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July 21, 2017

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‘Academy Awards’ of Las Vegas education to honor CCSD impact-makers

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Erik Kabik/courtesy

Erich Bergen announces the first five winners at the inaugural Heart of Education Awards in 2016. This year’s April 29 event will treat 910 finalists to a lavish evening, during which 20 teachers will be honored with cash prizes for doing exceptional work in the Clark County School District.

In a news landscape where education headlines are dominated by teacher-student sex scandals and Nevada’s poor nationwide rankings, day-to-day bright spots rarely make it to the public eye.

The Heart of Education Awards represent a refreshing exception, event organizers say. Sponsored by the nonprofit Rogers Foundation and the Smith Center, among other local businesses, the annual observance rewards Clark County School District teachers with lavish gifts, prize money and an elegant ceremony for their hard work positively affecting students’ lives.

“We feel this is a great way to honor our teachers and appropriately thank them,” said Myron Martin, CEO of the Smith Center, which will host the second annual edition of the red-carpet event on April 29. “We want this to be the Academy Awards of CCSD, a special, special night.”

Last year’s inaugural event featured about 800 finalists out of about 2,000 nominees, Martin said, of which 15 teachers (from kindergarten to the high school level) and five administrators were chosen as winners of a $5,000 prize and an additional $1,000 to spend at their respective schools. Over three times as many teachers received nominations this year, which happens when a colleague, administrator, student or former student visits the Heart of Education’s website to recommend the teacher. The teacher then gets an email to accept the nomination, if they choose, and answer a few questions about themselves.

This year, 910 finalists (all teachers this time) and their guests will take to the red carpet, said Beverly Rogers, chairman of the Rogers Foundation board. And while only 20 winning teachers will be chosen for the prize money, all finalists will be treated to an evening of music and live entertainment, as well as a “swag bag” packed with sporting event and show tickets, and vouchers to Las Vegas restaurant and hotels.

“It’s first-class entertainment,” Rogers said. “You walk in and can’t help but smile when you see the look on the teachers’ faces.”

She added: “They’re all winners as human beings. Just to be a finalist for this event means they’ve gone above and beyond for their students.”

Christa Fialkiewicz taught English for 20 years at Green Valley High School before accepting a job as Basic High School’s dean of attendance and discipline this school year. A finalist for a Heart of Education Award last year, Fialkiewicz said Martin invited her and the 19 other eventual winners to have their portraits taken and make a brief video sharing their education stories during the show.

“He told us he thought our stories were especially interesting and wanted to include them in a video,” Fialkiewicz said. “We didn’t know we were the winners. They offered a free portrait from a well-known photographer as the carrot to get us out there.”

Fialkiewicz said finalists at the time didn’t know how many people were invited to the video shoot, which took place “somewhere in the back door of a place in the back part of Chinatown.” She figured the room would be full when she arrived for the shoot — just a month before last year’s show — but saw only one other finalist.

Later, when she got her tickets in the mail, Fialkiewicz noticed they were near the front row.

“At this point, I started to think something was going on,” she said.

On the day of the show, Fialkiewicz and the other finalists were invited backstage after being told CCSD Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky wanted to shake hands and take a picture with them. There, Martin placed a medal on their necks and said, “If you haven’t figured it out yet, you guys are winners,” Fialkiewicz recalled.

With word of last year’s surprise having made its way across the district, Martin said he’s still devising new and creative ways to make this year’s presentation unique for award winners. Like Rogers, he believes the chance to be at the ceremony is an “incredible experience” for teachers.

Fialkiewicz agrees. The 2016 winner called the Heart of Education Awards the “pinnacle” of recognition of what’s she has put into her career.

“It was just awesome,” she said. “A magical night.”

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