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College Of Education Honors Its 'Heroes'

2007 Distinguished Educators
Flanked by College of Education Dean Genevieve Brown and university president Jim Gaertner, recipients of the 2007 Distinguished Educator Awards include (from left, beside Brown) John E. Sawyer, Pepper Smith, Sonia Villarreal, Jane Ann Brown and State Rep. Lois W. Kolkhorst.

The Sam Houston State University College of Education honored educators from across the state for their contributions to the field during its third annual Distinguished Educators of the Year dinner on Saturday (March 3).

Recognized were John E. Sawyer, distinguished administrator; Jane Ann Brown, distinguished elementary teacher; Pepper Smith, distinguished secondary teacher; Sonia Villarreal, distinguished support professional; and State Rep. Lois W. Kolkhorst, friend of education.

“For tonight’s honorees, their whole lives have been dedicated to others and trying to help others,” said master of ceremonies Tommy Poe, a 1965 and 1972 SHSU graduate who is also the executive director for ESC Region 6. “What a wonderful legacy that is.”

This year’s recipients were selected from more than 150 nominations.

“In my judgment, and I mean this sincerely, you’re really the heroes of our society,” said SHSU president Jim Gaertner.

During the ceremony, videos were shown that included comments from the recipient and their colleagues.


John E. Sawyer

“A good school man,” “a visionary” and “cutting edge.” All of those phrases have been used to describe John E. Sawyer, county superintendent for Harris County Department of Education and the “Distinguished Administrator.”

A national Merit Scholar, who earned his Master of Education degree from SHSU in 1974, Sawyer has worked in education for more than 36 years.

“I think Dr. Sawyer is one of the most creative and innovative leaders I’ve had the opportunity to work with,” said Richard Griffin, consultant for school governance. “He inspires each one of us to be the best we can be, and if we need resources, our door’s opened and he’s there to do that; otherwise, he lets us do our work and applauds when we do it well.”

As county superintendent, Sawyer oversees 26 school districts, which is comprised of 859 schools, 47,805 teachers and 759,960 students.

During his four-year tenure with the Harris County Department of Education, the department has evolved into an award-winning service organization.

Sawyer helped secure over $20,000 in school supply monetary donations, as well as supplies, from national donors for schools that opened their arms to hurricane evacuee students; expanded the Cooperative for After-School Enrichment program to 110 schools, affecting 15,000 children annually; and is “always looking for ways to make schools safer, more challenging for students,” colleagues said.

“It’s a prerequisite for me to have a little fun while working,” Sawyer said. “I’ve been blessed here to have a job that is very creative. It’s the job that every other school superintendent wishes theirs was like because in our organization, assuming you can find some funding to make it happen, it’s always a challenge.

“You get to dream a dream, and you get to look for the things that you’ve always wanted to do and focus on those you’ve never had time to do because you were busy putting out fires,” he said. “That’s the nature, unfortunately, of the job. This job gives you a lot more opportunity to dream, and I really do enjoy that.

“I’ve been blessed with a great board and a great staff, and it makes dreaming a lot easier to me.”


Jane Ann Brown

Jane Ann Brown, the “Distinguished Elementary Teacher,” started out as a speech therapy major at SHSU until she decided to take Spanish instead of math.

In Spanish class, she was inspired by professor Maria Jimenez.

“She taught us with great passion about her culture and her language and also talked to us about becoming bilingual teachers,” Brown said.

Twenty-five years later, Brown still teaches bilingual kindergarten at Francone Elementary School in the Cypress-Fairbanks school district.

“Twenty-five years is a long time to be anywhere, and I can hardly believe it’s been 25 years,” she said. “Every year is different; the children are different; the staff is different every year; every year there seems to be a new focus.”

Though Spanish is not her first language, and learning it was “tough,” Brown also teaches with the passion Jimenez did, according to her colleagues.

“When we began teaching together many, many years ago, I saw this young, energetic, vivacious teacher in the classroom, and today I see the same teacher, many years later,” said Susan Estrada, bilingual/ESL teacher with Cy-Fair. “She’s just so enthusiastic and it spreads to everyone. Anyone that interfaces with her knows that she is so dynamic and a positive teacher.”

That energy is also noticed by her students, many of whom described her as “fun.”

“She puts her whole life into teaching,” said Sue Romanowsky, Francone Elementary principal. “She is really sought after throughout the state of Texas because of her expertise.

“It’s really energizing to walk into her classroom and see the way she interacts with the students,” Romanowsky said. “Her love for what she does is so evident in everything she does.”


Pepper Smith

It is Pepper Smith’s special relationship with her students that makes her “Distinguished Secondary Teacher.”

