students. She is the Colorado Teacher of the Year for 2016 and recipient of the Virginia French Allen Award for Excellence in Teaching. She was awarded ELD Teacher of the Year and is a commissioner on the Aspen Institute's National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. Her work with ELD students at her school doubled graduation rates in just two years. Her passion is building bridges between cultures and working in her local community to bring their voices into the classroom. To this end, she has organized student trips to Gambia  and helped bring students from that African nation to her school on exchange programs. plus has worked as a facilitator for Teachers Across Borders.

Michael Kosko Al Raby School for Community and Environment

Michael Kosko, Al Raby School for Community and Environment, 2016 Escalante-Gradillas Prize Finalist

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Teacher Michael Kosko is a finalist in the $20,000 #BestInEducation prize!
Michael Kosko is the Career and Technical Education Coordinator and Science Chair at his school. As a teacher, Kosko thinks outside the box. So far this year, his students have trained mice to run mazes, used an Xbox Kinnect to scan their heads and print out 3D busts, and started growing herbs for the school kitchen in the hydroponic grow lab. Michael is constantly experimenting with technology and blended learning, and he excels at securing high-dollar grants for ambitious projects. Overcoming the inherent poverty, student developmental deficiencies, and struggles of working in a large, urban district, Kosko has built an impressive science program at his school. Beyond science, he offers students career and financial instruction. His students give back also, working with Junior Achievement to help teach elementary schoolers. Selected by Toshiba for an academic partnership program in science in Japan, Kosko presents on STEM topics in conferences statewide, and he writes on teaching and reaching out to disadvantaged children.

Jayda Pugliese Andrew Jackson Elementary School

Jayda Pugliese, Andrew Jackson Elementary School, 2016 Escalante-Gradillas Prize Finalist

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Teacher Jayda Pugliese is a finalist in the $20,000 #BestInEducation prize!
Jayda Pugliese is well-known for her kindness, tech-savviness, and innovative teaching styles. She is also hearing-impaired, using her disability as a platform to teach students in an impoverished part of Philadelphia both the importance of tolerance and that all individuals, regardless of background, can achieve success through hard work and determination. Doing more with less to fund her project-based learning initiatives, she has raised money via DonorsChoose for a 3D printer, scanner, and printing supplies, plus microscopes and electrical circuits. Her students have a demonstrated track record of going on to excel in school and go to college. She works cross-discipline to encourage students to find ways to market their science accomplishments. In addition to her role as a classroom teacher, she is also a full-time doctoral student in Educational Leadership, volunteers in academic summer camp programs, and mentors other educators.

Jose Octavio Rivas, Jr. Lennox Mathematics, Science & Technology Academy

Jose Rivas, Lennox Math, Science, and Technology Academy, 2016 Escalante-Gradillas Prize Finalist

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Teacher Jose Octavio Rivas, Jr. is a finalist in the $20,000 #BestInEducation prize!
Jose Rivas's simple teaching style is  summed up in two ideas: Every student, every day. Every lesson will be incredible and will engage and inspire all students. He considers time with his students as precious and important. He shares, "All my students know that I am 100% there for them, and their success is my top priority. They know when they walk into my classroom that they are going to learn, they will have fun, and no one will be left behind." Inspired by a vision to better his hometown, he transitioned from corporate engineering to helping to develop the school where he now teaches. To this end, Rivas has secured more than $150,000 in grant monies to build an innovative science curriculum and never stops connecting his school to the local community. Students that grew up with few aspirations are now leaders in engineering at colleges and cutting-edge companies. Northrop, Toshiba, the National Science Teachers Association, the Carlston Family Foundation, and others have awarded his efforts as an outstanding teacher, as has the Japanese government, which presented Rivas with a Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund scholarship to study educational practices in that country.

Mitchell Smith Kentridge High School

Mitchell Smith, Kentridge High School, 2016 Escalante-Gradillas Prize Finalist

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Teacher Mitchell Smith is a finalist in the $20,000 #BestInEducation prize!
Zest! For people, life, and learning defines Mitchell Smith. He is devoted to nurturing others to reach their fullest potential. His students will tell you that "we strive for excellence in our character, discipline, and scholarship." Smith and his wife, Kim, live near his school and eagerly interact with both former and present students and their families within the community. A Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant award winner, Smith was a tech pioneer at his school and gives back to others by contributing numerous lessons in video format online for others to use. He has teamed with coworkers to achieve a top 5% academic secondary schools ranking. Double the number of biology students pass year-end tests as when he first arrived. His students not only pass AP tests at a higher than average rate, but many have gone on to excel in college and careers, remembering Smith with glowing testimonials as to his academic rigor and mentoring. He challenges not only students but also government, as Smith has worked in the state of Washington to reform science curricula.

Anthony Yom Abraham Lincoln High School

Anthony Yom, Abraham Lincoln High School, 2016 Escalante-Gradillas Prize Finalist

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Teacher Anthony Yom is a finalist in the $20,000 #BestInEducation prize!
Anthony Yom has been a social justice educator for 12 years, all at Abraham Lincoln High School, where he teaches various mathematics classes. Yom has developed a firm belief that any student, regardless of academic, cultural, and social struggles, can learn and succeed when passion and collaboration are met with the right support system. To Yom, teaching is like planting a seed. For a seed to blossom into a beautiful flower, it needs constant care and attention. Similarly, students need sincere care, attention, and love in order for them to be successful. Yom's accomplishments include an Escalante-like 4.96 average student score on the grueling AP Calculus test, which 100% of his student passed, including one student who achieved an unheard-of perfect score. Due to these successes, he received a White House Science Fair invitation and recognition and was the 2016 Los Angeles Unified School District Teacher of the Year and the Harvard Club of Southern California Educator of the Year. An immigrant to the U.S. who grew up in the inner city, Yom identifies with his students and achieves these remarkable results in a school with a 91% poverty rate.

A hearty congratulations to each of these outstanding teachers. On Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016, TheBestSchools.org will select from them the one who best exemplifies the spirit of Jaime Escalante and Henry Gradillas, and that one will be awarded the $10,000 individual prize and $10,000 for his or her school. So, please check back then to see which of these finalists will win!

Media Contact:

Dan Edelen
Director of Marketing Services

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TheBestSchools.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured programs and school search results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other information published on this site.
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