We are excited to introduce the top five finalists for this year’s $20,000 Escalante–Gradillas Prize for Best in Education. These elite educators are administrators and district employees who demonstrate a wide range of gifts, experiences, and accomplishments. Every one of these leaders is a community asset, has a proven ability to do more with less, and they have a record of leading students to new heights of scholastic achievement. In this way, they mirror the uncompromising educational standards of legendary teacher Jaime Escalante and the principal who championed his vision, Henry Gradillas.
Check back Thursday, October 5, when we formally announce our top three finishers!
The finalists are listed here in alphabetical order.
The Finalists for the
2017 Escalante–Gradillas Prize
for Best in Education
Sharif El-MekkiMastery Charter–Shoemaker Campus
- Years in Education: 24
- Current Role: Principal
- School District: Mastery Charter Schools
- Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Education: BA, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP); MEd, Cheyney University
Under ten years of leadership by El-Mekki as principal, Mastery Shoemaker, a neighborhood charter school serving almost eight-hundred students in grades 7–12, moved from the bottom ten percent to top thirty percent in school performance rating and has achieved a one-hundred percent acceptance rate to college for its students. El-Mekki has been active in securing resources, having earned a multi-million dollar grant designed to cultivate parent and community engagement. He remains a powerful voice for education equity in Philadelphia.
After attending an elementary Freedom School, middle school in Iran, and Overbrook High School, El-Mekki attended Indiana University of PA (IUP) on a full academic scholarship. After a stint as a social worker and counselor at the Youth Study Center, he was eager to make a proactive, community-based impact, which led him to work in community schools.
As the son of activists, El-Mekki had a strong desire to dive into a cause that would address issues relating to social justice, equity, and educational opportunities. In 1992, El-Mekki became a teacher through an alternative certification program for black men, through a collaborative effort between the School District of Philadelphia, Concerned Black Men, and Cheyney University. After ten years at John P. Turner Middle School, his placement school, El-Mekki began his five year principalship at Anna H. Shaw Middle School, where he helped lead a turnaround school team, significantly raising student achievement levels and creating a nurturing student-centered learning environment.
In addition to his work at Mastery, El-Mekki also served as one of Secretary Arne Duncan’s inaugural group of Principal Ambassadors, providing the principalship perspective to the US Secretary of Education. He currently serves on the Mayor’s Commission on African American Males and is a member of Education Leaders of Color, and several other education and community-based organizations. The team at Shoemaker has been recognized for their community partnerships and student achievement by President Obama, Oprah Winfrey, New Leaders, PennCan, and countless community organizations.
El-Mekki and several other black male educators recently launched a new organization called The Fellowship—Black Male Educators for Social Justice, which focuses on supporting current and aspiring black male educators in the Philadelphia region. They are currently planning to host the National Black Male Educators Convening (Oct. 13–15, 2017) in Philadelphia.
El-Mekki is married, with six children, and he blogs about education at Philly’s 7th Ward.
José EspinozaSocorro Independent School District
- Years in Education: 21
- Current Role: Superintendent of Schools
- School District: Socorro Independent School District
- Location: El Paso, Texas
- Education: BS, MEd, University of Texas – Pan American; Principal Certification, Prairie View A&M University; EdD, Sam Houston State University
Espinoza, whose educational philosophy incorporates the principles of Jaime Escalante, believes educators must treat and educate all students as if they are their own children. Winner of a W.K. Kellogg grant and several educator awards in and out of Texas, Espinoza has achieved remarkable results, leading his district to become the only one in its demographic to beat the Texas state average on tests, for which the Texas State Legislature has repeatedly held him up as an example. Espinoza is also one the first superintendents in the nation (and first in Texas) to earn AASA National Superintendent Certification.
Espinoza has served as Superintendent of the Socorro Independent School District (SISD) since September 2012. He models a “100%…No Excuses” vision of excellence to ensure every student succeeds, evident by his ambitious initiatives including Operation College Bound, Walk for Success, and the non-traditional WIN Academy.
“Achieving Success as a Team” describes Espinoza’s leadership approach, which has inspired stakeholders to work together as Team SISD and soar to new heights. Specifically, in May 2012, SISD was behind the state in nine out of seventeen state exams for students in grades 3–8. Under Espinoza’s leadership, SISD outscored Texas passing rates on seventeen exams for the first time ever in May 2014 and four consecutive years thereafter.
Espinoza was named the 2016 Region 19 Superintendent of the Year and led SISD in earning recognition twice as an HEB Excellence in Education District Finalist. His experience as an educator ranges from teacher to counselor, assistant principal, principal, school improvement officer, and superintendent.
Notably, during his first year as an urban middle school principal in Houston ISD, Espinoza led his campus to its first-ever Texas Education Agency (TEA) Recognized Rating under the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, and ultimately, a TEA Exemplary Rating. Although his campus served predominantly minority, poor students, Burbank MS outperformed affluent campuses in the district and state.
Espinoza was named the 2009 North Region Houston ISD Secondary Principal of the Year and the 2010 League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Educator of the Year.
