These 10 eSN Hero Awards finalists have prioritized equity and inclusion, literacy, SEL, and student success.

eSN Hero Awards Finalists: 10 dedicated educators

These eSN Hero Awards finalists have prioritized equity and inclusion, literacy, SEL, and student success

This is Part 1 of a two-part feature highlighting the eSN K-12 Hero Awards finalists. Part 2, spotlighting 11 more finalists, can be found here.

The eSchool News K-12 Hero Awards recognize the dedicated efforts of education professionals across K-12 departments, including IT, curriculum, instruction and administration. 

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 in alphabetical order by school/district name are 10 of the awards program finalists. Stay tuned, because the second group of finalists will be featured on eSchool News next week!

Read about the three 2023 winners here.

Jump to: Tamiko Hatcher, Michelle Kruse, Dr. Dana T. Bedden, Michelle Weinraub, Rod Ruth, Cumberland County Public Schools, Maria Molinares, Sean Bevier, Lori Romero, Bryan Phillips

Mr. Tamiko Hatcher, Director of Special Programs, Akron Public Schools
Nominated by: Edmentum

Mr. Tamiko Hatcher, a dedicated educator and the director of Special Programs at Akron Public Schools in Ohio, displays visionary leadership and steadfast commitment to implementing innovative education technologies to transform the educational experience for the students in his district.

Mr. Hatcher’s commitment to providing equitable opportunities for all students, including those with diverse needs, led him to offer services that cater to both traditional and online learning environments, recognizing that some students require different support structures for academic success. Under Mr. Hatcher’s guidance, Akron Public Schools partnered with Edmentum to integrate cutting-edge learning technologies, harnessing their full potential to enhance learning outcomes.

“Our entire partnership has really helped our district to continue to thrive. Our online school and EdOptions Academy, Edmentum Services, has really provided us with the flexibility to meet the needs of families as soon as they arrive. We’ve had families who just needed some layer of support or to continue to access their education, and the online environment provided immediate response to that,” shared Mr. Hatcher.

The online program offers a solution to families seeking alternative ways to have students educated, while maintaining the core belief that traditional schooling is valuable and not easily replaced. Mr. Hatcher ensures these platforms are precisely tailored to meet the unique requirements of Akron’s diverse student population so that students can access a quality education in a non-traditional way that meets the needs of their work and home responsibilities.

Being able to access their education online means many students can stay in school rather than drop out because they can balance school and life responsibilities in a new way that works. The implementation allowed Akron Public Schools to stabilize enrollment, provide choices for families, and accommodate students’ diverse needs. With EdOptions Academy, over 18,000 students are given the option to access their education through a virtual environment, allowing the district to continue to thrive in the face of unique challenges.

The implementation also helped address challenges with certifications and staffing for their early college high school and STEM high school–when they no longer had a university partner providing physical education credits, Edmentum filled that gap with highly qualified, state-certified teachers and award-winning curriculum. Through the strategic integration of these innovative technologies, Akron Public Schools has witnessed significant improvement in student engagement and academic growth.

By creating a supportive and inclusive atmosphere, Mr. Hatcher has empowered students from all walks of life to unlock their full potential. His visionary leadership, unwavering dedication, and commitment to advancing education through innovative technologies serve as an inspiration to educators nationwide. With his transformative efforts, Mr. Hatcher has propelled Akron Public Schools to the forefront of educational excellence, becoming a shining example of how innovative education technologies can truly make a difference in students’ lives.

Michelle Kruse, Content Lead for Libraries, Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy, Cedar Rapids Community School District
Nominated by: Follett

Michelle Kruse is the teacher librarian at Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy (RCCBA), a magnet middle school in the Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD).

As the teacher librarian at RCCBA, Michelle also teaches elective courses in technology and information literacy skills to her students. In fall 2019, Michelle became the Content Lead for CRCSD’s 32 school libraries.

At that time, the average age of all library collections in the district exceeded 15 years in age, with some exceeding as many as 20 years in age. The collections also were lacking in materials that reflected the diversity of the students in the Cedar Rapids Schools.

Michelle made a compelling case that improving the age and diversity of the collections would have a positive impact on overall literacy rates in the district. Her advocacy resulted in $1.5 million in ESSER funds being allocated to school libraries to complete a three-year collection redevelopment project.

In addition to her role as Content Lead for Libraries, Michelle served as President of the Iowa School Association of School Librarians in 2022, and Past President in 2023. Currently, she is also serving a three-year term as a Director on the Executive Board of Iowa Library Association. She has spent numerous hours advocating for school libraries at the state level with many trips to the state capitol to meet with lawmakers.

Dr. Dana T. Bedden, Superintendent, Centennial School District
Nominated by: Lerner Publishing Group

Dr. Bedden’s dedication to promoting literacy in the Centennial School District has been truly inspiring. His approach, focused on equitable access to books and engaging the community, has left a remarkable mark.

