The eSchool News K-12 Hero Awards recognize the dedicated efforts of education professionals across K-12 departments, including IT, curriculum, instruction and administration.
Sponsored this year by JAR Systems and SAP Concur, the program received an influx of inspiring nominations that highlight the innovation and selflessness of educators in schools and districts across the nation.
Listed here is the second group of the program’s finalists. The first group of finalists was featured on eSchool News last week–find them here!
Jump to: Jim Perry, Jones County Public Schools, Juliann Koehn, Cory Matsumiya, Kim Kaspar, Kirk Langer, Laura Johnson, Mark Hess, Michele Bledsoe, Mira Campbell, Neal Kellogg, Scott Mitchum, Shawn Braxton, Spartanburg School District One, Steven Langford, Tiffany Brinkley, Twin Rivers Unified School District.
Jim Perry came to education as a second career and has brought such dedication and fresh perspective to his staff, students, and district at large.
Jim wanted to support student well-being and resilience in the face of the disruption and set-back in social-emotional learning that COVID created. Jim embraced EmpowerU immediately. He took the self-regulation and resilience framework and adopted it at a school-wide level. As classroom teachers led classrooms through turn-key lessons and helped students apply what they learned to their goals and challenges, Jim took it even further by having assemblies to showcase the learnings happening in each classroom.
He believes in EmpowerU so much that he helped to present to the larger Baldwin County Public Schools district on the benefits and major changes that he is seeing in his staff and students. His enthusiasm for creating a safe social emotional learning environment is very admirable and his students are so lucky.
Jim is a vibrant a leader like Jim Perry, and Stapleton is thriving under his leadership. We love Jim Perry!
Jones County Public Schools: Forward-Thinking K-12 Heroes of the Pandemic
Jones County Public Schools in North Carolina has a unique pandemic story. It all started in September 2018. After Hurricane Florence devastated the community and destroyed one of the district’s schools, Jones County Public Schools set out to rebuild its school infrastructure, which now includes a brand-new, high-tech, solar-powered K-12 campus. To complement its forward-thinking vision, the district sought a blended curriculum solution that offered a full suite of digital resources accessible from a single platform. District leaders formed the Jones Curriculum Council (JCC), a committee of teachers tasked with researching and evaluating top-tier curriculum solutions. HMH’s connected solutions scored highest on the JCC’s rubric. The district formed a partnership with HMH—purchasing HMH Into Math, HMH Into Reading, HMH Into Literature, and Waggle programs, along with professional services, which are all accessed via Ed, HMH’s learning platform.
As Jones County leaders will tell you, this dynamic, one-stop-shop of connected solutions and professional learning services positioned the district well to face the unique challenges presented by COVID-19 and the 2020-2021 school year. HMH’s blended curriculum enabled the district to navigate the shift to remote and hybrid better than most districts.
Every day during the pandemic, Jones County educators provided synchronous instruction to in-person and virtual students daily, a task that would be difficult, if not impossible, without a genuinely digital-first solution. Each class was recorded for parents to review anytime, and in-person students collaborated and engaged with their virtual peers.
It was the innovative thinking of JCPS leadership that set the district up for success. Following that initial decision to focus on digital and with the start of the pandemic and beyond, Jones County principals, teachers, and students all embraced “a new normal.” With HMH’s blended curriculum and data tools, teachers in Jones County were able to streamline instruction and personalize learning for each student, without having to purchase extra materials or sign in on multiple platforms.
HMH and JCPS developed a safe plan to capture the Jones Country experience on video and spoke with some teachers and students using HMH connected solutions during COVID-19. The footage acquired was edited into a series videos demonstrating the power and benefits of HMH’s digital-first, connected solutions in a hybrid learning environment.
Epic Charter Schools offers online learning to more than 30,000 students in the state of Oklahoma. For years, the school had been searching for ways to reverse the pattern of disengagement, build motivation to complete schoolwork and get students over that finish line at graduation.
With no school counseling team — and teachers weary from other new programs and systems — EPIC needed a partner it could trust to serve Tier 2 students.
Juliann Koehn, Social and Emotional Learning Specialist at Epic, worked to bring EmpowerU to the district and enrolled over 400 students in the program during the 2021-22 school year.
