2023 Oklahoma Medal for Excellence-Winning Educators Announced

2023 Oklahoma Medal for Excellence-Winning Educators Announced

The Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence has announced the recipients of its 2023 Oklahoma Medal for Excellence Awards honoring five outstanding educators in Oklahoma’s public schools.

This year’s Medal for Excellence Award recipients and their award categories are: Barbie Jackson, STEM teacher, Limestone Technology Academy, SAND SPRINGS, elementary teaching; Jason Paris, fine arts teacher, CHEROKEE Junior High and High School, secondary teaching; Kyle Reynolds, superintendent, WOODWARD Public Schools, Elementary/Secondary Administration; Dr. Alissa Proctor, professor of optometry, Northeastern State University, TAHLEQUAH, Regional University/Community College Teaching, and Dr. F. Bailey Norwood, professor of agribusiness, Oklahoma State University, STILLWATER, Research University Teaching

“The Oklahoma Medal for Excellence is one of our state’s most prestigious educator awards and recognizes public school educators for their passion and innovation, their commitment to professional development, and their extraordinary impact on student learning,” said Elizabeth Inbody, executive director of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, a nonprofit that recognizes and encourages academic excellence in Oklahoma’s public schools. “By honoring these exceptional educators, we are sending a message that we value excellence in public schools and the professionals who have given so much of themselves to enrich the lives of our children.”

The awards will be presented at the foundation’s 37th Academic Awards Celebration on May 20, 2023, at the Cox Business Convention Center in Tulsa. Each of the five honorees will receive a $5,000 cash prize and a glass “Roots and Wings” sculpture, designed by the late Oklahoma artist Ron Roberts and produced by Artistic Glass Studio of Edmond.

Barbie Jackson, recipient of the Oklahoma Medal for Excellence in Elementary Teaching, teaches STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math – for kindergarten through fifth-grade students at Limestone Technology Academy in Sand Springs. Jackson is passionate about providing students with creative, hands-on learning experiences that go beyond curriculum standards and engage them in solving real-world problems.

“I focus not only on academics, but also on those soft skills needed to be successful in life,” Jackson said. “Students practice those skills when they are able to communicate, present, create, make mistakes, recover from those mistakes, try something different, and think critically about what they need to do next.”

In Jackson’s STEAM Lab, students use the engineering design process in the Maker Space – an area filled with household items, from paper towel tubes and crafting sticks to string and tape – to create prototypes to solve problems. Jackson has also set up a “Breaker Space” with a work bench and hand tools, where students learn to take apart and repair equipment. In addition, Jackson teaches a schoolwide Science of Flight curriculum, engaging students in creative projects involving flying insects, hot air balloons, kites, airplanes, parachutes and 3-D printed rockets.

Among Jackson’s students’ favorite projects is the Monarch Butterfly WayStation, where students help maintain a butterfly garden and then move caterpillars into the STEAM Lab, where they can observe their metamorphosis. In 2022, students tagged and released 52 monarch butterflies and were able to track their migration.

The learning continues after school with three STEM clubs sponsored by Jackson. Drone Club members code and pilot drones through student-designed obstacle courses, while the Brick Buddies collaborate on building a LEGO City. In her Girls Who Code Club, Jackson seeks to close the race and gender gap in STEM fields by providing hands-on computer science projects for girls.

“Mrs. Jackson challenged my daughter to use critical thinking skills and helped her develop perseverance when things didn’t work perfectly the first time.,” said Mandi Cloud, a parent and colleague. “My daughter has carried these skills with her to middle school, where science and math are her favorite subjects.”

Jackson said the future of STEM occupations ranges from what exists now to jobs yet to be discovered. “I want my students to be ready in either case. Early STEM exposure is the key.”

Jason Paris, recipient of the Medal for Excellence in Secondary Teaching, teaches fine arts at Cherokee Middle and High School, a rural northern Oklahoma school serving just over 200 students. A successful playwright with a graduate degree from New York University’s Directing Educational Theater program, the Oklahoma native has found his true calling as an arts teacher and mentor to students in Cherokee. 

“I discovered an incredible sense of purpose in building a speech, debate and theater program where one no longer existed,” he said, noting that the program grew from an enrollment of three students when he started to 53 today. Paris also expanded his instruction to include film and media production, studio art and vocal music. In any given hour, one can find his students editing a film for a local business, learning music for a community service project, creating visual arts from Paris’s online art lessons, or reading speech and debate materials.

“Students learn so much more than just techniques from him,” said colleague Michelle Baldwin. “He helps students see how important art is and what place it has in their lives. More importantly, students learn how to see themselves in the world through the art they experience and create.”

Paris has an innate ability to see talent and potential in students and draw it out of them, Baldwin added. He has led students to numerous state championships during his tenure and provided unique opportunities for them to showcase their talents in the community and beyond. Last year, Paris raised funds to take current and former students to Red River, N.M., to perform their show “The One-Act Play that Goes Wrong.”

In a time when young people face increasing rates of depression and apathy, Paris has found that his most critical role right now is to be a caring adult in his students’ lives. “They need guides who show them that, for all the challenges, all the hardships, all the really bad days, life remains full of joy, beauty, wonder and magic.

“Being an effective educator means that everything I do should provide young people with appreciation for all that is good in the world and as many tools as I can provide them to save it,” Paris said. “The best way I know how to achieve that, frankly, is to turn them into artists.”

The recipient of the Medal for Excellence in Elementary/Secondary Administration is Kyle Reynolds, superintendent of Woodward Public Schools.  The Woodward native was named superintendent of his alma mater in 2014 and has focused his tenure on helping build bridges out of adversity and creating solutions for all students to excel in academics and in life.

