Learn More about the Board’s Distinguished Service Award Winners
The Montgomery County Board of Education honored 15 individuals and organizations during its virtual annual Distinguished Service Awards ceremony on Oct. 22. You can watch the virtual ceremony here.
The Board established the awards to recognize and show appreciation for exemplary contributions to public education and to MCPS by members of the community, businesses, MCPS staff and school volunteers.
Learn more about this year’s winners below:
Mr. Byron Diaz has a true heart for the work he does as family case manager with Linkages to Learning at Wheaton Woods Elementary School. He offers skills and advocacy for direct needs and supports for the broader community by building strong relationships with those that he serves and with others he indirectly impacts. In collaboration with EveryMind, Mr. Diaz has helped implement the Family Empowerment and Improvement Institute across 11 sites. The purpose of the institute is to help parents build skills, enabling them to thrive. As a result, the families can support themselves, be role models for their children, and set goals for success. Mr. Diaz has taught English classes for adult English for Speakers of Other Languages learners; conducted cooking classes so families recognize the importance of healthy meal planning; taught parents how to drive; guided families on problem solving across basic life skills to enable them to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment; attended transition meetings to speak to the needs of students and families as they move to other schools, and earmarked local services to ensure that families have what they need.
For more than a decade, Dr. Susan Douglass has lent her expertise to MCPS staff, educators and students in programs that have better equipped our schools to teach about Islam, Islamic culture and Muslims. In addition to being a frequent speaker and host for MCPS Religious Literacy for Educators, she has also led workshops on children’s literature and offered advice on the world history curriculum. In the last three years, she has hosted about 100 MCPS educators and provided presentations on the latest demographics of Muslims. She has presented children’s literature workshops for Arab Heritage Month and led workshops for MCPS social studies world history teachers for the new curriculum. Because of her tireless efforts, many high school teachers have been empowered with the content to teach Islamic history. She has informed hundreds of MCPS teachers and staff about the root of misconceptions and hatred towards Muslims and equipped hundreds of elementary teachers with literature to allow students to better understand Muslim-American classmates and families.
Ms. Kate Haydon, the Managing Director of Academy Development for the National Academy Foundation (NAF), has been an advocate for Career and Technology Education for more than 20 years. Ms. Haydon has focused on making sure all students have opportunities, access to resources and guidance as they pursue career aspirations in high school. Ms. Haydon has engaged with the Information Technology Foundation’s board of directors and has actively worked with program coordinators and staff to offer an array of professional development opportunities. She has been influential in the growth and development of the Academy of Information Technology (AOIT), helping to ensure that industry partnerships, NAF certification, successful program completion and rigorous instruction is available to all. She provided MCPS staff with professional development opportunities related to the NAFTrack, a proprietary management program that aids in organizing scholarship, internship, dual enrollment and other information to participate in NAF Academies. She has also worked to increase the presence of national partnerships within MCPS.
The Literacy Council of Montgomery County
The Literacy Council of Montgomery County (LCMC) sustains and grows the social and economic equity of adults in our region through education and workforce training. Founded as a volunteer-led tutoring program for native English speakers learning to read and write as adults, as the community grew and expanded, so did the need to diversify services. Today, LCMC offers instruction in English as a Second Language (ESL), General Education Degree exam preparation, workforce readiness, computer skills and more. In the past year, the LCMC has been working closely with MCPS to provide English Language Assessments for approximately 750 MCPS parents. LCMC has hosted 33 LCMC online ESL classes to support an additional 750 MCPS parents; provided about 750 e-books for parents and students; and supported ESL conversation support classes for another 750 parents.
The Vaccine Hunters – Las Caza Vacunas
Tanya Aguilar, Kathleen Bartels, Dina Ciccone, Maisie Lynch, Courtney Mason, Tania Perez-Fuentes, Maria Peterson and Becky Taylor
Tanya Aguilar, Kathleen Bartels, Dina Ciccone, Maisie Lynch, Courtney Mason, Tania Perez-Fuentes, Maria Peterson and Becky Taylor are full-time Montgomery County high school teachers known as “The Vaccine Hunters – Las Caza Vacunas.” They worked day and night to get Marylanders appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine. These educators teach and lead by example, locating surplus vials and safely forwarding the vaccines to county vaccination sites while the vials are still usable. These MCPS teachers helped senior citizens register for the vaccinations, as well as worked to find appointments for Black and Latino residents. The group has lobbied local and state officials, companies like CVS and other groups working to ensure equity in vaccine access. They take firsthand accounts of discrepancies in access and push officials to do better. They are advocates, neighbors and friends who are literally saving lives.
