These 11 eSN Hero Awards finalists have prioritized digital literacy, mental health, real-world learning, and student success.

eSN Hero Awards Finalists: 11 inspiring educators

These 11 eSN Hero Awards finalists have prioritized digital literacy, mental health, real-world learning, and student success

This is Part 2 of a two-part feature highlighting the eSN K-12 Hero Awards finalists. Part 1, spotlighting 10 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. (Read about 10 more finalists here!)

Read about the three 2023 winners here.

Jump to: Johnston County Public Schools, Carol Cleveland, Colene Hardy, Joey Norris, Jhone M. Ebert, Adam Hyman, Aaron Schwartz, Robert Palazzo, Ramaz School, Daniel Thompson, Dr. Richard Labbe

Johnston County Public Schools
Nominated by: Savvas Learning Company

While recent statistics from NAEP (The Nation’s Report Card) show significant declines in math scores across the country, Johnston County Public Schools in North Carolina has defied that trend. Data released at the end of the 2021-22 school year showed the district increased math scores by double digits in grades 3-8, outperforming pre-COVID levels. These gains led the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to single out Johnston County as the most improved school district in the state. How did the district do it?

Johnston County Public Schools increased its districtwide math scores to above state averages by implementing a year-over-year plan for high-quality mathematics instruction, which included the adoption of Savvas Learning Company’s enVision® series for grades K-12, an evidence-based, classroom-tested core math curriculum delivered on the Savvas Realize learning management system platform.

Prior to the 2021-2022 school year, the district’s assessment data showed math scores were low, contributing to 14 out of 48 schools in the district being identified as low performing in 2019. Johnston County district leaders made it a priority to find out where they were going wrong. They soon realized that their strategy for letting teachers put together their own math instruction was part of the problem. They needed a cohesive core math curriculum that they could roll out districtwide.

After months of research and a successful pilot, the district chose enVision to be that core mathematics curriculum because of its rigor, digital learning components, and engaging lessons. enVision offers an innovative math curriculum that helps educators teach with confidence and inspires students with hands-on, problem-based learning.

Savvas worked with the district to successfully implement enVision and develop a multi-year professional development plan for teachers. After one year of using enVision, Johnston County saw real growth. From 2021 to 2022, it gained 16 percentage points in math proficiency for grades 3-8, and 9 percentage points for grades 9-12, outperforming statewide averages of a 10-point gain in grades 3-8 and an 8-point gain in grades 9-12.

Johnston County educators are confident they will continue to see growth, and they credit Savvas for being part of the “right mix of expertise, resources, and support” that is delivering real results for the district’s students.

Savvas is proud to call out Johnston County Public Schools as an outstanding example of K-12 success using enVision — a true “K-12 Hero” using its innovative education technology.

Carol Cleveland, Executive Director, Community Schools, Kent School District
Nominated by: Hazel Health

Hazel Health (Hazel) nominates Carol Cleveland in honor of her commitment to the mental and physical well-being of students within the Kent School District. Ms. Cleveland’s leadership and vision for equitable healthcare access have been instrumental in expanding access to healthcare services for students across the district.

Ms. Cleveland came into her position under challenging circumstances, including a teacher strike that delayed the start of the school year in August 2022. During this time, parents and educators voiced concerns about the lack of mental health support for students. During a district board meeting, Ms. Cleveland spoke on the importance of mental health services and advocated for a solution: “Our kids who are talented and have so much potential are experiencing needs that are going unmet.” Ms. Cleveland recognized the need and became a strong advocate for Hazel Health, a telehealth company that provides mental health services to students at no cost to families.

The district initially launched Hazel in 10 pilot schools in January 2022. Ms. Cleveland relentlessly advocated for equitable access to Hazel’s mental health services in all district schools rather than limiting services to a small group. Her proposal was approved by the district’s board in October 2022, resulting in the expansion of Hazel Health to an additional 8 schools.

However, there were still 25 elementary schools in the district without access to Hazel’s mental health resources. Ms. Cleveland understood the importance of gaining the support and trust of school administrators and mental health staff, so she took it upon herself to personally meet with all the principals at all 25 elementary schools to address their concerns and explain in detail the scope of services Hazel Health could offer. “Out of the 25 principals I spoke to, 21 of them said, ‘We want it, we need it, what do we need to do to get it?’”

Through persistent efforts, Ms. Cleveland successfully secured funding to expand to these 25 elementary schools, bringing Hazel services to more than 25,000 additional students in the district.

Ms. Cleveland’s advocacy and perseverance extended beyond mental health services as she oversaw the district-wide launch of Hazel’s at-home physical health services, where students can meet with a medical provider virtually from the comfort of their own homes at no cost, regardless of insurance status. In June 2023, she successfully obtained board approval for a second year of district-wide physical and mental health services for Kent School District.

