Feature                                 Page 58

Recognition of Professionals:

Feting the Finest

1988 Conventioneer
The front page of the AASA convention newspaper trumpets the announcement of the inaugural National Superintendent of the Year award in 1988. 


What do astronauts, university professors, artists, scientists, business and government leaders, public intellectuals, media giants and U.S. presidents have in common? They all have received prestigious awards from AASA.

As part of its rich history, the association has honored many of its own members for their professional accomplishments and service to the field. AASA also has feted others in society who through their work and example contributed significantly to children and education.

Some of today’s recognition programs date back nearly a century. Others have emerged as AASA identified a need to highlight accomplishments in new fields and new segments of the membership, notably women and members of previously under-recognized minorities in education leadership. Most awards are presented at AASA national conferences.

Rewarding AASA’s Own

AASA’s pinnacle professional honor, the National Superintendent of the Year award, was first presented in 1988 at that year’s AASA national conference in Las Vegas. The NSOY award is presented to a chief school system administrator who exemplifies outstanding leadership. Gene Carter, then superintendent in Norfolk, Va., and later executive director of ASCD, was the first recipient of this coveted award. Other notable winners included Rod Paige (2001), who soon thereafter became U.S. secretary of education.

Now, the rest of the story. In 1987, as the first woman to become AASA president, June Gabler identified a need for superintendents to receive greater public recognition for their major contribution to education. A response came quickly from Rich Williams, an executive at the ServiceMaster Company, offering to sponsor a new award. Within a few weeks, Williams, Gabler and AASA staff developed a framework for what has become the National Superintendent of the Year program. Darlene Pierce agreed to serve as NSOY’s first director, remarking that “school leaders appreciate being honored in front of their peers.”

State associations of school administrators play a key role in the program, each year selecting State Superintendents of the Year. A distinguished panel chooses four finalists for NSOY from that field of celebrated leaders. Among the honors include distinctive medallions for each state honoree. The National Superintendent of the Year is given a $10,000 check to be used for a scholarship at the high school from which he or she graduated or the school now serving that area. AASA, ARAMARK, and VALIC are current co-sponsors of the program.

Not all has been a bed of roses. One year, a blinding snowstorm blanketed the Washington, D.C., area just as the four NSOY finalists arrived for in-depth interviews and an annual news conference at the National Press Club. While they all made it, some members of the selection committee were stranded elsewhere in the storm. Undaunted, Pierce arranged to have the interviews videotaped for later review.

CBS broadcast news legend Walter Cronkite (second from left) received the Golden Key Award at AASA's annual convention in March 1973.


In the early years of the program, Gary Marx, AASA’s communications director, recalls when all state finalists were lined up and ready to go on stage at the national conference. The association president unintentionally flipped ahead two pages of his script at the 1st General Session and immediately launched into an introduction of the keynote speaker, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Those 50 finalists paraded into the auditorium to hear his remarks and then returned backstage. Sometimes flexibility is a virtue.

Another perennial accolade, AASA’s Distinguished Service Award, initially sponsored by exhibitors, has been given since 1958 to retired members who have contributed to the association and the profession. Those selected receive honorary lifetime AASA memberships.

The association remembers and honors its past executive directors with named scholarships awarded to top-flight graduate students in educational administration. The Educational Administration Scholarships, begun in 1949 and originally funded by the Associated Exhibitors, are named for Forrest Conner, Finis Engleman, Paul Houston, Worth McClure, Richard Miller, Paul Salmon and Sherwood Dodge Shankland. Winners today each receive $2,500.

Acknowledging New Deeds

Over the decades, some recognition programs have been discontinued and others added to cite contributions to education in new ways.

The Leadership for Learning Award, which began in 1982 and continued into the first years of the new millennium, feted AASA members for significant efforts to improve student academic achievement. Cash awards and a Steuben glass memento were presented to rural, suburban and urban superintendents.





Women became the focus of two major awards still in play. Those who champion the advancement of women and minorities as educational leaders are eligible for the Dr. Effie H. Jones Humanitarian Award, named for the founding head of AASA’s Office of Minority Affairs. The Women in School Leadership Award, sponsored by Farmers Insurance since 2011, is given in two categories, to a superintendent/assistant superintendent and a central-office administrator/principal. Winners receive $1,000 and one-year AASA memberships.