Women Who Care Ministries
Women Who Care Ministries (WWCM) is a faith-inspired, community outreach nonprofit based in Montgomery Village. As executive director, Ms. Judith Clark loves helping people regardless of their beliefs. Her humorous, upbeat, enthusiastic, passionate spirit is contagious. What people note as most significant about Ms. Clark is her philanthropic heart of love and service to the community. The primary mission of WWCM is to help hurting people overcome; primarily through offering safety net services to those who are low-income and need assistance with overcoming hunger. Currently, in its 15th year of operation, more than 50,000 women, men and children have attended the monthly meetings and conferences.
Starbucks Coffee Company—Maryland Region
Working with Feeding America, the Starbucks Coffee Company—Maryland Region addresses hunger relief through employees’ engagement, in-kind support, donation of goods and philanthropy. When the MCPS Educational Foundation wanted to educate the public about unpaid school lunch debt and its impact on student attendance and well-being, the Foundation reached out to Starbucks for help. The Dine with Dignity sticker campaign was launched in the fall of 2018. From October 29, 2018, through December 2, 2018, Starbucks stores in Montgomery County placed a Dine with Dignity sticker on every cup to their customers. The sticker directed the customer to a mobile giving site and the Dine with Dignity webpage. The effort generated enough funds to settle the unpaid Fiscal Year 2019 school lunch account balances for all Free and Reduced priced Meals Program (FARMS) students and 20% of non-FARMS students identified as being students in need despite not participating in FARMS. Since 2018, more than $182,000 has been raised for Dine with Dignity. This funding has come from individuals, family foundations and county businesses.
Mr. Jeffrey Donald is a skilled mindfulness practitioner and has a deep understanding of the corresponding scientific research that explains its effectiveness. His efforts to teach mindfulness practices have made a positive impact on dozens of schools, hundreds of teachers and thousands of students. He became the county’s first mindfulness coordinator, developing a popular course for teachers called Mindfulness for Educators. This course has become a framework for mindfulness practices throughout the district. He has trained hundreds of teachers to understand the importance of mindfulness and to engage in self-care practices. Mr. Donald teaches the course with kindness and understands the pressure that teachers face. He constructed a very academic curriculum, but differentiated expectations for work completion according to the teachers’ abilities to submit assignments during a very stressful time. Mr. Donald also focused on developing the teachers’ capacity to incorporate mindfulness into their work with students. The course helped staff members reduce their stress and increase resilience. Mr. Donald’s dedication to systemwide adoption of mindfulness practices addresses the social and emotional needs of students as they transition back into schools. He answered the call to adapt, innovate and respond to an unprecedented crisis.
Dr. Daryl Howard has made an outstanding impact on the educational community and has a passion for enlightening young people and supporting male educators of color. As a former school counselor at Montgomery Blair High School, he understands the importance of academic achievement, social-emotional learning, personal relationship building and mentorship. He led the W.E.B. Dubois Honor Society, a school-based and national organization of largely African American high school students who were high achievers and servants to their communities. Dr. Howard coordinated service activities, leadership and cultural experiences, and academic assistance that supported the achievement of more than 500 scholars. As an equity specialist in the Equity Initiatives Unit, he trains, coaches and consults educators and students on matters of culture, race and gender equity in education. He often highlights how recognizing implicit bias can reduce barriers to an equal and excellent education. His work and research interests include race and cultural proficiency, social-emotional learning, and the triumphs and challenges of African American male students. Through the Building our Network of Diversity Project, he leads initiatives focused on the recruitment, development, retention, and empowerment of male educators of color. Through BOND, Dr. Howard also directs the BOND Learning and Leadership Institute for Young Men.
Principal Jennifer Lowndes exemplifies the commitment and dedication to her students that MCPS proudly declares as its focus, mission and duty. Ms. Lowndes created a culture of learning and love at Rock Creek Forest Elementary School. She begins her weekly address to the community by saying, “Your children are fabulous.” Rock Creek Forest has been a top-tier performing school since she came on board, but specifically, the Spanish Immersion program has had a huge impact on the Silver Spring community. Her ability to speak both languages enables her to help families navigate the systems and find the best path for their children. She exudes a warmth and care that permeates the culture of her school. While families struggle to figure out how to support their children’s learning, find healthy and reliable food resources, when students feel exhausted and worn out, aren’t able to see their friends or play together closer than six feet, Ms. Lowndes found a way for everyone to feel connected and supported. She often reaches out to address issues with families directly, not allowing people to fall through the cracks of a large school system.
