The hard work and sacrifices of four Ralston Public Schools faculty members were rewarded last week with the prestigious Heart of Learning Award.

On May 3, RPS teachers and staff members were honored by the Ralston Schools Foundation for their hard work, dedication and service to the district at the Ralston Arena during the Heart of Learning Awards Banquet.

The night included dinner, speeches and a performance by the Sixth Dimension, the RPS sixth-grade show choir. Teachers and faculty were also honored for their years spent in the district.

At the end of the night, the Heart of Learning Award was given to four people: Laura Carlow, coordinator for the College and Career Center at Ralston High School; Stacey Stoffel, fifth-grade teacher at Mockingbird Elementary School; Jacki Groesser, seventh-grade world history teacher at Ralston Middle School; and Katie Watkins, assistant director for Tiny Rams.

Laura Carlow

For Laura Carlow, this past year was a big change as she transitioned from working in the health office to preparing students for their futures in the College and Career Center.

Carlow first found out she would receive this award during bus duty several weeks ago, when Ralston Schools Foundation Director Katy Core came out with balloons and told her that she would be receiving the Heart of Learning Award.

Carlow has worked in the district for eight years, seven of those as an assistant in the health office. When Ralston High School hired a full-time nurse, Carlow had the option of finding a job elsewhere in the district, but decided she wanted to stay at RHS. After the death of her son 18 months ago, her co-workers had become like family to her, and she said she didn’t want to leave them.

There was an opening in the College and Career Center and Carlow decided that would be the perfect opportunity new career opportunity that would give her the chance to stay close to her “work family.”

“Some days that’s the reason you get out of bed and get to work,” Carlow said.

The transition from the health office to the college and career office has been a smooth one for Carlow, and she’s enjoyed working with students to navigate their lives after graduation and helping students figure out their college plans.

“I like being able to be creative, and I really like interacting with so many different people,” Carlow said.

She still stays in touch with many of the students she used to see in the health office, many of whom stop in to give her updates about their lives.

“It’s a really good match for me, and I know now that God has this in mind for me,” Carlow said. “I didn’t know that last April or May.”

Stacey Stoffel

Last year, Mockingbird Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Stacey Stoffel attended a meeting about a new United Way program where students would receive free books each month. After that meeting, she knew this was a program she needed to bring to Mockingbird.

Stoffel is now the school’s Book Trust manager, responsible for organizing the monthly book drives, where students from kindergarten through third-grade receive $7 worth of new books, while also organizing guests to hand out the books to make the experience as exciting as possible for Mockingbird students.

Since the program began, Stoffel has seen the passion many of the students now have for reading.

Many of the students had few books at home before this program began. For the kindergarten and first-graders, they will now have a library of 100 books by the end of third grade.

Those books also come in Spanish, giving many of her students a chance to read at home with their parents.

“It’s amazing,” Stoffel said. “Our kids have fallen in love with reading.”

Stoffel spoke of one second-grade student who was thrilled that her father built her a new bookcase to hold all of her new books.

Stoffel found out she would win the Heart of Learning Award over a month ago. When she was called down to the office, students from kindergarten through third-grade, the beneficiaries of the Book Trust program, were lined up in the hallway to cheer her on.

”It just makes you feel good knowing that you’ve made a difference, but I know that I couldn’t do this without my team,” Stoffel said. “They deserve this as much as I do.”

Jacki Groesser

Early on in Jacki Groesser’s teaching career, one of her students made a remark about how another teacher cared more about the assignments than the students. For Groesser, that comment had a major impact on her.

“I decided early on that I would never be a teacher anybody said that about,” Groesser said. “I used that as my motto all throughout my teaching career.”

As a seventh-grade world history teacher, Groesser also aims to show her students that history doesn’t have to be boring.

“I love getting kids excited about history because they come in thinking that social studies is a boring topic, and I teach them how fascinating these eras of history are,” Groesser said.

Groesser believes that students can learn a lot about the world from learning about past civilizations, and see a side of the world they wouldn’t normally be exposed to.

“They just get exposure to a lot of things beyond what we’re used to in everyday America,” Groesser said.

Several weeks ago Groesser was surprised when members of the Ralston Schools Foundation and her husband showed up to surprise her during her eighth period class. When they walked in and told her about the award, the class went crazy.

“Of course, my eighth-period students all went berserk and they all gathered round for a picture,” Groesser said.

Groesser was honored to receive the award and to be honored by her co-workers for her work in the classroom.

“It’s amazing to have your co-workers acknowledge the things that you’re doing and recognizing the effort and time and thought that go into the things we do,” Groesser said.

Katie Watkins

As assistant director for Tiny Rams, Watkins works with some of the youngest students in the district, ranging from birth to prekindergarten.

Watkins has been working in the district since 2003. She worked with Li’l Rams, geared toward children from kindergarten to sixth grade, before switching over to Tiny Rams in 2005.

Children involved in the Tiny Rams program spend their days with books, developing their sensory skills, releasing their inner Picasso with art projects and attending field trips throughout the metro area.

For Watkins, seeing these children grow over the years, as well as developing relationships with these children and their families has become the highlight of her career.

“Winning this award is so wonderful, but the best reward I can get is helping the children accomplish new things and seeing their bright, shining faces eager to learn,” Watkins said.

Learning that she would be the winner of the Heart of Learning Award was enough to bring tears to her eyes.

Although she is thankful for receiving the award, she attributes much of her success to the district and to the staff members she works with everyday.

“I honestly think that I have the best job in the world,” Watkins said.

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