TEA News Releases Online
April 23, 2009
Best of Texas Awards go to 12 outstanding individuals
AUSTIN - A high school student who has turned his life around, a mother whose tragic loss of her own children inspired her to create a youth program, and a leader who last year inspired citizens to provide more than 40,000 hours of service to at-risk students are among 12 outstanding individuals who will receive a Best of Texas Award today.
The awards are presented by the Communities In Schools (CIS), a dropout prevention program administered by the Texas Education Agency. In recognition of National Volunteer Month, the CIS State Advisory Committee and the CIS State Office will honor the award recipients at an appreciation luncheon at noon today at the Doubletree Hotel at 303 W. 15th St. This is the eighth year that CIS has recognized individuals for their outstanding contributions to the mission of CIS, which is to help young people to stay in school, successfully learn, and prepare for life. This is the 30th year CIS has operated in Texas and the 20th year CIS has been a state funded program. Growing from the first program in Houston, CIS now operates 27 affiliates in 55 counties.
Following are the recipients of the 2009 CIS Best of Texas Awards:
Executive Director of the Year
Cynthia Clay Briggs, who has led Communities In Schools Houston, Inc. for 20 years, is the recipient of the CIS Executive Director of the Year award. She has dedicated her life to CIS for more than 30 years, building the program from one campus in North Houston to serving more than 120 schools today. During her tenure she has established a committed board, inspired her staff and developed meaningful community partnerships earning her the respect of board members, staff and school officials. Briggs goes above and beyond as a community and school advocate. For example, during Hurricane Katrina she successfully oversaw a $2 million dollar federal jobs grant for the city putting displaced teachers back to work, tutoring, mentoring and providing student support throughout surrounding communities during a time of crisis. Under Briggs’ leadership, the CIS program in Houston is viewed as a model by the CIS National Office as well as by her peers. Last year alone under her leadership, about 2,000 CIS volunteers provided more than 40,000 hours of service valued in excess of $800,000 to young people. Briggs exemplifies the true spirit of Communities In Schools.
Business of the Year
Oakwood Baptist Church, a congregation with several thousand members in New Braunfels, is the recipient of the CIS Business of the Year. An active partner with CIS of South Central Texas, Oakwood and its minister Ray Still are inspirational collaborators. The church provides funding to CIS every month to help families pay their rent, utilities, buy food and pay other bills. The church provides CIS students, who would otherwise be alone in the afternoons, with a free afterschool place for recreation, homework, snacks and fellowship. More than 100 church members mentor at-risk students. The church organizes several annual special projects, such as hosting the Heart of Hope Dinner that provides a Christmas dinner and gifts to needy families. Oakwood church is truly committed to the success of CIS and the students served.
CIS Student of the Year
Stephen Donaldson, a senior at Denton High School, has been selected as the CIS Student of the Year. He has truly blossomed over his four years in CIS of North Texas (CISNT) and has become a leader in his school and his CIS program. CIS matched a mentor with Stephen in his ninth grade year and provided him with other individualized services to help him through struggles to succeed in school. Soon Stephen began to come by the CIS office on a regular basis to talk about school and get help with his homework. He stuck with CIS throughout his high school career. Having passed all of his classes and Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests this year, Stephen is now looking forward to attending college in the fall, a goal he wasn’t even considering a few years ago. This past year, he represented CISNT at United Way where his principal and dean of instruction both spoke of his accomplishments through CIS. Stephen has gone out of his way to find opportunities to help his classmates, and has expressed an interest in continuing to serve CIS after he graduates. CIS of North Texas is very proud of Stephen Donaldson.
CIS Volunteer of the Year
Mary Ann Garrett has turned tragedy into inspiration after losing two of her own children about 10 years ago. In honor of their memory, she created the MC Community Youth Program, named for her children Michael and Constance. For eight years Garrett has been volunteering with CIS of Bell-Coryell to provide step/dance classes for students. She brings in motivational speakers to talk to the children and finds creative ways to improve behavior, grades, and school attendance. Between September and March 2008, she volunteered 96 hours at one middle school alone. Garrett seeks to instill in each of her students self-discipline, self-esteem, and a desire to become a young volunteer and help others. She is a true inspiration to all who know her.
Teacher of the Year
Her close work with at-risk students and her understanding that a student’s struggles with school aren’t always purely academic led to Adriana Laguna being named the CIS Teacher of the Year. Laguna is a hard working, committed teacher. After teaching Spanish at Americas High School in Socorro ISD for six years, Laguna was named the coordinator of the Freshman Initiative where she helped struggling ninth graders succeed with grades, attendance and behavior. She garnered the support of parents, teachers, students and CIS staff to successfully help her students get back on track. Laguna also oversees the Blazer Center, a full-time tutoring center, works with students in the A+ program for credit recovery, and spearheaded “Trailblazers 101,” a freshman orientation and resource fair. CIS El Paso is very appreciative of Laguna and her commitment to her students.