“My job is to serve all kids, and one of my most frequently repeated mantras is ‘All means all,’” Reynolds said. “Our team works every day to build bridges that will connect to our most needy students. … We must build bridges to those who are hungry, those whose home lives lack stability and support, and those who have suffered adversities most of us cannot fathom.”

Recognizing the number of students who faced food insecurity and lacked after-school care, Reynolds partnered with district supporter Bruce Benbrook to fund Boomer ExSTREAM, an after-school program centered on hands-on activities in science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and math (STREAM). Due to its success, the district received two $1.3 million federal grants to sustain the program.

Seeking solutions to address dropout rates and a skills gap in the region’s career market, Reynolds partnered with High Plains Technology Center to create the Technical Applications Program (TAP), which provides electives to introduce middle schoolers to technical skills and trades. The program seeks to spark students’ interests in careers and establish a foundation for post-secondary opportunities.

Recognizing the high percentage of rural students dealing with mental health issues and traumatic experiences, Reynolds and his team partnered with the State Department of Education to receive a multimillion-dollar Project AWARE grant. The grant provided for additional school counselors and trained every teacher in mental health first-aid.

Reynolds also worked with the Office of Juvenile Affairs and Western Plains Youth and Family Services to create COPE: Community Outreach Prevention and Education. Juvenile offenders who would have previously been suspended from school are now able to continue their education while receiving counseling and other services to address their issues.

“Kyle Reynolds is an innovator, problem solver, visionary and a man who always leads with the courage of his convictions,” said Kevin Evans, executive director of the Western Plains Youth and Family Services. “As superintendent, his leadership has impacted not only the quality of education for our students, but also the quality of their health and well-being.”

Dr. Alissa Proctor, the recipient of the Oklahoma Medal for Excellence in Teaching at a Regional University/Community College, is a professor of optometry at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah. She has frequently been honored as Outstanding Teacher of the Year by NSU optometry students because of her passion for her subject matter and her unique teaching style that combines learner-centered techniques and service learning opportunities. In her 17 years as a professor, Proctor’s teaching philosophy has evolved from a lecture-style presentation to creating a learner-centered environment.

“A learner-centered classroom engages students in the learning process while empowering them to take ownership of their learning,” she said. “I avoid relaying information students can read elsewhere by encouraging thinking, application, clinical connections and information retrieval.”

Proctor connects content to real-world applications through case studies and hands-on learning opportunities to apply knowledge to patient care. In her pediatrics course, for example, Proctor invites alumni to bring their children in for students to conduct exams. She also recruits faculty and staff to volunteer as patients while her students work in small groups to examine them and prescribe lenses.

As an advocate for children’s vision programs, Proctor engages her students in service learning by inviting them to participate in vision screenings at local elementary schools. Her students learn how to interact with children, use language children understand and collect data in a fun and engaging way.

“During the past 16 years, I have supervised the screening of almost 21,000 children,” Proctor said. “I am proud of the work optometry students do to take care of the children of Cherokee County.”

As the advisor for SVOSH, Students Volunteering Optometric Services for Humanity, Proctor has organized 12 student service-learning trips to Roatan, Honduras. Joined by professional optometrists, the students have examined thousands of patients who would otherwise not receive eye care, providing glasses, eye drops and referring many for additional care, such as cataract surgery.

“Dr. Proctor uses her profession to advocate for those in need and fosters the same mindset of giving back to the community in her students,” said former student Kayla Cook. “In addition to her work in Honduras, Dr. Proctor is a huge proponent of InfantSee, a program that provides no-cost, comprehensive eye exams to infants before their first birthday. … Her advocacy of SVOSH and InfantSee are awe-inspiring and a testament to her service-oriented mindset.”

The winner of the Medal for Excellence in Teaching at a Research University is F. Bailey Norwood, a professor of agribusiness at Oklahoma State University. Norwood’s passion for economics and teaching were inspired by a college professor, his “Socrates,” who gave him a thirst for learning. “I am living testimony to the importance of a remarkable instructor,” he said. Now, Norwood himself is inspiring future generations as an engaging professor, mentor and community volunteer.

“Dr. Norwood brings challenging topics to life in a way that resonates with students, enhancing their capability for life-long learning,” said colleague Kellie Curry Raper. “He gives students that one class that provides them with the fondest of memories, where the instructor did things no other instructor dared, and where the instructor stepped up to meet the challenge of short attention spans. He makes students take agricultural economics seriously by inspiring them to see all that it has to offer the world.”

Norwood goes to great lengths to learn all his students’ names early in the semester and holds a “Meet Your Classmates” activity to build relationships. He infuses his courses with humor and provides opportunities for students to “get their hands dirty” and learn things they know they will be need in their careers.

In his popular Farm to Fork course, Norwood presents the science and economics behind agricultural production and marketing decisions, as well as touching on controversial issues like food insecurity. As part of the course, students help manage a garden at a local food pantry to provide produce for neighbors in need. In Norwood’s Quantitative Methods course, students gather at the baseball field to hit three balls as far as they can and then collect data to determine why someone would hit further than others. The exercise helps students understand statistical concepts used to forecast crop yields and other agricultural applications. In his courses, Norwood has even dressed in character as historical figures to help bring complex economics concepts to life.

“Dr. Norwood is the teacher you never forget,” said student Jaci Deitrick. “He made each of his students excited to come to class and tackle difficult subjects like economics and supply chain management. While the material was not easy, Dr. Norwood made it easy to understand and taught us how to apply textbook formulas and definitions to real world applications.”

In addition to presenting the Medal for Excellence awards, the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence will honor 100 of Oklahoma’s top public high school seniors as Academic All-Staters at its banquet on May 20, 2023. The Academic Awards Banquet is open to the public, with admission priced at $65. Registration will open online April 3 at ofe.org.