One of his standout achievements was creating a committee consisting of teachers, parents, and students to handpick summer take-home books from Lerner Publishing Group. This collaborative effort sparked engaging discussions and valuable feedback. The board members eagerly embraced the opportunity to send these carefully chosen books home with students, highlighting Dr. Bedden’s talent for cultivating a shared passion for literacy.

Beyond book distribution, Dr. Bedden’s efforts have fostered a genuine love for reading and learning that will undoubtedly brighten Centennial’s future for years to come.

Dr. Bedden’s inclusive approach and dedication to equity have empowered students and families, leaving a lasting legacy of education and unity that fills us with optimism.

Michelle Weinraub, Student Health and Wellness Leader, Cherry Creek School District
Nominated by: Hazel Health

Hazel Health (Hazel) nominates Michelle Weinraub in honor of her passion for nurturing the health and well-being of children, encompassing their physical, mental, and emotional health. Ms. Weinraub displays exceptional dedication to advancing student health within the Cherry Creek School District.

Ms. Weinraub consistently demonstrates an unwavering commitment to the welfare of students, acknowledging that their overall health plays an integral role in their academic success and personal growth. Her work reflects an understanding of the relationship between physical and mental health and its direct impact on a student’s learning ability–for students to thrive, they need to feel well.

Ms. Weinraub has made a remarkable impact as the student health and wellness leader at Cherry Creek. She is responsible for establishing the district’s partnership with Hazel Health, a telehealth company that provides mental health services to students at no cost to families. The program with Hazel has significantly expanded students’ access to therapy, especially post-pandemic, as student demand for mental health support has soared.

When the district first partnered with Hazel, services were offered to middle and high school students through virtual, at-home appointments with licensed therapists. Ms. Weinraub had a vision to expand the program to serve all students in the district. Her commitment and advocacy drove the expansion of Hazel services to include both in-home and at-school mental health support, plus the addition of elementary schools to the program. This school year, more than 54,000 Cherry Creek students–the entire district–can access teletherapy with Hazel Health because of Michelle’s advocacy and ambitious vision.

Under Ms. Weinraub’s leadership, the health services department at Cherry Creek has achieved substantial growth. Because of her efforts, the student immunization rate is now at 94.41 percent, and she also established a resource pantry to address the issue of student hunger.

Ms. Weinraub actively engages with students, seeking their input and feedback through the superintendent’s Advisory Council of Students. She said, “We need to hear from the people we are serving, and last time I checked, they were students.” She values their perspectives, ensuring that the health department’s initiatives align with the needs and concerns of the student community.

Ms. Weinraub is an exceptional leader in student health and wellness. Her passionate commitment and innovative programming have made a substantial difference in the lives of Cherry Creek’s students.

Rod Ruth, Chief Student Services and Secondary Education Officer, Clover School District and former Principal, Clover High School
Nominated by: Edmentum

With a wealth of experience spanning over 22 years in the field of education, Mr. Rod Ruth, an outstanding educator and former principal of Clover High School in South Carolina, consistently demonstrates unwavering commitment to student achievement and has left a lasting impact on the students and the community of Clover.

Mr. Ruth’s leadership has been instrumental in positioning Clover High School as a standout institution. Despite being the fourth-largest high school in South Carolina, Clover High School maintains its unique charm nestled amidst the rolling farmland of York County. Mr. Ruth’s passion for his work and the close-knit community of Clover shine through, creating a truly exceptional learning environment.

Under his guidance, Clover High School has embraced personalized learning and innovative solutions to cater to the diverse needs of the students. By leveraging Edmentum programs, Mr. Ruth has provided flexible options that have transformed the educational experience. Students at Clover High School can access initial credit, credit recovery, and condensed credit programs, enabling them to receive tailored instruction and excel academically.

Mr. Ruth’s commitment to student success is evident in the impressive graduation rate of 96 percent–the highest in the school’s history. Through his collaborative approach and effective utilization of Edmentum’s resources, Mr. Ruth has empowered students to reach their full potential. His dedication to excellence and steady support have created a culture of achievement and growth at Clover High School.

“This building’s been here for over 50 years, and I’ll take [members of the community] on tours on Saturdays to see all the programs that we offer here. The most unbelievable CTE program with so many completers and so many programs within that. Again, our fine arts program where we have the top choral program perhaps in the nation. Our drum line just won the world championships in Dayton, Ohio. We have the largest ROTC unit. We have so many unbelievable things going on here, and we treasure that, and in treasuring that, we have to protect that by giving students flexible options to take courses, and Edmentum provides that,” explains Mr. Ruth.

