The awards banquet for the Celebration of Excellence in Education was a night to remember, as Las Cruces Public Schools employees were honored for their dedication to student learning. Award winners from each category were announced on Monday, April 29, 2019, at the annual event, organized by the Las Cruces Public Schools Foundation and held at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum.

Nikolina Keyes, from Rio Grande Preparatory Institute, was named the Teacher of the Year for 2020. Keyes is in her 20th year as a teacher, and currently teaches U.S. History, Principles of Democracy and Employability Skills at RGPI. She holds a bachelor’s degree in History from Georgetown University, a master’s degree in Education from the University of California Los Angeles, and a master’s degree in Educational Leadership and Administration from New Mexico State University.  Keyes began her career teaching at inner-city schools in Los Angeles. She believes that while students must be held accountable for their behavior, they should not be stigmatized for making a bad decision. Her essay describes her passion for working with at-risk students.

In her nomination essay, Keyes stated, “Building relationships with students is critical, however, relationships alone are not enough.  Many of the students that I have worked with over the years have had extremely difficult circumstances. Many do not have any support at home or are independent and living on their own. I feel a great responsibility to ensure that my students graduate with skills that will allow them to create opportunities in their future.”

“A good teacher is like a candle; it consumes itself to light the way for others.  Mrs. Keyes lights the way for many students and to her I say, never let your light burn out,” said RGPI Principal Rebecca Rodriguez, when asked to comment on Keyes.

Mary Bachman, an Educational Assistant at Doña Ana Elementary School earned the 2020 Las Cruces Public Schools Educational Support Personnel of the Year award. Bachman works to support students on the autism spectrum. She has been with Las Cruces Public Schools for thirteen years, and has spent the last three years at Doña Ana Elementary. Through her work, she has helped students develop social skills, and has prepared them to be independent as they transition into middle school and beyond. When asked to describe what inspires her, Bachman said, “It is the students who inspire me. They have taught me patience and understanding. It is through them that I have found my purpose.”

Doña Ana Elementary Principal Cherie Love describes Bachman’s dedication to supporting students and staff.

“Working with the Level III AU program takes a very special person,” Love said. “Mary has a peaceful and calm spirit that aids in creating a stable learning environment for her students. She always seeks out ways to enrich the classroom experience and puts her whole heart into what she does every day.”

A selection committee volunteered to read the 45 campus nominations submitted this year, conducted semifinalist interviews, and chose the Educational Support Personnel of the Year for Las Cruces Public Schools. Committee members included, Debbie Preece from Mayfield High School, Melissa Ames from the LCPS Health Services Department, Jacob Gamon from the LCPS Human Resources Office, Cheryl Carreon from East Picacho Elementary School, Brigitte Zigelhofer from the LCPS Human Resources Office, and Noel Martinez, this year’s Educational Support Personnel of the Year.

The Teacher of the Year for Las Cruces Public Schools was selected by the entire district. The selection committee was composed of community members, teachers, administrators and staff from across the district who volunteered to read the 29 applications submitted this year. They also conducted interviews with the candidates.

Those on the selection committee were: Tommy Esparza from Central Elementary, Josh Silver from Virtual Learning Academy, Leah Pearson from Mesilla Park Elementary, Mahsa Azma from Cesar Chavez Elementary, Mindy Tapia from Teacher Learning Center, Josie Miller from the Teacher Learning Center, Chris Woods, retired educator and community Member, Mari Reyes from the LCPS Federal Programs, Brigitte Zigelhofer from the LCPS Human Resources Office, and David Nunez from Onate High School.

“I know it was difficult to select a winner for both categories this year,” said Greg Ewing, superintendent for Las Cruces Public Schools. “When it comes down to it, each of the finalists has selflessly gone above and beyond for their students in and outside of the classroom. I think it is important to have these phenomenal honorees recognized for mastering their craft, on top of creating a safe and positive learning environment. Each day, they use their talents as a vehicle to get students where they need to be to succeed in life.”

At the awards dinner, LCPS officials also announced Jana Strnadova, a special education teacher at Valley View Elementary School, as runner-up for Teacher of the Year. Jayne Pieroni, a security guard at Picacho Middle School, was named runner-up for the Educational Support Personnel of the Year.

As part of the recognition, all of honorees received a check from local sponsors in recognition of their commitment to the students and staff of Las Cruces Public Schools. Century Bank proudly to presented a check for $1,000, to Mary Bachman in recognition of being named the 2020 LCPS Educational Support Personnel of the Year. FirstLight Federal Credit Union presented a check for $1,000 to Nikolina Keyes in recognition of being named the 2020 LCPS Teacher of the Year. Horace Mann presented a check of $500 to runners-up, Jana Strnadova for Teacher of the Year and Jayne Pieroni Educational Support of the Year.

— Samantha Lewis, LCPS Public Relations Coordinator, 575-527-5946, slewis@lcps.net