With the spotlight on them for a night, the winners of the Foundation for Eden Prairie Schools Legacy Awards used their platform to shower praise on their colleagues, students and mentors in education.
Around 160 people gathered at Bearpath Country Club on the evening of March 12 for the 11th annual award ceremony. Conn McCartan, FEPS’ executive director, framed the event as a time for the community to “pause and speak our admiration for the work that goes on around us.”
“It would warm your heart” to read all the letters of nomination that FEPS received, McCartan told the audience.
Each of the 108 nominees for teacher, staff, volunteer and student group of the year received an envelope with the letters that nominated them and stood as various presenters spoke of their accomplishments and read parts of the nomination letters.
After hearing the kind words the community wrote about the nominees and winners, McCartan left the audience with a call to “speak your admiration to someone tomorrow” in person, just as they wrote their admiration in the many nominations.
Teachers of the Year: Nick Windschitl and Cathy Bockenstedt
Nick Windschitl, of Prairie View Elementary, has taught kindergarten for 19 years and shared his personal journey as a student in his speech. From the importance of play in the classroom to avoiding stress about high-stakes tests, he emphasized how laughter and a bit of silliness goes a long way for young students.
School wasn’t always easy for him, Windschitl said. He was held back in kindergarten, which tainted his experience of education for several years.
“I’ve spent a lot of years in kindergarten, 19 as a teacher and two as a student,” Windschitl said. “I carried the mindset that I was dumb until I entered the fourth grade, and that’s when I met Ms. Wempner.”
In a peer grading exercise, his teacher, Connie Wempner, highlighted Windschitl’s work in front of the class and transformed his view of himself as a student, Windschitl said.
“She lifted me up in front of my peers,” he said, tearing up a bit.
Wempner was one of Windschitl’s guests to the dinner. He was her student in her second year as a teacher, she told Eden Prairie News, and is now in her 33rd year of teaching at Sunset Terrace Elementary in Rochester.
Cathy Bockenstedt is a science teacher at Central Middle School and has taught for 21 years. She used her speech to draw attention to “eight points of light” in the education community. She praised the families, role models, communicators, critical thinkers, support networks, colleagues, community groups and students of the Eden Prairie School District that make the district’s achievements possible.
“They are like stars in the night sky that guide all of us,” Bockenstedt said of her fellow nominees.
The light of her work comes from being able to empower and inspire each student, she said, every one of whom is “our hope for the future, the galaxy of young people that I treasure.”
Student Group of the Year: Prairie View Student Council
The Prairie View Student Council, represented by Corbynn Bille, Caroline Nave and Sami Gee, is defined by its hard work and commitment to community, said Prairie View Elementary principal Felicia Thames, who introduced the trio.
“How lucky we are to have them continue on in our Eden Prairie schools, and in our community in the future,” Thames said.
“Student council has shown me how much of a leader I can be and how to use my leadership skills in the right way,” said Corbynn. “You can never be too young to step up.”
“One of the best things about student council is even when you’re working hard, it’s so much fun,” Caroline said.
“In student council, I know everyone works their best to make our school a better learning environment,” Sami added.
One of the nominees for the award was a familiar one: Zella Sahar, a senior at Eden Prairie High School, was named student of the year as a fourth grader. It’s “humbling” to be honored twice by her community, she told Eden Prairie News.
Sahar is an active member of the high school’s interior design club, a member of the National Honor Society and was a captain of the girl’s cross country team last fall.
Staff of the Year: Jon Kahle
John Kahle has played many roles in his career at Eden Prairie Schools, from teacher to English department co-chair and literacy specialist. He told a story of the student that jump-started his passion for literacy, back when he taught English at Central Middle School.
A student joined his class mid-year, Kahle said, who had spent much of her life in refugee camps and didn’t know how to read or write in her native language, let alone English. After working with her to learn to read, he dove into literacy for older students and started by learning from educators at Forest Hills Elementary.
“If I was going to be successful as a secondary reading educator, I needed to learn from the experts,” he explained.
As he pushed to develop Eden Prairie’s literacy programs over the years, the department expanded and now includes 17 teachers and leaders on the high school’s literacy team.
“This is the kind of work a district supports when it’s serious about closing gaps in achievement,” he said.
Volunteer of the Year: Kelly Derouin
For Kelly Derouin, the hours she’s spent volunteering at Cedar Ridge Elementary and EPHS are a way of giving back to the educators that have helped her children, and countless other students, for years.
“My love language is service,” Derouin said.
She spoke of the ways that her children’s teachers have inspired them throughout their lives, including a treasure that her son received as a middle school cross country athlete.
“It was a handwritten note from a high school coach to a middle school kid, congratulating him on a win,” Derouin said. That small gesture changed his life, she explained, inspiring him to continue running cross country in high school.
“Truly, if I had a hundred awards, I’d give them all back to you,” she told the educators in the audience.
Editor’s note: Cathy Bockenstedt is the mother of Southwest News Media reporter Lara Bockenstedt.