Mr. Ruth’s impact extends beyond the school walls, as his visionary leadership and commitment to student-centered education have garnered attention from other school districts. With over 20 districts visiting Clover High School to witness the success firsthand, Rod’s influence and partnership with Edmentum have become models for educational excellence across the country.

Principal Rod Ruth was named South Carolina’s 2023 Secondary Principal of the Year. Going into the 2023-24 school year, Mr. Ruth will expand his leadership and dedication to student achievement in a new role as Chief Student Services and Secondary Education Officer with Clover School District, where he will aid in the planning a second high school and a third middle school. Mr. Ruth’s consistent dedication, innovation, and commitment continue to prove him an exemplary leader in K-12 education.

Cumberland County Public Schools
Nominated by: EPS Operations, LLC/School Specialty

For Cumberland County Public Schools, the fifth-largest district in North Carolina with a diverse population that includes over 25 percent military families, the strategic use of Structured Literacy made all the difference for both students and teachers in addressing disrupted learning due to the pandemic.

“These last two years have been rough,” said Catherine LeCleir-Salas, Instructional Specialist for K–5 exceptional students. She credits the use of EPS School Specialty’s S.P.I.R.E. reading intervention program for their success in maintaining a stable, high-quality reading program in spite of profound disruptions. “The teacher-led lessons include all critical areas of reading, multisensory learning, and mastery of concepts presented in a logical sequence based on language development.”

LeCleir-Salas also gave high marks to S.P.I.R.E.’s flexible professional learning program. “We have used both in-person and virtual professional development for S.P.I.R.E. and found the trainers to be very knowledgeable and supportive,” she said. Cumberland County had 85 to 90 percent teacher participation in using S.P.I.R.E. reading intervention program. “Teachers kept their own data for student progress,” said LeCleir-Salas, “and at the district level we monitored the implementation and performed random fidelity checks on program usage.”

Ninety-seven percent of the teachers recommended the district purchase S.P.I.R.E. for their Tier 3 reading program in large part because they liked how the Orton-Gillingham methodology is applied and that the teacher guides were easy to follow. The curriculum enabled the district to meet state legislative requirements to train teachers in the Science of Reading and successfully incorporate a Structured Literacy approach to student instruction.

Maria Molinares, Principal of Pre-K Partnerships, Dallas Independent School District
Nominated by: Age of Learning

Maria Molinares, principal of pre-K partnerships for the Dallas Independent School District, has had a career spanning over two decades as an accomplished teacher and administrator. Maria’s unwavering dedication to advancing instruction for kindergarten readiness stands as inspiration for her district and school community.

Her profound commitment to enhancing early childhood education is exemplified through her implementation of Age of Learning’s research-backed solution, My Math Academy. Leveraging these adaptive, personalized programs, Maria has created an environment where students thrive. Through these programs, children embark on personalized learning journeys that cater to their unique needs and learning paces, ensuring a solid foundation in math and reading skills.

Maria employs innovative uses of technology to deliver classroom, school, and district success. Her initiatives reflect the best in K-12 education, showcasing how technology can be harnessed to foster student engagement and achievement. By integrating these cutting-edge programs into her curriculum, Mrs. Molinares has not only accelerated educational outcomes but also ignited a passion for learning among both students and educators.

Maria demonstrates visionary leadership, relentless dedication, and groundbreaking approach to education. Through her commitment to language-rich instruction and innovative technology, Maria is shaping the future of education, one student at a time.

Sean Bevier, Educational Specialist, Elkhart County Juvenile Detention Center
Nominated by: Follett

Before embarking on his current job, Sean Bevier taught full time in the classroom for a decade, then went on to serve as assistant principal, principal, and head of school.

But his yearning to help those who are underserved and under-resourced resulted in a new position as Juvenile Probation Officer at the Elkhart County Juvenile Detention Center in Indiana, only to be promoted to Educational Specialist five months later.

Upon arrival at the Center, he single-handedly created a school library, and he now oversees the academic needs of two classrooms and has witnessed first-hand the magic of literacy.

“When we can match their ability and interests to books, it becomes a steppingstone toward academic success,” Sean says. “Many of our students say our Center is where they read their first-ever book!”

He said it’s understandable many students who end up at the Center have stories of hurt and trauma, which ultimately led to their poor choices. He recalls one student angry at his father when he arrived but noticed the relationship mending through their phone conversations. The topic of reading came up between the two and the student shared that he read a book, to which the father expressed his joy.

“That ignited this young man,” Sean says. “Although it was difficult for him to read, he checked out another book, then another. At one point, he was looking for his next book and he told me, ‘My dad said he read Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet when he was in school and liked it. Do we have that?’ Thanks to Follett Destiny Library Manager, we found it quickly and he checked it out with a smile on his face!”

