She had no idea. When South Texas Preparatory Academy (STPA) principal Ana Castro entered the gym last Wednesday afternoon, already full of students and staff, she was expecting was a ceremony celebrating the school’s partnership with the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA).
What she got instead was a front row seat to a rally for her recent achievement.
One by one, presenters heaped praise on STPA and the district, but little by little the praise was directed towards her, until, finally, the moment came. Castro was named a finalist in the Secondary School Principal category of the H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards that afternoon. As part of the honor, representatives from H-E-B were on hand to present her with a $1,000 check for herself, along with a $2,500 check for STPA, and it was all a surprise to her.
“I’m still getting over it. It was very overwhelming,” Castro said. “I had thought it [the decision] had come and gone and that I had not made it. I didn’t know how to react.”
According to H-E-B, the H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards celebrate public school professionals whose leadership and dedication inspire a love of learning in students of all backgrounds and abilities. With more than $800,000 in cash prizes awarded annually to deserving teachers, principals, school districts and early childhood facilities, the H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards is the largest monetary recognition program for educators in Texas and one of the largest in the nation.
“This award is very prestigious and one of the largest of its kind in the state,” said Linda Tovar, H-E-B’s manager of public affairs for the region. “H-E-B emphasizes making sure that we give back to our teachers, principals, and school districts for what they do each and every day.”
The process started months earlier when the STPA administration forwarded an application after being nominated. Time went by and Castro eventually forgot about it while regional judges went through the hundreds of applications.
“I had thought the selection had already happened,” Castro said with a laugh.
The selections had, in fact, been made; all that was left was to inform her of her selection in the most dramatic way possible. Over the course of a few weeks, arrangements were made to bring students and staff together under the guise of a pep rally celebrating STPA’s partnership with UTPA. All hands were on deck for the event, including STISD superintendent of schools, Marla M. Guerra, Ed.D., and UTPA president Robert Nelsen, Ph.D., who were more than happy to share in Castro’s and STPA’s achievement.
“Mrs. Castro is very deserving of this award. She truly goes out of her way to ensure the students at STPA receive the highest-caliber education possible, with the best opportunities to grow and experience new things. Middle school is such an important time in a student’s life, and parents and students are always quick to praise the work being done by Castro and her staff to provide the students with a positive experience,” said Guerra.
“I think it’s amazing,” Dr. Nelsen said. “When you look at these kids you realize that we have such a bright future in the Valley. Some of them will come to UTPA (soon to be UT-RGV) and some will go other places, but they are getting that head start now.”
STPA’s partnership component, which includes innovative programs like the week-long STEM Camp and Mother-Daughter Program with UTPA, was one of the things that drew the attention of H-E-B judges. Not many middle schools give students that age a taste of college life, and it made STPA stand out from the pack.
All finalists will be invited to compete against other educators for the chance to win greater cash prizes ranging from $5,000 to $25,000. The six finalists from South Texas – four teachers, Castro and one other principal – will be invited to H-E-B’s Excellence in Education Banquet in May, where a judging panel of fellow educators and past winners will personally interview each finalist. Of the 40 finalists from the across the state, eight winners – two principals and six teachers – will be announced at the celebratory dinner.
Whether she wins or not, Castro will be quick to point out that this award is not just for her to enjoy; it is the result of a collective effort of the students and staff to live up to their own set of high standards.
Even during the application process, Castro viewed it as a collective effort. At first the application was difficult to fill out for her because she had always viewed it as a recognition of the campus as a whole rather than just herself.
“It was a group process,” Castro said. “When I filled out the application, I did it with the campus in mind. It would not have been possible without the work of our teachers and students.”