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He said his father always told him he could continue a life in the fields or get an education. Between spending his childhood working in fields and teaching math at Alton Memorial Jr. High School, Peña has always had education at the forefront of his mind.
As a result of his work, the math teacher was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award in secondary schools Saturday through the 13th Annual H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards.
Marilyn Schmidtzinsky has been a judge in the H-E-B program for the last 13 years, and said the judges go through lengthy debates after interviewing candidates to find a winner, but she described Peña as a champion for kids.
“On his application, he wrote that he thinks that all teachers should be a positive voice for not only students but parents and members in the community,” Schmidtzinsky said. “He believes to the depth of his soul that a teaching position is the most essential position of today.”
H-E-B customers, employees and community members were asked to nominate teachers, principals and districts. Peña was selected in the top 40 out of 900 recommendations for the award.
In the first round of the competition, Peña was awarded $1,000 for himself and another $1,000 for his campus.
After being selected, Peña said he went through an interview process. Panels comprised of former winners, administrators, university and community leaders selected 40 principal and teacher finalists.
“My principal, Ms. (Sylvia) Garcia, said she felt very confident that I would win,” Peña said. “Just by hearing those words from my principal was pretty significant for me, so when I went in to interview I was very relaxed.”
Peña went up against competitors in four other regions in the state for the award.
Schmidtzinsky is a retired educator and principal, and has spent much of her career as a curriculum developer for principals. She said applications go through multiple rounds of scrutinizing before they get to the state level.
There are multiple qualities the judges look for, but Schmidtzinsky said Peña’s success with his students has been proven in an area where 94 percent of his students are in poverty.
“When you look at that and weigh it against test scores he has been able to assist with, it is an incredible feat,” Schmidtzinsky said. “His coaching experience has helped so much. When you think of the word ‘teacher,’ it is to impart knowledge but a coach trains students as they go.”
Peña was one of eight winners on Saturday; his Lifetime Achievement Award came with $25,000 for Peña and $25,000 for Alton Memorial Jr. High.
At the awards ceremony, H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt personally handed out $430,000 in cash awards and grants, and congratulated eight educators, two school districts, one early childhood agency, and a public school board for being among the best in Texas.
Peña said unfortunately his son had to stay home due to athletic competitions, but his wife and two daughters were able to join him in Houston.
“It was very nice having my family there, it means the world to me,” Peña said. “It’s not very often something like this happens.”
Peña was named District Secondary Teacher of the Year in 2013 and has spent the last 20 years teaching with Mission CISD.
The math teacher was born in Mexico, but has lived here his whole life. Peña graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American where he studied for a degree in business management.
The Excellence in Education Awards program was launched by H-E-B in cooperation with the Texas Association of School Administrators in 2002. It has become the largest monetary program for educators in the state, spotlighting best practices and celebrating the passion and creativity of Texas educators.
“It really was a wonderful gala,” Schmidtzinsky said. “It’s really a lovely expression of Charles Butt and H-E-B to relay that education is critically important.”
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.