Harbor Freight Tools for Schools
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Skills Trades Instructors Honored for Teaching Excellence

Feb. 6, 2020
Arizona, Florida and Missouri teachers and high schools win first place in national competition.

Three public high school skilled trades teachers—a precision manufacturing teacher from Arizona, a landscape operations teacher from Florida and a welding instructor from Missouri—are first-place winners of the 2019 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence. They and their schools, along with 15 second-place winners and their schools, will receive more than $1 million in prizes.

The first-place winners are Cesar Gutierrez, a precision manufacturing teacher at Desert View High School in Tucson, Arizona; Wendy Schepman, a landscape operations teacher at South Fork High School in Stuart, Florida; and Brent Trankler, a welding teacher at Sikeston Career and Technology Center (SCTC) in Sikeston, Missouri. Gutierrez, Schepman and Trankler were each surprised in their classrooms by representatives for Harbor Freight Tools for Schools with the news that they and their schools will receive $100,000—$70,000 for the high school skilled trades program and $30,000 to the teacher. 

“Skilled trades educators are crucial to helping students stay engaged and motivated in high school,” says Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “These amazing teachers connect students to promising careers, show them how to apply academics to the real world and help them feel pride and accomplishment—something they might not experience in all their classes. We make these awards because we believe in these teachers, we believe in these students, and we believe this vital sector deserves more support and investment.”

Each of the 15 second-place winners across the country were also surprised with the news that they and their schools will receive $50,000. In addition to the more than $1 million in first- and second-place prizes awarded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, the company Harbor Freight Tools donated $32,000 to 32 semifinalists.

The Prize for Teaching Excellence was started in 2017 by Harbor Freight Tools Founder Eric Smidt to recognize extraordinary public high school skilled trades teachers and programs with a proven track record of dedication and performance. Prizes are awarded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, a program of The Smidt Foundation. 

"All of our roads and bridges, our schools and homes, and our planes and automobiles are built and are maintained by tradespeople," Smidt said. "It is our dedicated skilled trades teachers, who inspire students to pursue these meaningful careers, that allow our economy to thrive and make so much of what we depend on possible. We are deeply honored to be able to shine a light on these extraordinary teachers today."

Cesar Gutierrez helped create the iSTEM Academy at Desert View High School in 2012, when he began teaching manufacturing there as part of iSTEM’s curriculum built to prepare students for work in machining and engineering. At a school where over 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price lunch, Gutierrez believes in creating opportunities to help break the cycle of poverty. He prepares students for the world of work by providing them the chance to obtain paid internships and up to 25 college credits while enrolled in his classes. His program boasts a 100 percent graduation rate, with 82 percent of students earning post-secondary credit through Gutierrez’s advanced classes and more than 90 percent receiving industry certifications. Gutierrez’s program serves as a model for educators from around the state and country—his students even welcomed Gov. Doug Ducey for a visit in February.

Wendy Schepman began teaching agriculture mechanics, small engines and landscape and turfgrass maintenance at her alma mater, South Fork High School, seven years ago. Her “classroom” is a 75-acre expanse that includes a three-hole golf course that her students maintain, a workshop, a barn, an orchard and a nursery. Before becoming a teacher, Schepman was the first woman to work as a grounds crew member for Port St. Lucie’s minor league baseball team, the St. Lucie Mets. Schepman was a semifinalist for the 2018 Prize for Teaching Excellence.

Brent Trankler, a U.S. Army veteran, has taught welding at SCTC since 2009. A model of lifelong learning for his students, Trankler has earned two bachelor’s degrees and two master’s degrees, along with becoming a National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI) Welding Technology Subject Matter Expert. Trankler boosts his students’ confidence and pushes their limits by taking on large projects and allowing them to experiment, problem-solve and learn from mistakes. Each year, his students volunteer to help approximately 250 Boy Scouts earn their welding and metal works badges. Upon graduation, almost all Trankler’s students pursue post-secondary education or receive job offers from businesses like Manac—the largest manufacturer of custom-built and specialty semitrailers in North America. Trankler was a semifinalist for the 2018 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.

Photos and b-roll of today’s surprise announcements are available upon request.

The following 15 second-place winners will each receive $50,000, with $35,000 going to their public high school skilled trades program and $15,000 to the individual teacher or team. Because of school, district or state policy regarding individual cash awards, the schools of three of the second-place winners will receive the entire prize winnings.

  • Robert Brightbill, Construction, Dauphin County Technical School, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
  • Michael Campanile and Michael Schweinsberg, Masonry and Welding, Carroll County Career and Technology Center, Westminster, Maryland
  • Ken Cox, Automotive Technology, Redwood High School, Visalia, California
  • Eric Dyer, Agriculture, Woodland Senior High School, Woodland, California
  • Stephen Glasder, Manufacturing, Harvard High School, Harvard, Illinois
  • Dennis Johnson, Transportation Technology, Fallbrook High School, Fallbrook, California
  • Henrietta Jutson, Integrated Systems Technology, Jack Britt High School *Fayetteville, North Carolina*School receives entire prize winnings
  • Jodi Lancaster, Welding, Livingston Area Career Center, Pontiac, Illinois
  • Jacob Leair, WeldingGrants Pass High School *Grants Pass, Oregon*School receives entire prize winnings
  • David LillyAutomotive TechnologyPortsmouth High School, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
  • Joel Massarello, Automotive Technology, Oakland Schools Technical Campus NorthwestClarkston, Michigan
  • Troy Reichert, Industrial Technology, Guernsey-Sunrise Public High School, Guernsey, Wyoming
  • Derek Rowe, Aviation Maintenance, McGavock High School, Nashville, Tennessee
  • Peter Wachtel, Product Innovation and Architecture, Adolfo Camarillo High School, Camarillo, California *School receives entire prize winnings
  • Baxter Weed, Automotive Technology, Cold Hollow Career Center, Enosburg Falls, Vermont

The school’s prize winnings will support the skilled trades program being recognized, and the teacher’s or teacher team winnings can be used as they wish. The high schools of the remaining 32 semifinalists will each receive a $1,000 Harbor Freight Tools gift card to support their skilled trades programs.

The 2019 prize drew nearly 750 applications from 49 states and included three rounds of judging, each by a separate independent panel of experts from industry, education, trades, philanthropy and civic leadership. The field was narrowed this summer to 50 semifinalists. The application process, which included responses to questions and a series of online video learning modules, was designed to solicit each teacher’s experience, insights and creative ideas about their approach to teaching and success in helping their students achieve excellence in the skilled trades. 

The list of semifinalist teachers is available hereAll learning modules are available here. One of the modules is also included below. 

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