"This is what it must feel like at the Oscars," a teary Lesley-Anne Balido-Dean told a cheering audience at the Intercontinental Hotel Sunday night.
And in a way it was.
With inspiring stories, lots of laughs, hugs, teary acceptance speeches and a long running time (3 hours and 45 minutes), the 11th Annual H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards had a lot in common with a celebrity awards show.
Balido-Dean, a bilingual teacher at Woodridge Elementary School in San Antonio, was one of 40 instructors from across the state honored at the yearly event, which rotates between Houston, San Antonio and Austin. This year, the Texas-based retail grocery chain handed out $800,000 to teachers and school districts deemed the best in their class by a panel of judges.
"That's a lot of groceries," Scott McClelland, H-E-B Houston president, quipped at one point in the evening.
With inspiring stories, lots of laughs, hugs, teary acceptance speeches and a long running time (3 hours and 45 minutes), the Excellence in Education awards had a lot in common with a celebrity awards show.
When it comes to poised speechgiving, Meryl Streep and Octavia Spencer had nothing over the 11 winners in categories ranging from teachers with less than 10 years of experience to veterans in the classrooms for more than two decades.
The educators each made a perfect speech — honest and from the heart — about why they love what they do.
While Hollywood actors, athletes and TV anchors receive seven and eight figure annual salaries that are wildly inflated for what they do — does a Kardashian really deserve $40 million? — cops, firefighters and teachers make due with a fraction of such income. So it was nice to see this group of exceptionally dedicated teachers get their due — even if it was only for one night.
"You've treated us like education royalty," said Lovejoy High School teacher Beverly Smith in Lucas, who took home a $25,000 check plus a matching grant for her school in the Lifetime Achievement category for teachers with more than 20 years of experience. "We don't get that often."
Education stays with you
Balido-Dean told the audience, which include U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and H-E-B chairman Charles Butt (who has championed the awards since their inception in 2002), how her father had fled the Castro regime in Cuba and arrived in the United States with nothing but his freedom and his education.
"He always focused on no matter what happens, no one can take your education from you. Material possessions come and go, but your education stays with you always," said Balido-Dean, who received a $5,000 check as a rising star (a category that recognizes teachers with less than 10 years experience). Her school also received a $5,000 grant.
"Material possessions come and go, but your education stays with you always," said Balido-Dean.
Michael Hardy, an idealistic young teacher at IDEA Frontier College Preparatory in Brownsville, spoke about how he and his wife went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, earlier in the day "and I felt this overwhelming sense of greatness" amid the priceless works of art.
"It's the same feeling I feel tonight," he said. "May each one of us leave here tonight and turn around and be inspiring."
Hardy also received a $5,000 check as a rising star, along with a matching grant for his school.
Austin Highland Park Elementary school teacher Elaine Leibick, who has been teaching for 34 years, was just as thrilled. She said she carries a little bit of each student she has taught over the years in her heart. "I didn't start out to be a good teacher. They made me a good teacher," she said.
Like several other teachers Leibick, won won a $25,000 prize and a matching grant for her school, made a reference to pressures teachers face in being evaluated according to students' test scores when she thanked her principal for allowing her to be creative.
"At a time when teachers feel unappreciated and sometimes under attack, it speaks volumes about what kind of corporate citizen H-E-B is," she said.
The supermarket chain has awarded more than $5.5 million to Texas educators since the program was launched in 2002.
Dreams of a better life
Among the most poignant speakers was Ramiro Guerra, the principal at Edinburg North High School. The son of migrant workers in the Rio Grande Valley, Guerra said when he walks into an H-E-B store, he can point out just about every fruit and vegetable from memory.
"If you see it there, I probably picked it," he said. "Asparagus — for the life of me, I wondered who would eat that stuff."
His dream of a better life for his three children has become a reality. His son has graduated from Harvard. His daughter graduated from Stanford. Another daughter is currenty a theater major at Northwestern.
Getting a college degree is "what I truely aspire for every student at Edinburg North," he said.
As the recipient of the award for best secondary school principal, he recieved $10,000, along with $25,000 for the school. He said he plans to use the school funds to transform a portable trailer into a science lab at the high school.
Celebration at Cy-Fair
Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District was named the top large school district in the state and recieved the evening's top price of $100,000. With 108,000 students on 84 campuses, it is the third largest school district in the state. The district is diverse: 12 schools have poverty rates over 75 percent while six schools are considered affluent, with poverty rates lower than 10 percent.
"If we want this state to continue to be an economic leader, we have to continue to invest in our schools," Henry said.
Despite such disparities, the district monitors performance and maintains high expectations for each student’s academic achievement. According to the 2009 edition of Education Week’s Diplomas Count, Cypress-Fairbanks had the highest graduation rate among the nation’s 50 largest school districts.
In his speech, Cy-Fair superintendent Mark Henry made a plea for more dollars for Texas schools. "H-E-B sees education as an investment, not an entitlement. If we want this state to continue to be an economic leader, we have to continue to invest in our schools," he said.
Hamilton Elementary School principal Catherine Bartlett, who was named best principal in the elementary school category, has focused on encouraging students to read for enjoyment since assuming the top job six years ago. The school is also in the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD.
Under her guidance, teachers emphasized test questions less and got the kids to read novels of their choosing from the school’s library. Test scores rose, earning Hamilton Elementary a spot on the Texas Business and Education Coalition Honor Roll.
Like all Texas principals, Bartlett didn't eschew the quest for improved test scores entirely. On days when teachers are called in to discuss scores, she asks them to wear black and white clothing to emphasize that data is black and white.
Bartlett won a $25,000 grant for her school plus a $10,000 cash prize for herself. Like the other 40 semi-finalists and finalists, she stayed at the Houstonian over the weekend, courtesy of the supermarket chain.
In her acceptance speech, Bartlett mentioned that earlier in the day she had texted friends that she was enjoying breakfast in bed in her hotel room. "I've never had that in my life," she said.
But she knew that come Monday morning, "I'll be there on time waiting to greet (the students) and giving them a big thumbs up," she said.