Over 91 percent of Epic students who completed EmpowerU saw a positive impact on well-being, academic engagement, and outcomes, and Juliann is committed to bringing those same results to as many students as possible.
Juliann is passionate about the need to equip students with the tools to be successful and sees the potential in each of them. She works tirelessly to educate others about the importance of programs like EmpowerU to help students become more confident, self-directed, and reach their goals both in and out of the classroom.
In the first few weeks of the 2022-23 school year Juliann has rolled out EmpowerU to over 550 Epic students and counting!
Kamehameha Schools, headquartered in Honolulu, HI, is the largest private school network in the nation, with a sole mission to educate native Hawaiian children.
Cory Matsumiya, Assistant Controller, has been with Kamehameha Schools for 15 years. Cory was the original “owner” of SAP Concur and the primary champion for getting the solution implemented.
It’s with great pleasure that SAP Concur nominates Kamehameha Schools and Cory Matsumiya for the eSchool News K-12 Hero Awards.
Cory, part of a team of 3, which he refers to as the “3 Musketeers,” implemented SAP Concur in 2015 in an effort to drive efficiencies, control spending, and optimize visibility for an organization with 4,000+ employees. Cory exudes an innovative and forward-thinking mindset when it comes to doing the right thing for the organization. He embraces opportunities to make his team more efficient by automating and streamlining processes, is always eager to find ways to improve current processes, and is more than willing to share his experiences with others to help them do better. We are grateful for our partnership with Cory and Kamehameha Schools!
Hazel Health (Hazel) nominates Kim Kaspar in honor of her dedication to ensuring her students receive care based on what’s best for them, not what’s easiest for adults. Providing access to mental health care has been a priority for Aurora Public Schools’ AWARE Team even before the pandemic. However, as districts nationwide experienced a shortage of qualified health care professionals, the pandemic’s impact on students’ mental health created an unprecedented need to expand access to care quickly. Based on this need, Aurora Public Schools was in the implementation stage when the Director of Mental Health and Counseling unexpectedly had to take a leave of absence.
Understanding the importance of expanding care in the wake of the pandemic, Ms. Kaspar stepped up to move the work forward. Ms. Kasapar not only ensured the partnership was successful but pushed Hazel to innovate its services to align with Colorado state policy. In Colorado, students 12 or older do not need consent from a parent or guardian to access mental health services. Ms. Kaspar understood that students might not be comfortable getting permission to receive the care they critically needed and pushed Hazel to align its services within the district accordingly.
To ensure the partnership’s success, Ms. Kaspar took the Hazel team from school to school across 30 sites to present to the staff responsible for student care. She helped overcome objections and foster collaboration between the schools and the Hazel team. One aspect of the partnership in particular that she highlighted was the ability for Hazel to transition student care to long-term providers as needed. She said, “I hate for kids with mental health challenges to tell their stories to different adults.” She values that Hazel makes the experience seamless for students—whom she puts first at every turn. Now, Hazel sees consistent utilization of its services across the district, primarily due to Ms. Kaspar’s efforts.
Kirk is responsible for keeping the students and faculty of Lincoln Public Schools connected and engaged through technology to ensure that learning isn’t disrupted. Kirk leads a team of 65 experts, and under his guidance they have accomplished feats such as the procurement of 3,680 brand new MacBook Airs for certified staff, and organizing extensive cybersecurity trainings for staff to keep the district and its students safe. His passion and dedication to bettering his district through the use of technology is commendable and makes him a worthy recipient of this award.
Before schools shut down due to the global pandemic, most students had little to no experience with digital learning or online school. Many schools found themselves having to adapt to a virtual setting to survive. As a certified teacher through Edmentum’s Apex Learning Virtual School (ALVS), Laura Johnson is dedicated to ensuring every student thrives in a virtual environment. The pandemic tasked her to meet an influx of students who faced new sets of challenges, while maintaining high standards and helping students cope with new learning environments.
For 14 years, Laura Johnson has taught a variety of subjects, including social studies, psychology, and music and art appreciation–all virtually within ALVS. She started as a part-time teacher while she was still at a brick-and-mortar school, where she drove 38 miles each way to teach. Eventually, Laura became the first full-time teacher with ALVS, and she now connects with students all over the globe.