The President’s Technology Award, begun in 2003 and supported by Apple, recognized up to 18 superintendents who demonstrated leadership and vision in education technology. Created three years later, the Leadership through Communication Award, now co-sponsored with the National School Public Relations Association and Blackboard Connect, honors an outstanding team of a superintendent and a public relations professional. The school system is given $10,000 to be used for scholarships or communication activities.

Saluting Non-Educators

One of the most venerable AASA recognition programs, originating in 1928, is the American Education Award. James Crabtree, executive secretary of the National Education Association, was the first winner. The honor is bestowed on a person who has achieved excellence and served as a role model to others. Winners have included luminaries such as Jane Addams, Walter Cronkite, Helen Keller, Norman Rockwell, Margaret Mead, Captain Kangaroo, Bob Hope, Walt Disney and, posthumously, the crew of the Challenger space shuttle.They are commemorated on a plaque at AASA headquarters.

Upon receiving the American Education Award award in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson remarked from the AASA convention stage in Atlantic City: “I am honored to accept your award and happy to be here tonight with the big brass of American education. I might have been with you tonight under other auspices, except that 30 years ago I left teaching for a different pursuit.”

A distinctive honor known as AASA’s Golden Key Award made its debut in 1956. It honored citizens who made a significant contribution to the nation alongside the teacher who most influenced that honoree’s life. Recipients included the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1993 and his former teacher Juanita Tate, Ralph Bunche, Elliott Richardson, and Billie Jean King. A solid gold key was presented to each winner, with a $1,000 check to the teacher.

In one notable presentation, at the 1964 AASA convention, the big crowd enjoyed a slide show of political cartoons crafted by Golden Key honoree Herbert Lawrence Block, better known as Herblock. He said from the podium: “I want to say that for the freedom of expression represented by the cartoons and for whatever you think they represent on behalf of good causes, she [teacher Helen Harris] is responsible; and for the opinions, the political angles with which you disagree I am responsible and the blame is mine.”

Recognizing the importance that a community plays in a child’s success, the Awards for Excellence in Community for Children and Youth began in the 1990s. With financial support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and others, the awards were presented to those who collaborated with their local schools to improve school attendance and student performance and reduce crime and abuse. A similar award, the National Civic Star Award, co-sponsored by Sodexho School Services, was given for school district-community partnerships that advanced student learning.

The Champion of Children award, sponsored by A.T. Cross Company, recognized nationally known non-educators from 1999 to 2003 whose contributions significantly influenced the lives of children. Chuck Hagel, U.S. secretary of defense, was among the recipients.

In that same time frame, Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, Dolly Parton and John Glenn were winners of the Galaxy Award, which honored leaders who, through vision, imagination, courage and leadership, pointed the way to the future.

Co-Sponsored Awards

AASA has been involved as a co-sponsor of numerous other award programs that call attention to top classroom teachers. The Sallie Mae First Class Teacher Award recognized outstanding new teachers, one from each state. This was paired with the Teacher Tribute award, which enabled recipients to identify the K-12 teacher who most influenced their decision to become a teacher.

The Discover Card Tribute Awards program, which ran from 1991 to 2006, provided scholarships to students to help with their post-secondary education or training. In 2004, 456 students received a total of $1.3 million in support.

The association’s commitment to effective schoolhouse planning is exemplified by the Shirley Cooper and Walter Taylor awards, named respectively for a former AASA director of in-service education and a leader of the American Institute of Architects. They co-founded the architectural exhibit at AASA’s national conference. In 1973, the inaugural Cooper award went to Palo Alto High School in California for a building addition designed to deal with earthquakes and student growth. The first Taylor award was given to Parkway North Senior High School in St. Louis, Mo., which used open space and courtyards to overcome a feeling of bigness. The twin awards continue to this day.

For a complete list of Superintendent of the Year and American Education Award winners over the years, visit the awards section of  www.aasa.org. 

Marian Kisch is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. E-mail: mariankisch@verizon.net


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