St. Charles educators sweep state awards for first time
R.J. Vial’s McKinney wins Teacher of the Year, Luling’s Pethe is Principal of the Year
By Kyle Barnett - Jul 18, 2013
For the first time, St. Charles Parish swept the state’s highest education awards by having local educators win both "Teacher of the Year" and "Principal of the Year."
R.J. Vial Elementary School teacher La’Keisha McKinney was named Louisiana’s Teacher of the Year while Luling Elementary Principal AJ Pethe won Principal of the Year. Pethe is the first principal from St. Charles Parish to win the state award.
McKinney has been a teacher in St. Charles Parish for the past 16 years and has spent the past four years as a gifted program teacher for grades third through sixth. She previously taught at Mimosa Parks Elementary and R.J. Vial.
McKinney said she was honored just to be selected as one of five statewide finalists who were up for the main award, but that she was nervous shortly before Teacher of the Year was named.
"They waited until the last minute. It was the last award of the night and I was really on pins and needles," she said.
When they announced her name, McKinney was stunned.
"I was just overwhelmed with excitement and very appreciative. It felt like a magic moment," she said.
The impressive award package for Teacher of the Year was worth $32,900 and included $12,500 in cash, the use of a new Mercedes-Benz for a year, thousands of dollars worth of improved classroom technology, numerous gift cards and tickets for sporting and cultural events.
McKinney has been chosen as Teacher of the Year for St. Charles Parish Public Schools twice, but the first time she received the honor she didn’t advance to the state competition. She was unaware that the state winner would receive such generous prizes, but she was more thankful for the recognition.
"I just appreciate all that they have done to show the appreciation for what we do in the classroom working with kids and helping them be prepared for the real world," she said. "I am going to enjoy this moment as long as I can. I am just thankful to represent St. Charles."
Given that McKinney is a graduate of St. Charles Parish Public Schools, she said bringing the award home was that much sweeter.
"I am a product of the St. Charles Parish public school system. I graduated from Destrehan High School in 1993," she said. "I am a very proud resident of St. Charles. Of course I think very highly of the school system and what we do as a unit to make a difference in the lives of our students."
McKinney will now go on to the nationwide competition for Teacher of the Year.
"I am a part of the national competition and I am going to go to the White House and meet the president," she said.
In addition, McKinney received word just before the ceremony that she had been promoted and will become assistant principal at New Sarpy Elementary.
"I will not only be able to reach the kids in my class, but in the entire school," she said. "I think I will still be able to have an impact on children’s lives because I will be working with an entire faculty of teachers."
Pethe has also been with St. Charles Parish Public Schools for the past 16 years. For the past six years he has served as principal of Luling Elementary during which time the school’s performance rating has increased by nearly 20 points. He said he was surprised to have been named the top principal in the state.
"It was such an honor to be selected Principal of Year for the entire state and to know what it meant for my school," he said.
The award included a cash prize of $2,000 along with smaller prizes, gift cards and tickets to sporting events for a total of $3,900.
For Pethe the award is more indicative of the school as a whole rather than his role as administrator.
"Our school motto is ‘expect more, achieve more,’" he said. "I really can say we have the hardest working staff in the state and all of the hard work we have put in has made our students more successful."
Pethe said the next step in his career is the same as the last–to continue raising the school’s performance score.
"I want to continue building on the success we’ve had at Luling," he said.
In addition to being selected as the state’s top principal by the Department of Education, Pethe was also named as Principal of the Year by the Louisiana Association of Principals. He will be going to Washington, D.C. this fall to represent Louisiana’s principals at a black-tie event.
Pethe said his success would not be possible without the support of his family.
"I couldn’t do what I can do without them," he said of his wife and two daughters. "Sometimes I am not able to attend every event at my kids’ school because I am at my school and they have been really supportive of me."
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