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Feb. 27, 2017 - Oklahoma Medal for Excellence-Winning Educators Announced

by OFE | 2017-02-24 15:34:41

The Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence has announced the winners of its 2017 Oklahoma Medal for Excellence awards honoring five outstanding educators in Oklahoma’s public schools.

The awards will be presented at the foundation’s 31st annual Academic Awards Banquet on May 20 at the Renaissance Tulsa Convention Center. Each of the five winners will receive a $5,000 cash prize and a glass “Roots and Wings” sculpture, designed by the late Oklahoma artist Ron Roberts and produced by Jim Triffo of Oklahoma City.

This year’s Medal for Excellence winners and their award categories are: Jane Williams, Centennial Elementary School, EDMOND, elementary teaching; Gary Piercey, Francis Tuttle Technology Center, OKLAHOMA CITY, secondary teaching; Dr. Robert Romines, superintendent, MOORE Public Schools, elementary/secondary administration; Antoinette Castillo, professor of humanities, Rose State College, MIDWEST CITY, community college/regional university teaching; and Dr. Allen Hertzke, David Ross Boyd Professor of Political Science, University of Oklahoma, NORMAN, research university teaching.

 “We know that education is the best investment Oklahoma can make in its future,” said David L. Boren, founder and chairman of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, a non-profit organization that recognizes and encourages academic excellence in the state’s public schools. “By honoring these exceptional educators, we are sending a message that Oklahomans deeply value excellence in public schools and the professionals who have given so much of themselves to enrich the lives of our children.”

Jane Williams, winner of the Oklahoma Medal for Excellence in Elementary Teaching, teaches fifth-grade social studies and reading at Centennial Elementary School in Edmond. A National Board Certified teacher with a Master’s of Education in Reading, the 27-year teaching veteran has dedicated herself to lifelong learning so her students can become lifelong learners themselves.

“Jane utilizes engagement strategies that capture students’ attention, helping them understand and visualize complex history lessons and texts,” said Centennial Principal Jessele Miller. “At any given time of day, Jane is on her feet working with individual students, instructing whole group, using technology interactively and providing hands-on activities that students love.”

In a unit on the Renaissance, for example, Williams’ students use Smartboards to identify famous artists’ paintings, they use a splitter device to listen to Renaissance music in small groups, and they become artists themselves using paint pallet software to create masterpieces on iPads.  “Incorporating technology into my hands-on lessons, I was able to meet every student’s learning style and … open doors for students to advance their knowledge of technology,” Williams said.

A graduate of the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute and the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, Williams helps bring American history to life through hands-on experiences, such as building a colonial village and reenacting historic events through readers’ theatre and role-playing. Since 2014, she has served on the planning committee for Colonial Day at the Capitol, providing opportunities for hundreds of Oklahoma students to engage in creative learning activities. In 2015, she was honored as Oklahoma’s Elementary Social Studies Teacher of the Year.

Williams is not only an outstanding classroom teacher, but she has also served many years as a mentor to student-teachers and first-year educators at her school and has guided dozens of Oklahoma educators through their National Board Certification. “She is willing to share her insights and experiences, as well as lessons and resources, to insure that others teach effectively,” said 2012 Medal for Excellence winner Teresa Potter, who credited Williams with helping her navigate the lengthy certification process.

Sixth-grader Jake Amy praised Mrs. Williams for “making learning fun” and helping him learn problem-solving strategies. “I think I am a smarter and better person because of her in my life,” he said.

Gary Piercey, winner of the Medal for Excellence in Secondary Teaching, teaches advanced math courses at Francis Tuttle Technology Center’s Biosciences and Medicine Academy, a program serving students from more than 11 high schools. Piercey’s “whole student” approach combines rigorous academic preparation, active learning, community service and leadership opportunities.

“Gary takes a subject that is not exciting for many students and breathes new life into it,” said colleague Pat Brown. “At any given time, I might walk the halls and see students modeling quadratic equations through a frog-jumping contest. He takes students and lifts them up, walks them through the rocky journey of mathematics, and they become National Merit Scholars and part of elite groups such as Medical Humanities Programs.”

Piercey takes the intimidation out of math through fun learning activities such as math scavenger hunts, chalking math problems on sidewalks, and even singing math songs. “Picture a teacher singing ‘Great Math Class’ to Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance,’” Piercey says. 

A 24-year teaching veteran, Piercey goes the extra mile to support students’ academic preparation, offering online tutoring and more than 500 hours of instructional podcasts, which he provides through an iPod Touch check-out system. The average math ACT score for 21 Academy seniors in 2014 jumped from 19.1 to 27.8 after spending three years in Piercy’s math courses.

As part of his “whole student” approach, Piercey encourages students to engage in community service and joins them in their endeavors. Over the past six years, he and his students have volunteered more than 5,000 hours to such causes as Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure, Ronald McDonald House and the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Some of the projects, such as painting a house for Habitat for Humanity, have even included a math component as students estimated labor and materials costs.

Former student Grace Karanja, a junior at Amherst College in Massachusetts, credited Piercey with seeking out leadership opportunities and scholarships to help her and other students succeed. “Dr. Piercey is one to give and give some more. He is a teacher. He is a counselor. He is a motivator. He is a big brother. He is a life compass,” Karanja said. “He has been a navigator on both my academic and personal careers, ... and I will be eternally grateful.”

The winner of the Medal for Excellence in Elementary/Secondary Administration is Dr. Robert Romines, superintendent of Moore Public Schools. Romines began his career with the Moore district as a fifth-grade teacher in 1994 and served in many administrative roles before becoming superintendent in May 2013. He leads the third largest district in the state, serving 24,400 students at 35 school sites.

