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Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award

DFER Announces Winners of 2012 'Brian Bennett Education Warrior Awards'


Democrats for Education Reform Announces Winners of 2012 ‘Brian Bennett Education Warrior Awards’

This year’s winners of the 2012 Brian Bennett Education Warrior Awards include three leaders from state legislatures and one inspirational state education chief, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) announced today.

The awards, which honor courageous champions of education reform, include: Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, New Jersey State Senator Teresa Ruiz, former Minnesota State Senator Ember Reichgott Junge, and Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston.

“The leaders we are honoring today have worked tirelessly to better the lives of children through countless efforts to improve our nation’s education system,” said Joe Williams, DFER’s Executive Director. “Their leadership has produced the kind of exponential impact that will continue to benefit children for years to come.”

Over the past few months, the public submitted hundreds of worthy nominations for Education Warriors through DFER’s website. Award recipients were chosen by a committee based on their dedication to reforming our education system and their outstanding courage to shatter the status quo and change the political rhetoric.

“With the election around the corner, education has taken a front seat in political debates throughout our country both inside and outside of the home,” said Charles Barone, DFER’s Director of Federal Policy. Education wasn’t even on many people’s top-ten list just a few years ago. The leaders we are honoring today have injected big ideas into the conversation and brought them into the national spotlight.

More information on the 2012 honorees follows:

As the acting Commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Education where she has served since 2009, Deborah Gist has led the charge to reform the Rhode Island education system. During her tenure thus far, she has fought to end last-in, first-out (LIFO) policies in her state, launched a new teacher evaluation system, and raised requirements for entering into RI’s teacher training programs. Gist previously served as the first State Superintendent of Education in the District of Columbia where she was responsible for enacting alternative certification policies that allowed school districts and nonprofit organizations to apply to certify educators, and instituted new standards to improve the quality of teacher prep programs. Before her work as Superintendent in the District of Columbia, Gist taught elementary school for more than 10 years and was recognized as “Teacher of the Year” several times throughout her career. She also served as a senior policy analyst at the U.S. Department of Education and as the executive director of the office on volunteerism and service programs for the Office of the Mayor in the District of Columbia.

New Jersey State Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) played a key role in changing the status quo in New Jersey by introducing a bill reforming tenure laws in her state. Ruiz, who is the Assistant Majority Leader and Chair of the State’s Education Committee, was the chief architect behind this bill, which also instituted a new teacher rating system based on yearly evaluations as well as mentorship and professional development opportunities for teachers and principals. The bill, which won unanimous approval and was signed into law by Governor Christie, brought about the first major change to New Jersey’s tenure system in a century. Prior to her role as State Senator, Ruiz served as Vice Chair of the Essex County Democratic Party, the Deputy Chief of Staff and former Director of Public Information for Essex Country Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr., and co-chair of the Hispanic Scholarship Program for the North Ward Center. The Essex Country Hispanic Chamber of Commerce honored her for her public service. She also worked as a Pre-K teacher and served as a Trustee of the Robert Treat Academy and the Essex Country Technical-Vocational School Board.

Ember Reichgott Junge revolutionized the way we view public education in our country. As a Minnesota State Senator (1983-2001), she sponsored the first bill that allowed students to attend their public school of choice and authored the first charter school legislation in the nation, which was enacted in 1991. She now serves as Vice Chairperson of the Charter School Development Corporation, which promotes competition, excellence in education, and school choice by financing and building great public charter schools across the country.

Having dedicated his life to repairing our broken education system, Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston (D-Denver), has become a well-known education reform advocate. He has been recognized as one of Time Magazine’s “40 under 40” and as Forbes Magazine’s 7 Most Influential Educators. Johnston developed the “Great Teachers and Leaders Law” in Colorado, which transformed the way his state holds teachers and principals accountable. He also helped pass the READ Act, which gives school districts and parents tools to aid struggling K-3 students develop their reading skills. Prior to taking office, Johnston co-founded and acted as principal for Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts (MESA). MESA made Colorado history by becoming the first public high school in which 100% of its seniors were admitted to four-year colleges. In addition, Johnston co-founded New Leaders for New Schools, a national non-profit that recruits and trains urban principals. Johnston also served as a top education advisor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

More information on the Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award:

The Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award is named after Brian Bennett, a community activist and lifelong champion of education reform. Bennett was a former teacher that helped launch some of California’s first charter schools. Under his leadership as Director of the Office of School Choice at the San Diego Unified School District, the number of charter schools in the district increased by more than 50%.

Following his career at the School District, Brian devoted his life’s work to leading San Diego and the nation in providing parents with meaningful, equitable, and affordable education options for their children. Although he sadly passed away in 2009 after a battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, he nonetheless remains an inspiration to leaders in education across the country.

Thanks to all of you that submitted nominations for the 2012 Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award!  Our selection committee is currently reviewing nominees, and winner(s) will be announced in September!

Who is Brian Bennett?

Brian Bennett was a community activist and a champion of education reform for over four decades. After teaching at Catholic schools throughout Southern California he became the principal of Blessed Sacrament School in San Diego. With Bennett at the helm from 1979 to 1997, Blessed Sacrament School grew and academic achievement flourished.