Ms. Cleveland’s tireless dedication to serving Kent School District has benefited students, families, and school staff in incredible ways. Her perseverance has expanded healthcare access for students, and she has demonstrated what it means to be a leader in K-12 education.

Colene Hardy, English Teacher and Instructional Technology Coach, Lake Forest School Districts 67 and 115
Nominated by: Logitech

In her dual role as an English teacher and an instructional technology coach for Lake Forest School Districts 67 and 115 in Illinois, Colene Hardy has created a deep, comprehensive, and repeatable approach to edtech in the classroom. She harnesses the power of many platforms, devices, and peripherals to offer her students personalized instruction, inclusivity, data-driven feedback, cross-cultural exchanges, and the support of other educators at their school.

Through virtual labs and field trips, simulations, and scenario-based learning, Colene presents complex concepts to her students in ways they find easier to understand and connect to real-world applications.

In a recent study by the International Olympic Committee, more than half of young people (55 percent) said they enjoyed school more on days they get to do physical activity. Because moving around has been shown to bring many benefits to students, she often designs activities that take her kids outside the classroom, ingeniously folding in the features of her edtech resources. For example, in one activity, she supercharges a regular lesson by having students record explanations of what they’ve learned on their iPads. Once students in one of her classes had the bright idea of using the magnetic strip on their Logitech Rugged Combo Keyboard cases to stick the iPads to the metal lockers in the hallway, this already powerful activity began to unlock even more edtech advantages: Now, it reinforces and clarifies students’ thinking, gets them moving, allows her to track their progress with the day’s concepts, and includes students who might otherwise have trouble holding an iPad steady enough to make a good recording.

This talent for seeing how edtech can transform, rather than replace, traditional methods enhances every decision Colene makes in the classroom. So, she may have her students type in Google Docs with their tablets instead of writing by hand, to offer them the instant feedback of the platform’s interactive built-in spelling and grammar checker. But she’ll also have them record their screens and annotate their essays with a stylus. This combination approach contains the best of all worlds: It accommodates different learning styles, makes lessons dynamic and interactive, and includes the benefits of handwriting with a stylus, such as improved motor control and better retention.

With her expert knowledge of edtech solutions and her dedication to making schoolwork engaging, efficient, and effective, Colene has set herself apart as a true K-12 hero.

Joey Norris, Coordinator of Technology Integration, McDowell County Schools
Nominated by:

Joey Norris is a true educational hero who returned to his home county in West Virginia to make a difference. He is dedicated to the success of the teachers and students of McDowell County and is a shining example of the positive impact one individual can make in a community.

Amid the pandemic, Joey’s thoughtful and deliberate implementation plan ensured the students of McDowell County had equitable access to digital literacy and computer science education. Joey carefully tailored curriculum pathways to meet students’ needs. This custom curriculum, which was a new learning experience for most students, delivered the essential skills students needed to be safe online.

Today, Joey continues to provide thoughtful planning to the curriculum and has continued to expand the pathways to include 12 digital literacy concepts. Whether a student’s next step is online assessment, core subject productivity, or college and career readiness, McDowell County students enter the environment with a confidence that comes from familiarity with digital literacy concepts.

Joey is also a tremendous support to teachers, providing strong professional development to help them improve their confidence in integrating technology into their core curriculum.

Joey embraces the idea that engaging technology can be leveraged to help students enhance their digital journey, which will prepare them to not just survive but excel in a digital world. Joey empowers students and teachers to achieve great success in the classroom and in the future.

Jhone M. Ebert, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Nevada Department of Education
Nominated by: Discovery Education

The shift to distance education precipitated by the COVID pandemic highlighted challenges including access to technology, professional learning for educators, and high-quality instructional materials. To meet this challenge, in the summer of 2020, Jhone Ebert, Nevada State’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, announced the launch of the Nevada Digital Learning Collaborative (DLC).

An innovative initiative designed to bridge the digital divide across Nevada, the Digital Learning Collaborative sought to accomplish the following:

  • Work with state partners to establish equitable access for all students to devices and the internet where they live
  • Provide high-quality professional development that drives ROI on the state’s edtech investment for all educators on tools and pedagogy that create engaging learning experiences online and in a blended model and in all grades and subjects
  • Ensure all students and educators have access to rigorous, standards-aligned curriculum, such as that provided by NVDOE partner Discovery Education, to support instruction in both face-to-face, online, and blended environments

While initially created to meet the challenges of teaching in the COVID era, the DLC has become an integral part of teaching and learning in Nevada in the post-COVID world. Through its best-in-class digital resources and powerful professional learning opportunities, the DLC is future-proofing the state’s classrooms as it is connecting the education students are receiving in the classroom to the world beyond the school yard.