While ALVS has provided rigorous and engaging online curriculum to students in grades 6-12 for many years, the pandemic made ALVS see a sudden influx of 5,000 new virtual students. As one of the school’s experienced teachers, Laura volunteered her expertise and contributed immensely by stepping in to assist with interviewing, hiring, and training 125 new part-time teachers to meet the demand.
Laura was also heavily involved in the ALVS/Eastern Shore of Maryland Educational Consortium partnership where she and other educators provided instruction to more than 400 students to meet state standards, and ensured lessons complied with management’s outlines. She supported getting this new grant program off the ground, delivering quality digital instruction and modeling new ways of teaching, and connecting with students for the state. This program will continue this year with the same group of motivated educators thanks to the successful contributions of Laura.
Laura’s mantra for being a virtual teacher is “you need to care.” During the pandemic, she faced new challenges, such as students being reluctantly thrust into a digital program out of necessity, and not out of motivation or opportunity. However, Laura went out of her way to make connections with these students. Through phone calls that allowed her to get to know them and discover what motivates them, she took the extra steps like providing individualized feedback on assessments and checking not just for completion, but for understanding. For all assignments, Laura responds with affirmative feedback with “glow or grow” information, meaning what students need to be aware of for future assignments or shares what they did great.
Laura shared that some students who joined her office hours or who reached out to schedule time to speak with her did not really need help academically; instead, they just wanted to talk and have someone listen to them. As a parent, Laura knows the value of a teacher who truly cares about each individual student and that is exactly how she chooses to impact students’ lives and educational journeys—by making those connections, whether students are 38 miles or 1,038 miles away.
Mark Hess has served in a variety of roles since he was hired in 1993 by Walled Lake Consolidated School District in Walled Lake, Michigan. Prior to COVID-19, Hess was the executive manager of instruction, technology, and data analysis and was one of the key developers of the district’s initiative to revamp its instructional units to focus on the latest research on high-yield teaching strategies, power standards, and embedding technology in each unit. When everyone had to shift to remote and hybrid learning in 2020, Hess’ initiative helped schools and staff feel well-prepared to make the transition because many already had confidence when using technology and openness toward instructional technology. In addition, the district already had computers and document cameras for teachers, who took them home to assist in presenting content during remote teaching.
For the 2020-21 school year, Hess’ district position was dissolved following new district leadership, so he returned to the school building as the principal of Mary Helen Guest Elementary School. As the school leader, Hess learned new ways to support his teachers with the ups and downs of the constantly changing school year. This included finding opportunities to offer effective and efficient professional development and encourage teachers to share best practices with each other. Additionally, investing in the best-in-class technologies has always been a priority for Hess. This includes Epson BrightLink Interactive Displays and Document Cameras for every teaching space. Classrooms throughout the district are outfitted equitably with technology and have an adequate infrastructure teachers need for engaging learning environments.
The 2021-22 school year presented new opportunities for Hess as the elementary school was renovated over the summer and every learning space was updated to active learning environments. Hess ensured teachers were prepared and informed about ways to utilize their new classrooms. Teachers were very appreciative to have more flexibility and are seeing an increase in student engagement and participation. Hess has led staff and teachers to create a safe, motivating, and positive learning environment for students. Hess did not use the pandemic as an excuse to stop innovating and instead, stayed creative to ensure the best learning environment for every student.
Hazel Health (Hazel) nominates Michele Bledsoe in honor of her deep understanding of the youth health crisis and her ability to build the cross-functional buy-in that ensures her students have equitable access to mental health care. Before the pandemic, the Puyallup School District was experiencing capacity challenges in meeting the needs of its students when it came to providing timely mental health care. The pandemic exacerbated those challenges making the requirement more critical. Because Puyallup is a diverse learning community, finding a partner that could provide culturally competent health care was a top priority.
Ms. Bledsoe, director of Equity & Social Emotional Wellness, K-12 Counselors, MV and Truancy, had the vision to be an early adopter of Hazel. She believed in a world where every student in the Puyallup School District had access to timely, quality health care regardless of their family’s ability to cover the cost of care. And she put in the work to make it a reality. Ms. Bledsoe did the deep research required of a trailblazer to get buy-in from her board and teams across the district. She also had the foresight to understand that leveraging ESSER funds to expand access to student mental healthcare was fundamental to overcoming the impacts of the pandemic.
