“Ms. Dean — it is an honor to be here today” — Nederland educator, community react to $25K award, special moment

Published 12:50 pm Thursday, February 9, 2023

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NEDERLAND — Fourth grade math and science teacher Jenna Dean was speechless, but the tears in her eyes and emotion in her voice spoke for her.

Dean began the assembly at Helena Park Elementary School like her co-workers — sitting along the walls of the gym filled with the school’s 300 students who, along with city and county officials, were on hand to welcome Governor Greg Abbot and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath.

The two were there to speak on the importance of education — or so most in the room thought.

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But they were also joined by Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards — a prestigious group of educators in which Dean is now a member.

The assembly began with greetings by Principal Charlotte Junot, followed by a song performed with the assistance of all students and remarks from Superintendent Stuart Kieschnick.

“I personally want to thank you for what you do every day, all day — and not just during the school year,” Kieschnick said to the teachers following the performance. “You give your summers up, you give your evenings up, you work hard to make things like we just saw happen. Thank you very much.”

He then spoke directly to Abbott.

“I present to you over 600 of the eyes of Texas,” he said. “And I’ll tell you what, they’re ready to lead the next generation of Texans. They are willing, ready and able. They come to school everyday.

“They average about 96 percent attendance. They are ready to lead the world, to walk out on a global stage in about eight more years. You can see the foundation right now that they have, and we are very proud of that.”

Abbott also remarked on the Nederland Independent School District.

“What helps you do good in school? Your teachers,” he told the students. You have to have good teachers to help you achieve excellence. So you need excellence in exceptional teachers. And you know what? This room is filled with excellent teachers. But there’s only one of them who could get this award. And this award is very rare. Hardly anybody in the entire country gets this award.”

Created in 1987, the Milken Educator Award goes to approximately 40 educators in the U.S. each year, recognizing them as a “model for the state and the nation.” Since its inception, more than $73 million has been awarded to teachers in the form of $25,000 grants.

Dean, like the rest of the room, was told the teacher in the gym that was going to receive the award would be gifted with an unrestricted $25,000.

And when Abbott announced her name, as adults clapped and students cheered around her, Dean immediately covered her face with her hands in shock.

“I am speechless, which everyone on this campus knows, it takes a lot to make me speechless,” she said. “I am very honored. The words to tell you how honored I am for this award — it’s indescribable.”

Dean’s voice was filled with emotion as she sporadically wiped tears from her eyes and thanked the administration, her co-workers and the youngest crowd in the room.

“I want to thank, first and foremost, my students,” she said. “Y’all are the best there are. If anything I pride myself on growing my students over the years, and I firmly believe that every student can grow. And that’s my job, to grow my students, and I’m beyond proud of what they’ve done in years past and current ones too.”

In addition to the monetary gift, Dean enjoys an all-expense-paid trip to Los Angeles in April, where she will meet other Milken award recipients.

She is the first to be selected from the Nederland Independent School District.

Dean is a graduate of Nederland High School and attended Lamar University before returning to her hometown to teach.

According to information from the school, she has “led professional development about educational technology and embracing a growth mindset, worked with the Texas Education Agency to review new questions for the grade four math STAAR, and is planning for the alignment and enrichment of Helena Park’s math and science curriculum as the school prepares to add fifth graders in 2023-24.”

She is also a teacher at a local dance studio and active member of her church.

Foley said there is no nomination for the Milken awards. Recipients come from a confidential selection process.

“The work that our teachers do in the classroom is the most important work that anyone can do in this life,” Morath said. “This team, this group, Ms. Dean — it is an honor to be here today, and thank you on behalf of the State of Texas.”