A leading charter school advocate, Bennett was involved in launching some of the earliest charter schools in California after the Legislature authorized them in 1992. During his tenure as the Director of the Office of School Choice at the San Diego Unified School District, the number of charter schools in the district increased from 15 to 34.

Following his career at the School District, Bennett provided assistance in charter school leadership and policy development in over ten states, including the District of Columbia. He devoted his life's work to leading San Diego and the nation in providing parents with meaningful, equitable, and affordable choices in education for their children.

Brian Bennett was a trailblazer in the struggle for quality education for all children. When Bennett passed away in January 2009, after a courageous battle with ALS, we lost a true warrior in the fight for quality public education. We decided to name our Education Warrior Award the "Brian Bennett Education Warrior Award" to honor his life and legacy.

Previous Education Warrior Award Recipients

2011 Winners

Yolie Flores - As a board member of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Yolie Flores authored the controversial Public Choice Resolution, which created an annual process to identify and address the lowest performing schools in LAUSD, as well as the Teacher Effectiveness resolution to ensure that all students have access to an excellent teacher. These bold policy initiatives drew significant heat from opponents, but Flores never wavered. Ms. Flores also served as the CEO of the Los Angeles County Children's Planning Council, where she led an ambitious change agenda to strengthen families and improve outcomes for children through large-scale systems reform, community engagement, data-driven planning, and policy development. 

Dr. Howard Fuller - Dr. Fuller has been a tireless advocate for equality in the education system. As one of the nation's first "non-traditional" school superintendents in 1991, Fuller made the leap from advocate and activist to running the Milwaukee Public Schools during tumultuous political times. He was one of the first school leaders to publicly link poor-performing schools with reform-stifling provisions of the teacher's contract. He is a distinguished professor of education and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, which supports excellent education options for all children, particularly those from low-income families. A mentor to many of today's education reformers working across the nation, Fuller co-founded the Black Alliance for Educational Options. He currently serves on numerous boards. 

Representative George Miller - As the senior Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee, Rep. Miller has been an inspirational and effective champion of many efforts to close the achievement gap. He was one of the original authors of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), and he helped pass the Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act and establish the Early Learning Challenge Fund, among many other reform bills. He also authored the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which cut interest rates for Stafford Loans in half, increased Pell Grants, and provided loan forgiveness to qualified public service employees with student loan debt. Miller was ahead of his time: in 1994, he drafted an amendment which would have required states to certify that their teachers had been qualified for the subject areas they were teaching and to have plans in place to pay exceptional teachers more. The vote in the House, after dramatic pushback from special interests, was 434-1 against. Today, Miller is far from the lone vote on those types of issues. 

Eva Moskowitz - As founder and CEO of the Success Charter Network, Moskowitz has been at the forefront of reshaping educational opportunity in New York City. Her work to expand quality school choice for every family was featured in the documentary The Lottery, which follows four children who enter the public lottery for admission to Harlem Success Academy. Eva also fought tirelessly for New York City's children as a member of the City Council, where she was chair of the Education Committee and earned a reputation for saying what needed to be said, even if nobody else in city government had the guts to say it. 

Theresa Peña - In her role as Denver Public Schools Board Member and former President of the Board, Theresa Peña has fought to pass critical education reform measures to improve the quality of Denver schools for every child. Among her many achievements, she was instrumental in passing a comprehensive plan for Far Northeast Denver that aims to improve student achievement, ensure the effectiveness of teachers and principals, support rigorous curriculum standards and assessments, and provide comprehensive support systems for children. It is no accident that Denver, Colorado is at the forefront of today's education reform battles. Peña's unapologetic focus and leadership has made progress possible in the Mile High City.

2010 Winners

Alan Bersin - Appointed in 1998 as Superintendent of Public Education of the San Diego Unified School District, Bersin led the eighth largest urban school district in the country. In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger appointed him as California's Education Secretary. Bersin led the way as one of the nation's first 'non-traditional' big city school leaders, promoting ambitious reform to raise the quality of education and bolster student achievement. Bersin currently serves as the Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection. Bersin was a founding board member of DFER.

Peter Groff - During his years in the Colorado State Senate (2003-2009), and as Senate President ('07-'09), Groff helped pass landmark legislation to create visionary education reform measures, prohibit racial profiling and require booster seats for young children. Under the Obama administration, Groff led the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U. S. Department of Education, an effort to empower faith-based and community groups by enlisting them in support of the department's mission to ensure educational excellence for all Americans. Groff, currently head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, was a founding member of DFER-Colorado.

Dianne Piche - As Executive Director of the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, which monitors the civil rights policies and practices of the federal government, Piche was a tireless advocate for school choice, education equality, and policy that raises the bar for academic achievement. Under the Obama administration, Piche held a post in the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights and she currently heads the education policy team of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Piche was a founding board member of DFER.

Caprice Young - Between 1999 and 2003, Young served as President of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, where she built on the longtime work of her predecessors in the charter school movement in order to create a state association whose mission is based on positively impacting the broader public school system for all kids. Young went on to preside over the the California Charter Schools Association for five years, during which she shepherded the creation of more than 300 charter schools in California. Young is now Vice President of Business Development and Alliances with Knowledge Universe, a leading education company serving a wide range of students nationally and around the world. Young was a founding board member of DFER.