Heresa recognized for teaching excellence, earns $25,000 prize

Hands shot in the air when Congresswoman Mazie Hirono asked, “How many of you have $25,000?”

That was one of the lead-ins used by Hirono and Asst. Superintendent Daniel Hamada in making the announcement that Karen Heresa was the recipient of this year’s Milken Educator Award yesterday during a special assembly called at the Elsie Wilcox Elementary School.

It took a second for the announcement to sink in, but by that time, the special education teacher was already surrounded by ecstatic fellow teachers.

Heresa has been a special education teacher at Wilcox Elementary since 1995, a press release from the Department of Education states.

As a special education teacher, Heresa has found a way to connect with each student, involve parents in their child’s learning, and collaboratively work with all stakeholders to help each child succeed.

Additionally, she is always seeking new teaching strategies to share with her colleagues that will help all students to grow academically, socially and emotionally.

The enthusiasm for learning demonstrated by Heresa has translated into huge achievement gains as exhibited in Hawai‘i State Assessment test scores, student progress reports, portfolios and class work, the release states.

“Mrs. Heresa is more than just an enthusiastic teacher at Wilcox Elementary School,” Hirono said in a press release. “She is also an inspirational leader who has her students believing in what they do inside and out of the classroom. Looking back to March of last year when she helped rebuild the school following a devastating fire, Mrs. Heresa exhibited an unquestioned love for her students, love for her school and love for her community.”

Former Wilcox Elementary School principal Rachel Watarai said in an interview to Diane Nitta of the Dept. of Education during the search process, “Ms. Heresa is truly an exceptional educator who will find ways to connect with each student. I remember an autistic student who transferred to Wilcox Elementary in the third grade.

“Upon entrance, his parents shared the frustration and struggle they experienced over his early years in helping their child. It was not an easy road, but with Ms. Heresa’s ‘never give up’ and ‘let’s try this’ attitude, the student left Wilcox Elementary reading beyond grade level, socially functioning with his peers and able to handle the periodic unforeseen circumstances. His mother shared that after a little rocky start, thanks to the strong foundation Ms. Heresa helped him develop to cope, he enjoyed a successful first year at middle school.”

In the late 1990’s, Heresa co-created the school’s Hawaiian Values Character Education Program which continues to enjoy its success today.

This program is built on eight Hawaiian Values including ohana, or family, kuleana, or being responsible to take care of one’s self and surroundings, and pono, or always doing right. Each month, one value is the school-wide theme for guidance lessons, daily messages and monthly assemblies.

Under Heresa’s leadership, Wilcox Elementary was named a 2001 semifinalist by the Character Education Partnership in its annual National Schools of Character Award program. This award is presented to K-12 schools that demonstrate exemplary programs which encourage the social and ethical development of students while maintaining strong academic standards.

As part of her awards, Heresa was presented a check for $25,000 as well as an all-expenses paid trip to Los Angeles to attend the annual Milken Family Foundation National Education Conference.

With the announcement, Heresa becomes the fifth Kaua‘i educator to receive the prestigious national award, said April Shigemoto, currently a DOE staff member and one of the first Milken Educator Award recipients.

Shigemoto said she and Cheryl Shintani were named shortly after Hurricane ‘Iniki in 1992. The state DOE joined the Milken Educator Awards program in 1990, and since then, 67 Hawai‘i recipients have been named.

In addition to Shigemoto and Shintani, the other Kaua‘i Milken Educator Award recipients include Sandra Haynes, Clyde Hashimoto and yesterday, Heresa.

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