Destiny Library Manager is doing its part to assist the Elkhart team to make it easier for the youths to find books they want to read.

“Before Destiny, we had no way to track books,” Sean recalls. “There were books available for the students to read, but they were on shelves somewhere or in boxes. They weren’t catalogued, so there was no way to help the students find what they were interested in.”

The inventory now is at 2,000 and growing, and they’re seeking student recommendations for more.

“As part of our research on juvenile literature, we understand the importance of asking the students and letting their voice be heard,” Sean says. “It is a joy to observe their gratitude when they see the book they recommended added to our shelf.”

Lori Romero, Assistant Superintendent, Elementary Education, Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District
Nominated by: Age of Learning

Lori Romero is the assistant superintendent for Elementary Education for Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District (HCISD), a few miles from the U.S./Mexico border. The district serves an economically disadvantaged community with about 80 percent of the students eligible to participate in the free and reduced-price meal program. In fall 2020, 61 percent of children in prekindergarten were classified as academically “at risk” and she has witnessed the impact a lack of readiness for kindergarten and beyond has on students.

Recognizing the challenge and looking for a solution, Mrs. Romero and her colleagues launched a free universal full-day pre-K program for 4-year-old children in the fall of 2019. Through this no-cost program, HCISD began to instill a strong foundation in literacy and math in its youngest learners. Shortly after the program began, COVID-19 forced the district to rethink how it could academically support pre-K students. While remote learning was difficult for all, the youngest learners faced particularly acute challenges when in-school learning was no longer possible. The priority was to ensure that district closures would not negatively impact pre-K students’ academic growth and development.

Mrs. Romero led the effort to bring edtech solutions that accelerate learning into the district’s pre-K classrooms. The district then began using Age of Learning’s adaptive, mastery-based math program, My Math Academy, to strengthen young learners’ foundational math knowledge. The pre-K students using My Math Academy during the 2020-2021 school year nearly tripled their skill levels, while kindergarteners participating in the program increased their skill levels by 50 percent. HCISD even had children entering kindergarten the following year learning math at a second-grade level!

Based on the overwhelmingly positive results, HCISD expanded the use of My Math Academy and began a pilot of My Reading Academy, an adaptive, standards-aligned reading solution. More than 850 children enrolled in HCISD’s universal pre-K program, and HCISD students are now performing better on math and reading compared to cohorts in previous years, and their math results are above the national average.

In her pursuit of educational excellence, Mrs. Romero’s visionary leadership and commitment to innovative solutions have transformed the trajectory of young learners at HCISD, fostering academic growth and creating a brighter future for all students.

Bryan Phillips, CIO, Hoover City Schools
Nominated by: Lightspeed Systems

In his role as CIO of Hoover City Schools in Hoover, Alabama, Bryan Phillips is highly engaged and committed, proactively seeking opportunities to contribute to important discussions and decision-making processes within the district. His leadership, participation, and active involvement demonstrate a dedication to staying informed about important issues and working collaboratively to improve student learning. 

Bryan’s involvement in nationwide leadership events empowers him to apply the knowledge gained from those events to district-wide think tanks and professional development for teachers, facilitating a positive impact on student learning. In introducing design thinking and encouraging teachers to collaborate on solutions to complex issues, Bryan has fostered a culture of innovation and collaboration throughout the district. This approach has allowed teachers to have a voice in creating solutions that are tailored to their unique needs and experiences, which ultimately leads to improved student outcomes.

Bryan’s engagement, leadership, and innovative problem-solving strategies have had a positive impact on the district as a whole. However, he has produced a significant impact on teaching and student learning with the following initiatives:

Making available the necessary digital learning tools and resources for remote learning, ensuring teachers were able to effectively deliver instruction and students were able to continue their education without interruption.

Sourcing tech coaches to support teachers and families, increasing the capacity for teachers to effectively integrate technology into their instruction, and resulting in improved student learning outcomes.

Collaborating with industry partners like Google to deliver valuable support and resources to address technical issues and improve the overall technology infrastructure and educational technology tools available to both students and teachers.

Providing internet access outside of buildings and in various locations throughout the community to extend learning opportunities to students who may not have had access otherwise, further supporting academic success and overall equity in education.

Finally, Bryan continues to plan and budget all technology purchases for the district, establishing and maintaining an adaptive technology infrastructure strategy that is highly secure and a safe environment for all in the Hoover City Schools district. Bryan regularly develops, evaluates, and maintains policies and procedures related to technology use, ensuring it is used effectively and responsibly. This includes strategies for managing technology rights and responsibilities, which help minimize the risk of cyberbullying, inappropriate content, data breaches, and other issues.

Overall, Bryan’s leadership activities create a culture of innovation and continuous improvement in the district and ensure technology resources are used effectively and responsibly to support teaching and learning.

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