Woodland JohnsonMort Elementary
- Years in Education: 25
- Current Role: Principal
- School District: Hillsborough School District
- Location: Tampa, Florida
- Education: BS, University of South Florida; MEd, NOVA Southeastern University; EdD, University of South Florida
Woodland Johnson secured more than $1 million in grants, parlaying them into strategic school, family, and community initiatives to ensure the future success of students and families. With his school’s location in a high-poverty, high-crime, high-mobility community, Johnson has nonetheless made great gains in teacher retention and in developing student academic leadership. Given the community’s poverty, meeting basic living needs to make academic achievement possible for all his students has been a tireless focus for him. He has worked to bolster school support beyond traditional elementary school partnerships by teaming with the University of South Florida to develop a teacher leadership academy to work toward improved outcomes.
Johnson’s career started with teaching at Robles Elementary until 1995. From there, he worked in a number of Title 1 schools, first as a lead teacher, and then as assistant principal. In 2007, he became principal at Palm River Elementary, where he was instrumental in involving Palm River Elementary in a number of beneficial programs, including the PASS Grant Partnership and the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program. In 2013, he became the principal at Mort Elementary, where he received an additional PASS Grant Partnership with the Council for Educational Change.
Johnson has presented at several state and national conferences and serves on district committees. He has received recognition as the Principal of the Year 2009–10 by the Hillsborough County Council of PTA/PTSA, was the 2010 recipient of the S.H.A.P.E.S. Award for Administrator by the Hillsborough County Elementary Mathematics Council, 2011 President for the Hillsborough County Elementary Principals Council, and in 2015 a finalist for the Escalante-Gradillas Prize for Best in Education. In 2016, he received the 2016 American Graduate Champion Honor from WUSF Public Media and the 2016 University of South Florida Outstanding Partnership Award from the College of Education. In 2017, he was awarded the Claudia A. Balach Teacher Researcher Award for the American Educational Research Association for The Mort Teacher Leadership Academy.
Cassie PoncelowPoudre High School
- Years in Education: 10
- Current Role: School Counselor
- School District: Poudre School District
- Location: Fort Collins, Colorado
- Education: BS, MEd, Colorado State University
Cassie Poncelow never stops looking for ways to improve school culture and climate, while increasing student engagement. She traces this back to incredible mentors as an adolescent. Her high school counselor, who also inspired her to be counselor herself, taught her that it was okay to not always be okay and that relationships mattered more than anything else.
Poncelow has worked in education as a volunteer, coach, paraprofessional, librarian, and school counselor for eleven years. Over the past seven years as a school counselor, she has continued to put relationships first, including spearheading the development of a dropout recovery program called Opportunities Unlimited, equipping all stakeholders in student support through a now state-wide recognized “Mental Health Matters” training model, and continuing development of a student mentoring program that includes more than fifty upperclassmen who mentor all first-year students through full-year curriculum that includes suicide awareness, stress management, diversity, and sexual assault. Poncelow also worked with peers to develop an alternate scheduling program on her school’s campus, while enrolling students in courses at a local community college.
Passionate about helping students find out who they are and where they are headed, Poncelow has been recognized at the state level with an award for her work in creating Individual Career and Academic Plans through creative programming, including a comprehensive Career Cab program where student make regular trips to community businesses. She was invited in 2016 to speak at a National Congressional Briefing in Washington, DC, regarding this work and was named 2016 Colorado School Counselor Association Counselor of the Year. She gives a whole lot of high fives and has taught her trusty therapy dog, Kai, to do the same.
Alesia SmithPine Bluff School District
- Years in Education: 26
- Current Role: District Systemic Improvement and Teaching and Learning Officer
- School District: Pine Bluff School District
- Location: Pine Bluff, Arkansas
- Education: BS, Central State University; MEd, Xavier University
Alesia Smith is an acknowledged turnaround expert who has helped multiple schools in two different states move off state-level distressed schools lists. With more than a quarter century of experience in education, she is committed to positive behavior and innovative instructional strategies that allow all students to succeed.
Smith hails from Cincinnati, where a “village” of people influenced her to treat others with respect and love. During college, her love for people grew to include a love for children. To that end, she served as the principal of Rothenberg Preparatory Academy in Cincinnati. In just two years of her leadership, she transformed Rothenberg—from one of the worst schools in the nation and among the lowest five percent in Ohio–into a thriving educational community where children achieved. She became a principal coach and led three other schools in Cincinnati to have double digit growth in just one year. She led Rothenberg’s academic turnaround through Cincinnati Public Schools’ Elementary Initiative, moving the school up two spots from being categorized as “Academic Emergency” to “Continuous Improvement.” For this work and more, she was a finalist for the Lawrence C. Hawkins Educator of the Year Award.
Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in the Mississippi Delta, is one of the highest poverty and highest crime areas per capita in the country, and the district recruited Smith for her skills. She leads the School Turnaround Program through the University of Virginia for four of the district’s priority schools. Her work resulted in two schools moving off the state’s “Academic Distress” list, and one school improved from an “F” to a “C” rating on the school’s state Report Card. Undaunted by the continuing challenges, Smith uses advanced data modeling and statistical analysis to discover new pathways for educational growth for her district, while maintaining a personal touch with students and teachers. Active in the community, she has worked long hours to recruit support from local businesses to meet basic student needs and has made doing more with less a focus of her educational career.