As a highly effective administrative assistant, Mrs. Robin McCue brings out the best in those around her and demonstrates an unwavering commitment and passion for the MCPS athletics program. This passion and love for her job is evident in all of her work, as she serves as an asset to central services staff and school-based stakeholders. Mrs. McCue interacts with high school athletic directors, middle school athletic coordinators, principals, coaches, parents and students to support the overall mission of MCPS athletics. She has fostered positive relationships with stakeholders throughout Montgomery County; her genuine gusto for MCPS athletics serves as an inspiration to her colleagues and the school community. Mrs. McCue’s positive impact spans far beyond her work with MCPS and has played an integral role in the successful implementation of multiple county and state championships and athletic events. For more than 16 years, she has also served as the director of administrative operations for the state wrestling and basketball tournaments. She also serves as the secretary for the biannual Board of Control meetings. She acts with integrity, enthusiasm and has earned the respect of individuals around the state as an outstanding person and professional.
One of the biggest ways that Mr. Kenneth Nwocha motivates his students is through encouraging participation in mathematics competitions and STEM clubs. Mr. Nwocha frequently notifies students about countywide math competitions and challenges students to aim for their fullest potential. He nominates students for countywide and national recognition in mathematics. He wants his students to work hard, to excel and to be recognized for their efforts. Mr. Nwocha never fails to motivate students to pursue a career in math and science. His classroom is always open for students to ask questions or to eat lunch. His passion for teaching math is evident in the way he communicates with his students. Not only would he explain any missteps if students were having trouble, Mr. Nwocha was always willing to take a different approach to ensure that all of his students were understanding the concepts. He uses acronyms in his teachings and made taking notes easy and effective. He is a member of MCEA’s Council of Teaching and Learning, and volunteers his time to train new hires in MCPS. Mr. Nwocha is devoted to his work as a teacher and is an active participant in the school community. He makes the learning environment more fun and gives students a passion to learn.
School Service Volunteer
Jessica “Jess” Berrellez is a mom of three, a technologist, and an ‘equity innovator’ whose work has been featured in The Washington Post, CBS Evening News, ABC Evening News, Good Morning America and The Today Show. Ms. Berrellez founded an emergency food pantry that serves 10 Gaithersburg school communities, organized 30 food distributions, launched a free student bike program to access free meals, and started a national movement to build desks for low-income students. Ms. Berrellez was recently named a Capital One Community Hero in recognition of her community service during the pandemic. She is the president of the Ridgeview Middle School Parent, Teacher and Student Association (PTSA), a member of the MCPS Family Engagement Advisory Team and Deputy Superintendent Advisory Board, co-chair of the Latino Student Achievement Action Group Parent, and member of the MCCPTA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. She launched a monthly Wellness Wednesday series to bring mental health and physical health educational programming to the Ridgeview and Quince Orchard High School communities; organized a community forum to learn about the vaccines, and organized and distributed 50 needs kits for Ridgeview students. She established a partnership with the Montgomery County COVID-19 Food Security Task Force to coordinate weekly walk-up food distributions, and created three bilingual WhatsApp channels for the Ridgeview Middle, Jones Lane Elementary and Thurgood Marshall Middle schools to share information.
For the past 35 years, Mr. Morris Hudson has led the Brothers Academy, a local nonprofit organization that provides supports to MCPS students with mentoring services and with the slogan “Each One Reach One” as its guiding principle. The Brothers Academy provides mentorships to students enrolled at Gaithersburg High School and its feeder middle and elementary schools. Since its inception, more than 3,500 students have participated in its program. The Brothers Academy also focuses on community service projects to assist in the development of its members. Previous community service projects include: coat and clothing drives, serving meals at local soup kitchens, participating in Foundation to Fight Blindness Vision Walks, and community food distribution during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A lifelong educator, Dr. Smith has been a classroom teacher, principal, curriculum director and a local superintendent of schools. He joined the Maryland State Department of Education as the chief academic officer for the Office of Teaching and Learning in August 2013. As the chief academic officer, Dr. Smith worked closely with local school systems, parents, businesses, teacher associations, institutions of higher education and government agencies at the state and national levels to ensure high-quality teaching and learning. Dr. Smith’s goal always has been to provide all students, regardless of their learning needs, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, with options and choices after graduation. In 2016, he joined MCPS and led the drive to improve equity. During his tenure, he oversaw the development of transportation infrastructure, such as cameras and seat belts on school buses, a systemwide boundary analysis, the revision of the student transfer policy, the grading scales and incident reporting. Dr. Smith was named Maryland Superintendent of the Year in 2013, and he received the 2010 Charge Agent Award from the Maryland State Department of Education’s Division of College and Career Readiness. Dr. Smith is a member of Leadership Maryland’s Class of 2011, and he has served on a variety of volunteer boards.