Romines has been praised for his compassionate leadership, community relationships and strong communications skills in helping lead the district through some of its most difficult challenges. Just one week after assuming the role of superintendent, a massive F5 tornado plowed through Moore, killing seven students, leveling two schools and damaging buildings throughout the district.

“His ability to shoulder the grief and devastation while leading thousands through a time of uncertainty and then accelerated growth and renewal was nothing short of miraculous,” said Moore Economic Development Director Deidre Ebrey.

Former colleague Ann Caine, who was Stillwater superintendent at the time, said she could only imagine the challenges Romines faced as he raced to school sites, met grieving families, and worked with media and staff. “He never complained about how tired he was or the difficulties he was facing,” Caine said. “His comments focused on what else he could be doing.”

In the face of other challenges – such as state cuts in education funding and increased emphasis on testing – Romines surveyed staff across the district about their concerns and took a proactive stance by creating a video, “Breaking the Silence.” Viewed by more than 200,000 on social media and other venues, the video shared the joys and frustrations of Moore teachers and became a tool for advocating for public education with legislators and other key stakeholders. As a result, state testing has been decreased and the teacher evaluation system has been revised. “It was amazing for me to see how much teachers appreciated how Robert went to bat for them,” Caine said.

Romines was also recognized for his outreach efforts, from videos and social media to student and community advisory committees, to communicate the good things happening in Moore Public Schools and to engage the community in the district's progress. “The positivity and overwhelming spirit of optimism is profound within Moore Schools, and I believe it has everything to do with Dr. Romines’ leadership,” Ebrey said.

Antoinette Castillo, the recipient of the Oklahoma Medal for Excellence in Teaching at a Regional University/Community College, is a professor of humanities and writing program administrator at Rose State College.

“Most students come to community colleges wanting to gain a greater degree of economic freedom by learning skills to get a better job,” said Castillo, who teaches courses in writing composition and philosophy. “My mission is to help them gain that economic freedom, but ultimately it is to help them gain much, much greater freedom: the freedom that comes from knowledge and ideas.”  

In her classroom, Castillo seeks to create an environment in which students interact with the knowledge she brings, with one another and with their pre-conceived ideas to create a new understanding of the world and themselves. She uses videos, books, films and images as a springboard to help students build a deeper relationship with material. She has organized field trips to the campus physics lab and a local Buddhist monastery so students could gain added perspectives on metaphysics and Buddhist philosophy.

Former student Elizabeth Tabak said Castillo assigns reflective journals to her philosophy students to help connect concepts to their own lives. “The journals taught me more than the class material. They taught me about myself and showed me I had the strength and courage to make changes in my life I had long feared making,” Tabak said.

Castillo’s commitment to students is evident across the campus, where she volunteers to advise and mentor many student populations, from first-generation and honors students to those with physical or learning disabilities. She is a co-founder and volunteer for CLICK (Community Learning in Critical Knowledge) Team, which provides faculty mentoring and academic support for at-risk students. She helped organize and volunteers weekly to teach free English-as-a-Second-Language workshops for students at Rose State and the community at large. In addition, Castillo collaborated with English faculty members and departments across campus to re-design Rose State’s writing instruction and developed on-line writing course materials to help students save money on textbooks.

“Professor Castillo has a servant’s heart and a scholar’s mind,” said Humanities Dean Claudia Buckmaster. “She is driven to help our students find success regardless of impediments created by their backgrounds or circumstances.”

The winner of the Medal for Excellence in Teaching at a Research University is Dr. Allen Hertzke, David Ross Boyd Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma. Now completing his 31st year at OU, Hertzke has gained international recognition as an expert and author on politics and religion.

“His work has influenced policy makers and has been recognized globally by national and international organizations and players, including major foundations, the White House and the Vatican,” said department chair Keith Gaddie. But Hertzke’s greatest gift and his greatest passion is teaching, say students and colleagues.

His teaching principles – inspired by his own teaching mentors and years of trial and error – include intense student engagement, accessibility, rigor, and a profound love for students and learning. Hertzke was instrumental in re-designing, and now teaches, OU’s introductory course in American Federal Government – the only course required of all OU students and one that prepares them to be engaged citizens.

Former student Kyle Harper, now OU’s provost, described Hertzke as “an unforgettable lecturer” who made it clear that students were not learning facts to be able to pass a test. “We were learning about the most important and relevant ideas in the world, and we were training for one of the most important roles in our lives – citizen.”

Among his innovative teaching techniques, Hertzke frequently impersonates such historical figures as Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry and Abraham Lincoln. In his “Religion and Constitution” class, students tackle real Supreme Court cases in a moot court, assuming the roles of litigators, writing briefs and making oral arguments.

A central theme of Hertzke’s teaching is helping students “walk in the shoes” of those with differing perspectives through role-playing, interviewing, and community immersion. “I see this kind of learning as vital, given our polarized discourse, ideological tribalization, racial and ethnic divisions, and the need to meet this century’s great crucible: living with our differences in a shrinking world,” Hertzke said.

Despite a busy teaching and research schedule, Hertzke makes it a priority to be accessible to students, hosting informal “office hours” at the university food court and regularly welcoming students into his home. “I simply delight in being around students,” he said. “I always find that students energize me and remind me why I got in this vocation in the first place.”

In addition to presenting the Medal for Excellence awards, the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence will honor 100 of Oklahoma’s top public high school seniors as Academic All-Staters at its May 20 banquet. The Academic Awards Banquet is open to the public, with admission priced at $50. The awards ceremony will be televised statewide by OETA, the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority, at 8 p.m. May 27.  For more information, call the Foundation for Excellence office at (405) 236-0006 or visit its website at www.ofe.org.

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