“She’s one of those people you just can’t stay away from,” said student Michelle Klumpyan, who calls Smith one of her favorite teachers. “She’s much more than a teacher. She’s been such a big help for the past four years that I’m kind of worried about going to college without her.”

Smith, a 1966 Sam Houston graduate and Friendswood High School pre-advanced placement English teacher, has taught for 38 years, 30 of which have been with FHS.

“I’m not sure you should be paid to have fun, but that’s what happens to me,” Smith said. “Somebody asked me, ‘when are you going to retire,’ and my answer is always the same: when it’s not fun anymore.’

“Right now, it’s still fun. There’s not a single day that my kids don’t make me laugh; I have awesome students,” she said. “That’s worth it to me.”

With a double major of speech/drama and English as a student at SHSU, Smith said the drama probably comes out a lot in her teaching, for which she relies on spontaneous interaction and leading by example.

“Pepper always got the job done, but she got it done in a way that they didn’t realize they were undergoing a grueling kind of education because she brings it with such love, she brings it with light and she brings it with laughter,” said Ruth Ann Krajefska, retired English department chair FISD.

From dressing up as Charles Dickens’ “Miss Haversham” to helping lead the FHS Academic Decathlon teams to six state champion titles and five state champions for UIL spelling to even always attending her students’ sporting events, Smith is a role model inside and outside of the classroom, colleagues and former students said.

“Pepper is an educator,” said Michael Hickey, president of the Friendswood Education Foundation. “The difference between an educator and a teacher is that the educator can actually get into the soul and the spirit of the kid.

“She doesn’t just teach them English, she doesn’t just teach them poetry, she doesn’t teach them the math facts,” he said. “She teaches them about life."


Sonia Villarreal

Sonia Villarreal’s finding that she could fulfill a need and reach more students outside of the classroom has led her to be named the “Distinguished Support Professional.”

Villarreal, the school counselor at McDougle Elementary in the Klein school district, was teaching bilingual third grade education at Greenwood Forest Elementary when she decided to pursue a master’s degree in counseling and transferred schools.

“There was such a need, especially being bilingual,” she said. “Students would come to me about their home life and their parents started coming and talking to me about their kids.

“I figured if there was something else I can do to help out more children and more community members and be more involved, what better way than through counseling.”

Serving in the education field for 10 years, she received her master’s degree from SHSU in 2003.

“She is a wonderful communicator with children and with adults,” said Lynn Brown, McDougle Elementary principal. “She’s just made herself important at this school in so many ways, on so many levels.

“Not only with the children that are having difficulties, that are going through hard times, but she also challenges other students to do more, to improve themselves, to go beyond what they’ve done before,” Brown said.

Students love coming to her office; her office is always full of kids, according to Karen Elligson, central office staff support Klein school district.

“She helps me with my problems,” said student Chris Brown, a “future track star.” “If I’m mad, she’ll help me to cool down.

“We made this angry pillow and if you’re mad, you hit the pillow. I might do it at home if something happens there or just go outside and sit down,” he said. “I’ve been happy this whole year; it’s been a good year.”

Whether they’re happy or sad, students often come by Villarreal’s office to leave a referral notice saying “they just wanted to come and share,” she said.

“The best thing I can say I take away is when I leave here and I see the kids and they are successful and leave with a smile and that comfort of knowing that this is a safe place for them, where they’re guaranteed at least two meals and a lot of people who love them and support them,” she said.


Lois W. Kolkhorst

A “big newcomer to the education world,” State Rep. Lois W. Kolkhorst is the “Friend of Education.”

Kolkhorst serves as the chair of the appropriations subcommittee on education, which oversees the funding for the state’s public schools, community colleges, public universities and health-related institutions.

“It’s an incredible position to be in in terms of crafting the state budget,” said Chris Steinbach, Kolkhorst’s chief of staff and legislative director. “You get a chance to literally put your money where your mouth is.”

A “naturally curious person,” who will have a meeting with anyone, “education has been a winner,” because of Kolkhorst, according to David Yeager, superintendent for Brenham school district, of which Kolkhorst is not only a product but also represents in the Texas House of Representatives.

“We know that we have a nursing shortage, we need to be producing more engineers, but more importantly, we need to be producing more teachers in science and math,” Kolkhorst said.

“Sam Houston State University is going to play such a key role in the future of producing the needed teachers,” she said. “When we produce those teachers and we inspire young people in Texas and in America, guess what? We don’t have an engineering shortage and we don’t have a nursing shortage.”

Teachers have made the biggest difference in her life, Kolkhorst said, and by “a stroke of luck,” or “maybe God’s blessing,” she will be able to return the favor by making a difference in education.

“She’s a diehard Sam Houston State supporter,” said Shirley J. Neeley, commissioner of education for the Texas Education Agency. “She’s also a great friend of public schools.”




SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
March 7, 2007
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