Thanks to her dedication, every student in the district—more than 22,000—now has access to evidence-based mental health care. Students can receive care in school or at home in minutes to days versus the national average of months. Since Hazel specializes in delivering culturally competent care, the professionals providing care reflect the district’s diversity, which means students and families receive care and support from professionals who understand and value their experiences. Positive word of mouth from families with students who have accessed care is driving the second-highest utilization rate of services out of all our partnerships nationwide. Further, the partnership helped to expand the capacity of overloaded staff dedicated to supporting students’ mental health.
Ms. Bledsoe quickly understood that sustainability is essential and laid the groundwork early for transitioning the work to more sustainable funding sources to ensure students throughout the district can continue to access quality healthcare once ESSER funding runs out. Thanks to Ms. Bledsoe, stakeholders across the Puyallup learning community are positively impacted—but most importantly, students now have access to the care they need to have their best opportunity to thrive.
Mira Campbell has taken on legendary status amongst the Book Creator team. There are very few teachers out there who continually push the capabilities of our tool like Mira does.
Her work is innovative and pushes boundaries–and she’s great at sharing her knowledge with others!
The story behind this nomination comes from a project that Mira ran during the pandemic. They started the project in the classroom, switched seamlessly to remote learning and then finished the project with an in-person celebration that melts the heart!
This was a creative writing project that was differentiated for the various skills, interests, and learning styles of her students, allowing every student to be successful. Mira worked with the class teacher to introduce writing techniques, and then used a writing prompt to generate story ideas. After brainstorming ideas together, they drafted stories in Google Docs before creating fully fleshed multimedia publications in Book Creator.
Mira took advantage of the full suite of tools in Book Creator to allow students to create in the media that worked for them–some kids dictated their books using speech to text; others used drawing and emojis to bring their stories to life. With real-time collaboration in Book Creator, the teachers were able to keep in touch with students and post feedback in their books.
In January 2021, whilst still in lockdown, Mira arranged a class reading over Zoom. They invited the principals to join, and the students got the thrill of sharing their work with a wider audience.
Mira then had students use Flipgrid to record reflections on the book creation process–what they learned, strategies they employed for writing, and a question for Debbie Ridpath Ohi (the author of the writing prompt). These video reflections were embedded at the end of their books. What’s more, Mira reached out to Debbie and she gave her own feedback on the books and answered the questions!
At this point, most people would wrap up the project, but not Mira. Mira used the PDF export feature in Book Creator and worked with a local printing company to print physical copies of their books, which she presented to students in a big reveal once they were back in the classroom! The video she put together of that moment may be the best thing we’ve ever seen Book Creator used for.
Mira is a hero for a number of reasons:
1. She cares about her students and goes out of her way to make projects that work for them on their own individual levels.
2. She works collaboratively with the teachers around her to get the most out of everybody.
3. She generously shares what she has learnt with other teachers.
4. She knows Book Creator inside out and goes above and beyond in the way she uses it in her classroom.
5. She goes the extra mile to give students the best learning experience they could hope for.
Originally an elementary school music teacher and site lead technology educator, Neal Kellogg is the Director of Educational Technology Services for Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS)—serving 34,000 K–12 students across 33 elementary schools, 12 middle schools, 8 high schools, 4 alternative schools, and 6 charter schools.
Under Neal’s direction, technology at OKCPS is evolving to a more personalized, engaging, and interactive experience, focusing on personal responsibility for self-directed professional learning. A shy student in high school, Neal credits the positive impact his band teacher had on him when he was growing up, which helps guide him today in his role.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Neal prioritized communication first and foremost with students, families, and teachers at OKCPS—the second-largest district in Oklahoma—to ensure learning continued. The pandemic pushed OKCPS to move quick, making it crucial the district kept everyone informed about the direction the district went, along with ongoing changes to better support students.
