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South Salt Lake Journal

Nine educators, one administrator honored with Excel award

May 03, 2019 08:57AM ● By Jess Nielsen Beach

2019’s Excel award winners. Left to right: Jennifer Millett, Samantha Vore, Leah Wright, Levi Negley, Rachel Pehrson, Michelle Chester, Lauren Merkley, Molly Dingley, Stephanie Harris, and Jared Reynolds. (Photo courtesy Granite Education Foundation)

By Jess Nielsen Beach | [email protected]

In a scene straight from King Arthur’s time, dozens of teachers, administrators and supporters of education gathered together at round tables to celebrate their colleagues at the 2019 Excel Awards, hosted by the Granite Education Foundation.

Teachers and administrators from Granite School District were awarded for a job well done on April 12 at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center. This year’s theme was stories, with elaborate thrones and a dinner buffet fit for the momentous occasion, which also marked 30 years of the ceremony. 

“If you want to find champions who support education, they’re right there,” said Brent Severe, the CEO of Granite Education Foundation, gesturing to the room.

Nine teachers and one administrator were chosen as Excel award recipients, a process that has been a long time coming. Nominations started in October of last year, with students, parents, and other staff choosing an outstanding teacher and submitting their name. Once the nominations are in, there is a months-long process in which the teachers and administrators are notified and must then complete an application.

The selection committee, made up of past winners, sponsors, and education advocates, then spends January through March reading over each application and deciding which candidates move on until there are only 10 left. This year, there was a record 4,000 nominations from the immense 92-school district, which speaks to the caliber of Granite’s educators.

“These teachers are shaping our tomorrow,” Severe said. “The award is truly a rise to the top of the finest educators, from kindergarten all the way up to AP math.”

Not only is the Excel award a high honor, but each winner receives $1,000 and is eligible for Teacher of the Year at the state level.

On hand to emcee the night was KSL news anchor Shara Park, who grew up in the district.

“Tonight we gather to celebrate the story of teachers,” she began. “I run Granite, through and through…I never would have signed that four-year college scholarship to NIU (Northern Illinois University) without those teachers in my life. Thank you for what you’re doing.”

After a video presentation of past winners discussing the honor and opportunities that come with the award, 2018’s Teacher of the Year—and Utah’s nominee for the 2020 NEA Foundation Awards for Teaching Excellence—Archer Birrell, took the podium.

“I love stories about superheroes,” Birrell said, “especially the Granite Education Foundation. Thank you for being real-life heroes.” He went on to thank those who supported and inspired him, ending with, “I want to encourage all of you to be a teacher’s hero, too. Your support might help a teacher to stay in the field.”

Teachers being heroes was an ongoing theme throughout the evening. Many spoke of the challenges presented by being in Title 1 schools, where students may not have the best circumstances in their personal lives. Educators often purchase supplies and snacks with their own money to help a student in need.

“You hope you can make a difference,” said award-winner Leah Wright, a teacher at Gearld Wright Elementary. When speaking of her nomination and relationships with her pupils, she added, “Sometimes you have an incredible bond with a child. That’s what it’s all about.”

Each winner was introduced first by a short video of them in their school, their reaction to winning the award, and a short interview of their story and how they came to be in the profession. They were then brought onstage and presented the award by their sponsor. 

Martin W. Bates, the superintendent of Granite School District, closed the event by expressing his gratitude for the sacrifices and dedication of the audience.

“If community and education come together, it strengthens that community.”

The winners

Jared Reynolds, Granite Connection High School: “The most amazing thing about receiving the award is receiving it for the school.”

Jennifer Millett, South Kearns Elementary: “I have five kids. I want to be the teacher I’d want them to have.”

Lauren Merkley, Cottonwood High School: “I teach because I love humans.”

Leah Wright, Gearld Wright Elementary: “My motivation for teaching is absolutely the children.”

Levi Negley, Taylorsville High School: “[In teaching] there’s an emotional responsibility, an intellectual responsibility…it made me see my community as I had never seen it before.”

Michelle Chester, Churchill Junior High: “Every day I have something happen that I never thought would. It’s surprising every day.”

Molly Dingley, Evergreen Junior High: “If you continue to improve and practice, that’s what helps any profession. I couldn’t have found a better fit, school and students.”

Rachel Pehrson, Philo T. Farnsworth Elementary: “I always came back to education. I can make a bigger difference at a Title 1 school.”

Stephanie Harris, David Gourley Elementary: “I really love helping others; watching their faces as they learn and grow is my favorite.”

Samantha Vore, Cyprus High School: “I wanted to see if I can make a difference like was made for me. It’s indescribable, just having people come in and say ‘good job.’”


Granite Credit Union, America First Credit Union, Molina Healthcare, World’s Finest Chocolate, SelectHealth, my529, Coller Industries, VLCM, McNeil Engineering, University Federal Credit Union

Businesses can contact the Granite Education Foundation office for sponsorship opportunities.