INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A first-of-its-kind award was given to an Indianapolis school district Thursday.
The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) presented Perry Township Schools with the Award of Excellence for Educator Effectiveness. In a surprise presentation, NIET also presented Perry Township with a $50,000 prize.
"I'm not very often at a loss for words but that pretty much did it," said Perry Township Superintendent Pat Mapes. "I did not expect that. Thank you so much. Thank you for recognizing Perry Township Schools."
The award honors the district's dedication to putting educators at the center of school improvement and achieving significant results.
The district has implemented a teacher talent development course utilizing so-called "master teachers" who hold weekly classes for fellow educators as well as district administrators.
"[It's] like a college class they didn't sign up for," laughed Jennifer Dishman, a master teacher at Mary Bryan Elementary School, "that they have to come to every week where I'm going to teach them those strategies."
Those strategies include tried-and-true best practices tailored for that school's student body.
"This year at my school we're working on math so I research strategies and then I practice them with students, and then I do that with the teachers. So what I find that works, I show them, and they go do that," said Dishman.
Other master teachers say the master classes are an equalizer, making education a team endeavor. Joe Horvath, master teacher at Southport High School, says it's also elevating the understanding of students.
"It's one thing to regurgitate facts and just take a test," Horvath said. "That's not good enough anymore. Because that's not good enough for our students. So it's what can we do to really impact them when they leave."
These "cluster courses" happen every week in each school in Perry Township.
Students and staff say receiving the special recognition from NIET was welcome validation for hard-working teachers.
"I actually want to thank them because I feel like the teachers should be having this because I feel like they're doing a good job," said Emaly Par, a 5th grade student at Southport Elementary.
"Our teachers work so hard for the best of students, for the benefit of students, and I know that teachers don't always get that recognition. I know they do sometimes, but they just work so hard, so, so hard," Dishman said.
Perry Township Schools has also seen a large increase of refugees, mostly from Burma, over the past five years, making it the second fastest growing district in Indiana.
Twenty-seven percent of the student population are English learners, representing the highest percentage in the state. District officials say 47 percent of those students read English at the most proficient level, a 21 percent increase since the previous year.
Student Emaly Par speaks three languages, and 6th-grader Zamantha Loza Barraza speaks two.
"They have been telling me to translate in Spanish, and I like speaking Spanish and English at the same time," said Loza Barraza. "For me it's been that way since kindergarten and I like it."
"If you're having a problem with something, [the teachers] aren't like 'you've got to figure it out,'" added Charlie Romine, an 8th grade student at Perry Meridian Middle School. "They all teach in a very interactive way so you're not in the sitting the back of a lecture hall being bored to death."