The Discovery Education resources provided by the DLC are funded in part by a unique public-private partnership with Nevada Gold Mines. Nevada Gold Mines’ collaboration with the Nevada Department of Education and Discovery Education demonstrates a long-standing commitment to the state. As a global leader in mining, Nevada Gold Mines directly invests in social and economic opportunities including education, the environment, health, economic development, and cultural heritage. Now in its third year, the DLC and its innovative funding structure has become a model program emulated by other education systems in the nation.

Thanks to the leadership of Jhone Ebert, all public school systems and charter schools across Nevada now have access to dynamic digital resources and supportive professional learning that is helping to support the success of all learners. Ebert’s efforts are being emulated nationally, and her department has been recognized for building powerful public-private partnerships that support student learning.

Adam Hyman, Media Arts Technology Teacher, Public School 101, New York City Public Schools
Nominated by: Logitech

Adam Hyman is a veteran media arts technology teacher who empowers students to create in a way that challenges them, fulfills them, and reflects the world around them. Students today are deeply ingrained in the “creator culture,” with one-third of children ages 8-12 aspiring to be a YouTuber or vlogger. Adam decided to tap into the movement, integrating content creation into the curriculum not only to increase student engagement and school community connections, but also to help students develop self-confidence and prepare them for 21st century careers.

To do this, he created BEE TV, a student-led daily school newscast from Public School 101 in New York City. BEE TV started during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic as a way to share what was happening at school with families who were at home. The mini broadcast studio within his school uses a Logitech BRIO Webcam and Litra Beam light for a professional-like experience. Local news stations have run several stories on BEE TV as an example of how educators can catalyze creativity and give students ownership over their own learning journeys. These are exactly the goals that Adam has tried to achieve through edtech during his 24-year teaching career.

Adam has School Building Leadership and Education Technology Specialist certifications, and he acts as Public School 101’s Promethean Panel and ClassFlow Lead and Certified Teacher. While teaching media arts technology in Grades 1–5, Adam continues to push the boundaries of edtech forward and discover new, insightful ways to keep his students, and his entire school community, excited about learning.

Aaron Schwartz, Associate Principal, North Scott High School
Nominated by: IPVideo

In his role, Aaron Schwartz is always looking out for the students at North Scott High School and investigating solutions to keep a safe and secure learning environment. From active shooter drills to security solutions, he is looked upon by the district to find solutions to keep students safe.

In the 21-22 school year, the district has received more than 20 EMS calls for students who were suffering at various levels, including seizures. The suspicion was that this was related to vaping in the high school restrooms, but it could not be proven, and the student victims were not divulging the source. This created anxiety across the district and community to other potential causes.

Determined to identify and prevent the problem Aaron found a solution in the HALO Smart Sensor from IPVideo Corporation, a vape detection and privacy security device for schools. Aaron pushed the district to trial the product, which led to a full implementation in the bathrooms throughout the high school.

Since installation, the HALO devices served as a deterrent to vaping in the restrooms and no further EMS calls took place. The identification of the problem also put fellow students and the community at ease. Aaron’s efforts identified a problem, found a solution to protect students, and provided for a safer learning environment.

Robert Palazzo, Principal, Panther Valley Elementary School
Nominated by: 95 Percent Group

Owning up to a mistake takes courage. And when you are responsible for helping more than 650 PreK-3 students build the literacy foundation necessary for success in school, careers, and life, admitting it makes you a hero.

Robert Palazzo, principal at Panther Valley Elementary School in rural Pennsylvania, is known for his ability to make things happen for his students. A Title 1 school with 80 percent of students on free and reduced lunch and 20 percent in special education, staying laser focused on ensuring students have the resources they need to thrive is always top of mind for Robert.

This dedication to meeting the needs of his students has served the school well. Since taking over as principal in 2017, Robert has established a pre-kindergarten and forged creative partnerships in the community to raise funds to build a new playground and launch a school-based therapy program.

And so, when it came time to focus on elevating his students’ reading scores, Robert was sure he’d found the answer in the principles of Balanced Literacy.

Except, after a year and a half of using this hand-picked program, Robert had to admit the truth: His students just weren’t learning how to read.

Robert called a meeting with staff and faculty and confessed the tough lesson learned: What we’re doing just isn’t working. It’s time to try something new.

At the same time, a national movement away from Balanced Literacy toward the science of reading had begun. Robert did research and discovered the One95 Literacy Ecosystem, which is rooted in the principles of the science of reading and evidence-based instructional strategies. The program would give students a much-needed foundation in core phonics.

