Meet the 11 Utah educators who won $10,000 each from the Huntsman family for being among the best in the state

Utah’s Huntsman family has selected 11 school teachers and administrators for annual — and highly competitive — education awards, which include a check for $10,000 for each winner.

Among them is a volunteer who bikes miles each morning to help kindergarteners. A high school teacher who grants her students’ wishes each semester. And a principal who’s so committed to getting kids to read that she grabs a book and sits down with them.

The recognition, which started 27 years ago, is meant to celebrate those who are energetic and innovative in the classroom. It was founded by the late Jon M. Huntsman Sr., as one of his many philanthropic efforts to bolster public education and to recognize his father, who was a teacher and later superintendent.

Each year, the Huntsman Education Awards program surprises teachers by showing up in their classrooms in April to let them know they’ve been selected. Traditionally, winners have been given strict instructions by Huntsman, who died early last year, to use their prize money to treat themselves — not as an investment in their school.

“To this day, honoring our public servants continues to be a passion of ours," said Huntsman’s wife, Karen, who runs the program. "They are passionate about what they do and believe in something bigger than themselves — embodying the spirit of selflessness. By rewarding these educators and bringing their efforts to the forefront, we hope it encourages them to continue doing what they do best: teaching.”

Those chosen — seven teachers, three administrators and one school volunteer — were honored Friday at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

The 2019 winners are:

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Education Award winner, Michelle Stephenson, elementary principal at Freedom Elementary, gets a hug from Jennifer Huntsman Parkin, at the Huntsman Awards for Excellence in Education at the Grand America, Friday, April 26, 2019.

• Michelle Stephenson, administrator, Freedom Elementary School

Even though she’s a principal, Stephenson is often found in hallways and classrooms, reading with students. She wants them to explore other worlds, find power in words and develop creative imaginations.

So even though she was on the radar for a Huntsman Education Award for years, according to the organization, it was her commitment to helping all students as an administrator that earned her the recognition.

• Holly Schack, teacher, Stansbury Elementary School

At Stansbury Elementary in West Valley City, 95 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunch and more than 25 percent are considered homeless.

Schack says she wants the kids in her third-grade class to know that those attributes don’t define them. Her students regularly have the highest end-of-year test scores in the school and the highest grades among their peers. She wants them to achieve even more.

“She relates to students like I’ve never seen before,” said Principal Ernest Broderick. “No matter their challenge or struggle, she helps and supports each student until they are successful.”

• Ana Alamo, teacher, Cottonwood Elementary School

Alamo remembers going to kindergarten for her first day and coming home in tears because she couldn’t speak English.

She decided she wanted to become a teacher after one of the educators at her school in Texas took a special interest in her and helped her through the class.

Now she has that same focus in teaching fifth grade at Cottonwood Elementary. She tries to give each student one-on-one time and she directs a book club that highlights diversity.

• Wesley Cutler, administrator, Evergreen Junior High School

As principal, Cutler created “Eagle Time” at his school. And it has helped improve grades at all levels.

The program is about flexibility. Each Monday, students receive a printout of their grades and a list of any missing assignments. Then they’re given time to go to those classes to catch up or retake tests.

“He’s a strong advocate for his school,” according to the news release on the awards.

• Travis Lemon, teacher, American Fork Junior High School

In 2007, Lemon received presidential recognition for his teaching. But, the Huntsman family says, he didn’t see that as an indication that he was done improving.

The math teacher has consistently gotten better each year, according to the news release, including higher test scores. “His students are truly engaged in problem solving," it notes.

• Rosalind Van Vleet, teacher, Fairfield Junior High School

Van Vleet has spent 34 years in education — a tenure she’s particularly proud of after going into teaching despite her college advisor telling her it was “a waste of her talent.”

“Surely there’s a better way to use your degree,” she remembers him telling her. But she wasn’t persuaded.

Van Vleet teaches geography in Kaysville and offered the first Advanced Placement class at her junior high. She begins her day with a class for English learners. She’s taught upwards of 5,000 students, and her special skill, she believes, is helping them realize their own talents. And that’s never a waste.

• Carolyn Gough, administrator, Riverton High School

Every week, Gough asks her staff to select a student or two to put on what she calls “the Wednesday List.” Then she notifies all faculty to give those kids extra attention.

The point is to focus on students who may be at risk of dropping out or becoming alienated. She wants them to know that the school cares about them.

Gough spends most of her time as principal walking the halls of Riverton High, getting to know the students and making sure they know her. The Huntsman family wanted to honor her “for her influence and hard work in making Riverton High School a phenomenal place to learn and teach.”

• Julie Webb-Townsend, teacher, Roy High School

Webb-Townsend likes to end every semester by granting her students’ wishes. In the past that has included buying one boy a suit so he could go on a mission and helping another girl pay for a headstone after losing her father.

She’s done that nearly every term in her 21 years at Roy High School.

“When you walk into Mrs. Webb-Townsend’s classroom, you are greeted with contagious smile and motivational music videos to set the positive mood,” her award biography noted.

• Jared Massic, teacher, Maple Mountain High School

Massic, as a high school welding teacher, wants his students to know that there are different paths to adulthood. They don’t have to go to a university, he tells them. If that is not right for them, they can go to trade school or enter the workforce after graduation.

His students appreciate that approach, as well as his time. They say he’s often at school at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to help them prepare for a welding competition or there late to help them finish a project.

• Jonathan Lindberg, special education teacher, Lehi Junior High School

When Lindberg was nominated for a Huntsman Education Award, the person who submitted his name wrote that he’s like Swiss chocolate: “Almost too good to be real.”

He teaches seventh and eighth grade students at Lehi Junior High, focusing on those with special needs. And he trains others to be their peer mentors. The applications for that always outnumber the spots available.

One parent said that her son was in his class and because of Lindberg, felt “valued, protected and celebrated by the entire student body and community.”

• Mitsuko Hirata, volunteer, Bridger Elementary School

Hirata rides her bike almost three miles every weekday morning to get to Bridger Elementary, where she volunteers in the kindergarten classes.

She works with students to develop skills in counting and writing their names. Having grown up in Japan, she also enjoys teaching those in the classroom who did not learn English as their first language.

“My life has become totally different since volunteering,” she wrote. “I am grateful for this opportunity and happiness.”

Editor’s note: Paul Huntsman, a son of the late Jon Huntsman Sr., is the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.