CIS Principal of the Year
Deborah Merki, principal of Roanoke Elementary in Northwest ISD and CIS Principal of the Year, is an active CIS board member and volunteer. The word “Inspire” is the theme at Roanoke Elementary, as Merki believes every student is inspired by something and this can be connected through to their academic achievement. Under her leadership, Roanoke has risen to an Exemplary elementary school. Merki has created a positive learning environment, emphasized the value of parents, promoted college awareness and maintained an open door policy with students and the community. She created the Roanoke Hall of Fame to recognize student success, and implemented Latino Literacy Night to teach Spanish-speaking parents how to help their children learn to read by incorporating their culture. She always makes sure to tell both staff members and students how appreciative she is of their hard work. Her tremendous efforts have had a far reaching impact in the school and community.
CIS Superintendent of the Year
Duncan Klussmann, superintendent of Spring Branch ISD, is a tireless champion of students and has set the standard for district improvement. He has a strong sense of vision and purpose: All students in Spring Branch ISD will succeed. Klussmann is also an enthusiastic supporter of Communities in Schools. This past year, he expanded CIS services in Spring Branch from 12 campuses to 28 by placing a CIS program at every Title I school in the district. Nearly 9,000 students have received more than 40,000 hours of direct service delivery. He is a true leader who inspires others through his sense of genuine concern and integrity. Klussmann, who works with CIS Houston, is the recipient of the CIS Superintendent of the Year award.
Board Member of the Year
Mark Vallejo, an IBM employee, is the CIS Board Member of the Year. Over the past decade, he has served as a board chair for CIS-San Antonio twice and chaired three standing committees during his tenure. Vallejo frequently steps outside of the boardroom and into the classroom; going above and beyond his role as a board member to support students. For example, he adopted two schools so he could gain hands-on experience along side of CIS staff. He encourages the staff and provides needed resources for students. Vallejo has been known to personally provide track shoes for students who couldn’t afford them so they could compete in athletics. He is consistent with his support for the CIS organization to help youth succeed. His extensive work in CIS and the community is why Vallejo has been called an “outstanding asset” to CIS of San Antonio.
CIS Parent of the Year
Maria Solano, a parent at Provident Heights Elementary School in the Waco ISD, is the CIS Parent of the Year. An active parent, Solano serves as vice president of her school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and translates the meetings for Spanish-speaking families. She is actively involved in the school and community and consistently seeks out resources that provide educational support for her children. Solano not only supports and encourages her own children, she also works to meet the needs of families in her community, picking up and taking care of children whose parents are not able to attend CIS events. She offers a helping hand whenever it is needed by CIS – Heart of Texas.
Staff Member of the Year
Leigh Ann Armendariz has been a well respected member the CIS of Greater Tarrant County program for more than eight years, causing her to be named the CIS Staff Member of the Year. She is known for building trusting relationships with students and parents, lasting long after students graduate from high school. She began working with CIS as a project manager at Fort Worth’s North Side High School. After five years, she became the first project manager at KEYS Learning Center, an alternative high school in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD. In April 2008, Armendariz became the CIS’ first college project manager at Tarrant County College, eagerly accepting the challenge to develop the new program. In addition to her official duties, Armendariz constantly exceeds expectations: volunteering in understaffed schools, and tackling any task, no matter the size. Her coworkers describe Leigh Ann as a person with a contagious attitude about work and they appreciate all that she accomplishes for colleagues, students and parents.
The CIS Paul Lane Award of Excellence
The CIS Paul Lane Award of Excellence, named in honor of a late CIS employee, recognizes an individual who has shown integrity, passion and devotion in his or her service to CIS students. The award this year goes to Janice Masters, the parent liaison at Americas High School in Socorro ISD. She is always willing to offer a helping hand to school staff, students, and parents, and often she goes above and beyond to ensure students succeed. Families who experienced financial hardship have benefited from Masters’ compassion as she helped obtain donations to meet the family’s needs. Masters was also the driving force behind the creation of the annual Americas High School mother/daughter conference to help girls in grades 6-12 become “strong women with strong futures.” More than 400 girls and their mothers attended the conference. She is now working to create a similar conference for fathers and sons.
Gonzalo Barrientos Lifetime Achievement Award
This year, the CIS State Advisory Committee debuts a new award called the Gonzalo Barrientos Lifetime Achievement Award in honor of Austin’s long-time state senator. Barrientos, who retired from the Texas Senate in 2006, has been an influential leader in the dropout prevention movement for more than three decades. Along with passing a number of bills aimed at curbing the dropout rate, Barrientos passed the first legislation funding the CIS program in Texas, served on the CIS National Board of Directors and serves as the current chair of the CIS State Advisory Committee. Barrientos is the first recipient of this award named in his honor because of his exceptional work in the area of dropout prevention.