In March 2020, Neal oversaw the district roll out a one-to-one device program and implement a new learning management system (LMS). While these initiatives can take two years or more to fully scale, the district’s program was up and running by August—just in time for the 2020–2021 school year. During this time, Neal worked with his team to implement solutions to help teachers—including TutorMe, an online tutoring solution–to provide students additional academic support and complement the work teachers were already doing. Neal worked with other leaders throughout the district to help OKCPS adopt, modernize, and move forward in a short period of time.
Throughout the pandemic, Neal’s confident and calm leadership inspired his teammates, while demonstrating natural leadership skills. Neal’s leadership helped guide his team and kept heads above water. Throughout all the change, Neal also fostered a healthy work-life balance throughout the district—recognizing the importance of supporting teachers’ mental health.
USD 112 Central Plains Technology Director Scott Mitchum hails from a family of teachers and a tradition of helping people. Throughout childhood, Scott had a passion for learning, reading, and devouring encyclopedias.
Accepting a golf scholarship to attend college, Scott briefly studied law before receiving a master’s degree in library science. After serving as a librarian for 26 years, Scott taught himself computer programming before eventually accepting a position at two junior colleges teaching the subject.
Today, Scott finds himself as the technology director of two districts in Kansas. During the early days of the pandemic, Scott was aware of immediate shortages of N95 masks for emergency care workers and sought out a way to lend a hand. Through teaching his students 3D printing techniques, he realized he could use the printers to manufacture masks, so he and a colleague discovered a mask prototype to model from a doctor YouTube.
After learning of a hospital nearby in Hoisington that had a shortage of masks, Scott began creating masks with 5-6 printers running 24/7, switching out polylactic acid (PLA) in the middle of the night. Each mask took seven hours to print.
He continued to tweak the printers to include weather stripping around the outside to make it air-tight and a HEPA filter from a vacuum cleaner. Scott produced approximately 140 masks and 100 face shields that were used primarily for surgery. Even though the hospital offered to pay him, he politely declined.
Shawn Braxton is the Executive Director of Learning Technology and Training Services for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Shawn has been an integral part of standardizing technology across all 97 schools within the district. Most recently, he created a comprehensive plan to place a Clevertouch interactive flat panel in every classroom that lacked one. Although this project just launched over the summer, 1,081 Clevertouch panels have already been installed in classrooms that currently had only projectors. By the end of the 2022-23 school year, every classroom will have an interactive flat panel. Shawn is constantly investigating the future of classroom technology and how it could improve student learning and classroom instruction.
Shawn also played an enormous role in the creation of the district’s first-ever Tech Fest. Tech Fest was a two-day event in August that allowed students, parents, and the community to visit one of two locations within the district and interact with the district’s new technology. This event was also an opportunity for students to engage with educators outside of the classroom, build excitement around the upcoming school year, and have their devices fixed or replaced.
Shawn is a visionary when it comes education technology and how it can change and shape the minds of students. He is a catalyst for his district and is constantly on the cutting edge for new and inventive ways for students and teachers to utilize technology in the classroom.
Spartanburg School District One spans three cities in rural upstate South Carolina, where nearly half of 5,000 students come from lower-income families. This also means students have limited access to technology and devices at home. Furthermore, less than 22 percent of residents in the district hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.
These combined factors have prompted the administrators of Spartanburg School District One to take action to ensure students are equipped for life beyond high school. To achieve that goal, administrators are tasked with exposing students to computers and devices and providing them with the tools and skills needed to be successful post-graduation. However, while many students have limited resources, the district is also tasked with utilizing a limited amount of school funding, which is derived from taxes on businesses within the district, while much of the local workforce commutes to larger cities outside of the tax area.
This has prompted Spartanburg School District One administrators to get creative and be strategic as to how funding is used in order to enable engagement and facilitate movement within the classroom. Dr. Jimmy Pryor, Assistant Superintendent, Accountability and Technical Services at Spartanburg School District One, determined an interactive panel would enhance learning, facilitate mobility, and increase engagement for students and simultaneously streamline lesson delivery for teachers. To find the right fit, Dr. Pryor launched a pilot program where educators tested a variety of interactive displays. As a result, Promethean’s ActivPanel was not only the preferred choice but an easy choice for educators.
