OKLAHOMA CITY — In a ceremony Tuesday at Oklahoma City’s State Fair Park, environmental science teacher Donna Gradel was named the Oklahoma 2018 Teacher of the Year. Gradel has taught at Broken Arrow Public Schools for 21 years.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said Gradel’s commitment to teaching has translated into positive change well beyond the Broken Arrow district.
“Donna understands the true potential of each of her students,” said Hofmeister. “She differentiates instruction to meet the needs of each individual, challenges them to solve real-world problems, then goes one step further by modeling opportunities to implement their innovations to make a difference in the lives of people in Oklahoma and across the globe.”
Under her direction, Gradel’s students designed a large-scale aquaponics system to provide clean water and a sustainable food system to raise fish and plants for impoverished orphans in a remote region of Kenya. After months of research and data collection, Gradel and her students then traveled to Africa to complete the system.
“Each student has potential – potential to learn regardless of where their starting point is. Students are interested in nature and science and discovery, and they have a very strong sense of purpose in their life. They want to make a difference, and they want to have an impact on their world,” Gradel said in her Teacher of the Year application.
A 29-year veteran educator, Gradel began her teaching career after receiving one of the first women’s basketball scholarships to West Virginia University. A shortage of teaching jobs in West Virginia at the time steered her to a special education classroom, where she was determined to maximize possibilities for her students and developed her philosophy of teaching: “Children are yearning to be inspired, to go beyond what they think they can accomplish.”
“Donna Gradel is the teacher who goes so far above and beyond what is expected it’s incredible. She has such talent and intelligence that she could probably do anything she wanted, yet she’s had this dedication to serving students for so many years,” said Broken Arrow Public Schools Superintendent Janet Dunlop in the application. “She has opened up the world to her students in ways they never would have experienced without her leadership.”
In addition to her work in Kenya, where she also provides curriculum and science supplies to a school that rescues victims of human trafficking, Gradel has made numerous contributions within her community. She promotes environmental education programs through Project Learning Tree and helps monitor water quality for local streams through the Blue Thumb Program. She is working with local officials on Broken Arrow’s Monarch Initiative and the design of the city’s first ecological green park. With her students, Gradel built an outdoor ecological classroom and planted dozens of trees with Up with Trees.
She distributes hundreds of backpacks and supplies to local schools and distributes food and bicycles to foster children at Christmas. A breast cancer survivor, Gradel strives to increase awareness as a KTUL Channel 8 Buddy Check Survivor and as a 12-time Race for the Cure participant. Her other volunteer work includes projects with Meals on Wheels, Night to Shine Special Needs Prom, Salvation Army, Gatesway Foundation, Broken Arrow Neighbors and Habitat for Humanity.
To recruit and retain teachers, Gradel advocates for providing educators access and time to collaborate with college professors, school administrators and experienced mentors, free or reduced tuition for graduate programs, stipends for teachers in high-need areas and professional development created through the private sector.
Gradel will remain in her classroom for the rest of the school year. Beginning July 1, she will assume full-time Teacher of the Year duties, which include speaking engagements and serving as Oklahoma’s teacher ambassador, encouraging others to enter or remain in the profession. She will succeed 2017 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Jon Hazell, a science teacher from Durant High School, who will continue to tour the state until July.
A panel of 20 judges selected the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year after extensive interviews with the 12 finalists, themselves district Teachers of Year from across the state. The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) also honored four “Rising Star” teachers — district Teachers of the Year whom the regional judges felt deserved special recognition for their talent and potential.
The Oklahoma Teacher of the Year program is organized by OSDE in conjunction with the national competition.
The other 11 state Teacher of the Year finalists were:
Jill Andrews, Claremore High School, Claremore Public Schools
Neeli Boyd, Wiley Post Elementary School, Putnam City Schools
Sarah Carter, Drumright High School, Drumright Public Schools
Rob Davis, Yukon High School, Yukon Public Schools
Betty Deen, Oologah Middle School, Oologah-Talala Public Schools
Chad Harper, Mustang High School, Mustang Public Schools
Janet Johnson, Clyde Boyd Middle School, Sand Springs Schools
Dionne Liebl, Deer Creek High School, Deer Creek Schools
Shala Marshall, Jenks High School, Jenks Public Schools
Christine Mueller, Moore Central Junior High School, Moore Public Schools
Laura Smith, Byng Elementary, Junior High And High Schools, Byng Public Schools
The Rising Stars were:
Colby McGee, Allen Public Schools
Haley Price, Newcastle High School, Newcastle Public Schools
Jessi Ross, Mooreland Elementary School, Mooreland Public Schools
Madison Wingate, Pierce Elementary School, Oklahoma City Public Schools
For more information about the finalists, visit http://sde.ok.gov/sde/newsblog/2017-07-10/2018-oklahoma-teacher-year-finalists-rising-stars-announced.