Paying for the program would require ingenuity–a skill Robert had honed. He reached out to the foundation of a local business already supporting the school and convinced it to repurpose its philanthropy to support the new reading program. Coupled with ESSER funds, Panther Valley Elementary School was poised to make the investment in a new chapter of reading achievement for its students.

The improvements in student reading abilities were immediate and impactful. Not only did reading scores soar, excitement and confidence is evident everywhere. When Robert reminded a student one day not to run in the hallway, the response was, “I can’t! I have to run! I’m so excited to learn!”

As Dr. Jonathan Ross, president of the Pennsylvania Principals Association, noted upon Robert’s selection to the National Distinguished Principal program, “Mr. Palazzo stops at nothing to secure needed services for his students. As a result, the teachers, staff, and community at large feel a part of something greater than themselves that will undoubtedly shape the lives of a generation of children for the better.”

Ramaz School
Nominated by: RobotLAB Inc.

Ramaz is a modern Orthodox day school that has recently implemented an AI LAB by RobotLAB in their middle school.

RobotLAB worked directly with the Ramaz team to discuss the customization and implementation of their lab. This lab includes various STEM products, modular seating, and curriculum.

The AI LAB is designed to allow students to work in different stations such as: Humanoid Robotics, Industry 4.0, Smart transportation, and VR, among others. These new tools will guide students through multiple programming languages and hands-on experiences with advanced concepts, where robotics and coding become part of their daily learning.

Daniel Thompson, Science Teacher, Ron Clark Academy
Nominated by: Boxlight

Teaching at the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Ga., Daniel Thompson’s incredible dedication to transformative science education for his students speaks volumes about his drive to enhance teaching and learning. With over 7 years of teaching experience, Thompson’s commitment closely aligns with RCA’s mission of delivering impactful learning experiences to a diverse student body.

Thompson’s teaching approach is visionary, placing a strong emphasis on hands-on engagement and fostering genuine understanding. He skillfully guides his students through captivating scientific exploration, encouraging curiosity and a passion for learning. Thompson’s innovative methodologies extend beyond traditional teaching, allowing his students to grasp complex concepts through tangible experiences.

For example, Thompson has leveraged the Labdisc All-in-One Science Lab from Boxlight to elevate the learning experience for his students. This innovative tool, with its unique capabilities, supports Thompson’s mission to make STEM education accessible and inspiring for his students. By incorporating Labdisc into his teaching methods, Thompson has amplified his students’ engagement and provided them with a glimpse into the possibilities of scientific careers.

Thompson’s impact reaches beyond the classroom, as he aspires to empower his students to see themselves as future scientists. This aligns perfectly with RCA’s commitment to fostering academic excellence and a positive learning environment. Thompson’s dedication to nurturing authentic curiosity and connection to the world of science resonates deeply with his diverse student body.

Daniel Thompson’s innovative teaching approach, combined with his dedication to making STEM education attainable and inspiring, highlights his role as an educator who shapes the aspirations of his students. Through his work at RCA, Thompson embodies the values of engagement, empowerment, and academic excellence, making him a true hero in the realm of K-12 education.

Dr. Richard Labbe, Superintendent of Schools, Sayreville School District
Nominated by: Age of Learning

Dr. Richard Labbe is the superintendent of schools in the Sayreville Public School District, with a remarkable career spanning 30 years. His exceptional contributions to the field of education and his successful integration of educational technology to accelerate learning for all students are a testament to his commitment to foster educational excellence.

Dr. Labbe’s impressive tenure includes 23 years in leadership roles, where he has consistently championed innovative approaches to improve student learning outcomes. In his 10th year as the superintendent in Sayreville and 13th year as a chief school administrator, Dr. Labbe’s passion for early childhood education and literacy development shines through. His advocacy for early literacy has been a driving force in shaping curriculum and programs that empower young learners.

Harnessing the power of Age of Learning’s adaptive and personalized programs such as My Math Academy and My Reading Academy, he has revolutionized the way students engage with curriculum. By leveraging edtech solutions, Dr. Labbe has accelerated learning, tailored instruction, and provided students with engaging programs that cater to individual learning styles.

Furthermore, Dr. Labbe’s advocacy for a response to intervention (RTI) or multi-tiered approach demonstrates his commitment to inclusivity and equity. He ensures that all students, regardless of their background or learning abilities, receive the necessary support to thrive academically. This dedication exemplifies his belief in the potential of every learner.

Dr. Richard Labbe demonstrates transformative leadership, advocacy for early childhood education, and innovative use of educational technology. His impact on the Sayreville Public School District and the broader educational community is immeasurable.

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