It didn’t take much convincing for Dr. Pryor to secure an ActivPanel for every classroom within Spartanburg One. The superintendent and school board quickly gave the green light to invest in the new interactive panels. Within the first six months of using the ActivPanel, teachers recognized the increase in student and teacher mobility and student engagement. They also recognized the enthusiasm the panels provide for teachers to deliver quality instruction and felt motivated to expand on their professional development to learn more about the ActivPanel’s capabilities.
With four blue ribbon schools, four schools awarded “Palmetto’s Finest” by the South Carolina Association of School Administrators, and three statewide top performing high schools, administrators are looking forward to delivering on the promise of post-graduation success for students, too. Administrators district-wide anticipate seeing positive outcomes and improvement as it relates to state-mandated, end-of-course tests, all of which contribute to students’ growth and development throughout their Spartanburg tenure and beyond.
Steven Langford is the CIO of Beaverton School District in Oregon and the President of CoSN, a widely known and well-respected organization within the K-12 edtech world. Under Steven’s guidance, Beaverton has created a path of innovation and improvement for other districts to follow.
In addition to this, Steven gladly shares his advice and wisdom on how to implement new programs/systems/projects successfully. Beaverton successfully rolled out district-wide multi-factor authorization, which is a crucial component to cybersecurity, and something that is not easily done.
Steven’s continued approach to innovation in the technology department in his district is inspirational and makes him a worthy recipient of this award.
For many educators, making the switch to teaching virtually presented challenges. Connecting with students virtually was new to many educators and required an untapped skill set. At a time when human connection was limited but needed, Tiffany Brinkley improved the overall student experience with virtual learning by making personal connections and accommodating students’ needs. As a result, she positively influenced student results on high-stakes exams, all while mentoring new teachers.
Our nominee, Tiffany Brinkley, has been an educator for 10 years, with 5 of those being in an online setting through Edmentum’s EdOptions Academy. Tiffany has taught various math courses ranging from 6th grade math through AP Calculus.
When a student enrolls in one of Tiffany’s classes, she always first reaches out to make a personal connection because she knows this is the key to student success. Instead of beginning the conversation with academics, she asks about their summer, interests, or hobbies. To continue to keep students involved and engaged, she sends out monthly questionnaires on fun topics. These questions and her interest in their answers allow students to feel more comfortable in a virtual setting.
Although she had taught virtually before, Tiffany noticed an increased need for student engagement during the pandemic as students sought out help and connection. Pre-pandemic, Tiffany knew there were students who needed extra support, but now those who didn’t typically reach out before were requesting time to meet with her. So, she decided she would make it easier for students by allowing them to decide their meeting time with her, rather than adhering to a standard set of office hours. She finds this flexibility beneficial for her students and it allows her to better connect them.
In 2021, she made a huge impact on a project working to better prepare students for high-stakes state exams. In the previous year before Tiffany joined, the program did not have any students pass the math exam. By delivering instruction during live Zoom sessions and providing extra support with a study program she helped to develop, Tiffany was able to raise students’ passing rate from zero to 15 percent overall on the state exam for Algebra 1.
Because of her stellar contributions, Tiffany was awarded National Teacher of the Year from Edmentum in 2022. She was recognized for her performance as an educator and her dedication to being one of three mentors training and onboarding other math teachers who were hired to meet demands during the pandemic. While helping other educators navigate how to be an effective teacher, Tiffany was described as “the glue that holds us all together” because no matter what challenges arise, she quickly and calmly finds a solution.
By building connections with students and her fellow EOA teachers, Tiffany improved students’ experience in a virtual setting, giving them the resources, opportunities, support, and flexibility they needed to adapt and overcome the adversity faced during the pandemic.
Twin Rivers has been intentionally and strategically focused on increasing educator and student mental health on a comprehensive level.
District leaders like Christine Flock and Travis Burke understand the critical need to support educator well-being as paramount to improving student engagement, motivation, and outcomes. Their thoughtful selection of partnerships that are collaborative drive them to create programs that go beyond “check the box” solutions and result in integrated programs that drive outcomes. They work across departments to fully leverage the power and impact of the EmpowerU solution, understanding how each piece fits together to drive whole child success.
Laura Ascione is the Editorial Director at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland’s prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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