Inside the stories, challenges, & inspirations behind six different local heroes of education

By: Kylie Cooper Photos By: Lillian Reitz

Do you have a favorite teacher? Someone who might have helped shape you into the person you are today. Perhaps there was a special administrator, maintenance worker, coach, lunch staffer, librarian, or any other type of position throughout your time in school that left an impression on you. When you work in education, you are directly shaping and transforming the lives of our leaders of tomorrow – despite the industry professionals too often going severely unnoticed, underappreciated, and under-supported. We all have at least one story from our time in school about someone who helped make it a little bit easier and better along the way. That’s how we’d like to define the concept of Heroes of Education. 

Within this article, you’ll meet six locals working tirelessly in the field of education to help build a better future for our students, and for our community as a whole. You’ll meet six people, nominated by their peers, who have devoted their careers to evolving, advancing, and building an educational experience that works for all of our students, no matter what it takes. For that, we’d like to say thank you – just in case you haven’t heard it enough.

Ernie Peña

Plant & Maintenance Supervisor, St. Pius X Catholic School

 “One of my favorite memories I would like to share is when I was out for knee surgery. There were complications and my time away from work was much longer than anticipated. I remember one day my wife came home with handmade “get well soon” cards from all the students. I shared them with my daughters and some of the things in the cards brought us to tears. Some made us laugh until we cried. It just goes to show how caring these kids are and really reminded me that I am someone important to the school.”
It’s hard not to smile when someone like Ernie Peña walks through your doors. His beaming presence is felt instantly – before you’ve even exchanged so much as a “Hello.” Joyous, passionate, and kindhearted, Mr. Ernie, as he is commonly known, expresses nothing but love to everyone he encounters.
Peña has now worked for St. Pius X Catholic School for 28 years. His previous jobs weren’t in education, but after joining the church, he knew it was where he wanted to be. He felt at home. As the Plant and Maintenance Supervisor, he wears a multitude of hats. From making sure the campus is in tip-top shape to serving his famous pancakes once a month in the Blue Jay Café, Peña’s contributions to the lives of the students and fellow faculty are multifaceted. 
He credits his wife Grace as the inspiration behind his work at St. Pius. Grace, who has been with the school for 27 years, has also held various roles, all aimed toward bettering the campus. She now manages the cafeteria and provides healthy and delicious meals for the students and staff. “We both wear many hats in our jobs and continue to push to inspire each other daily,” Peña says. 
Although Peña isn’t directly in the classrooms, he has made a point to advocate continuously for his students in any way he can. In his role, the safety of the school, church, and entire grounds of St. Pius is of upmost importance to him. “My responsibility to the children and to the staff is great, and I take that very seriously,” Peña says. “I treat the students as if they were my own. My children and grandchildren have attended St. Pius, and I have an obligation to protect the staff and our leaders of tomorrow.”
Now, in a COVID-19 world, Peña’s job is more important than ever. He’s making sure all necessary precautions are considered, adapted, and implemented. Peña is responsible for installing things like touch-free faucets and paper towel dispensers, as well as extra sanitizing stations throughout the campus. Enacting new cleanliness and disinfecting procedures to ensure the health and safety of students and faculty is part of his mission. 
If you ask Peña about his proudest moments or accomplishments in relation to the school, he’ll talk about the impact he has been able to make on students throughout the years. He’ll also talk about how instilling the lesson of respect in his students, both respect for others and themselves, is a passion he feels lucky to do. 
When it comes to why he does what he does, the answer is rooted in the students. “The children bring me an unexplainable amount of joy and have always had the ability to remind me why I do what I do,” he says. However, the responsibility of working with children – our leaders of tomorrow – is not lost on him. In fact, he says it is one of the most essential roles one can play in this world. “Although I am not in the classroom, I am constantly walking the grounds of our church and school,” he says. “Even if I don’t know it, some students may look up to me as a role model, and it’s important that my influence on them is a positive one.”
After spending a small amount of time with Peña, it is clear to see why past students and families of St. Pius always remember Mr. Ernie, even long after they’ve left the school. It has everything to do with the fact that in all he does, a loving spirit can be found.

Sharlene Walker

AP Human Geography Teacher, Moody High School
“When my kids are walking in between classes, and I ask what they are studying and then rattle off some facts, yelling “Don’t procrastinate!” as they walk out the door. Also, I had the son of a former student this year. He came up to me one day and said, “My mom said hi, you won’t remember her, but she said that while she was pregnant with me, you allowed her to eat in class.” It’s amazing how something so little could mean so much to someone else.”

Sharlene Walker has a saying: “Do good things, make good decisions.” It is a lesson she sets out to instill in every student who crosses her path. She wants them to know that each new day we are given, we are also given an opportunity to better not only ourselves, but our surroundings. Guiding the next generation to their chosen path is not a concept lost on Walker – in fact, she believes it is crucial to the role a teacher plays. 
“As an AP Human Geography teacher, I try to help them understand why we make the decisions we make and their lasting impact,” Walker says. “I try and tie it to their everyday lives. Teachers are important because for most of the kids, they are the first to help them believe in themselves and their abilities.”
Walker didn’t always see herself as a teacher. Originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she spent 12 years in the U.S. Navy serving as a Navy Mineman and a Sonar Technician. After, Walker had intended to become a probation officer or cop, but in the midst of her Criminal Justice degree classes, she had a realization: Instead, she decided, she would be a part of the solution. By acting as a positive force for kids throughout their growth and education, she could hopefully change the course of a student’s life and keep them from ending up in the system. 
“I remember being a ninth grader, being bussed to a white school. I was unbelievably angry and missed days,” Walker says. “I had a Biology teacher, Mrs. Russell, who went out of her way to check in on me when I did show up. She encouraged me, believed in me. I wanted to be that person. To be that person that when the world beats them down, I’ll be there to fight for them.” Walker has turned into that very type of teacher – someone who fights both for her students and a better tomorrow. 
Conservation and sustainability mean a great deal to Walker, who works to provide her students with opportunities to serve the community and give back. “To stop kicking that can down the road to the next generation,” as she puts it. Walker is a part of the Foy F. Moody Innovation Academy (later rebranded as Citgo Innovation Academy) for Engineering, Environmental and Marine Science. 
With Academy Coordinator Tina Dellinger’s assistance, The IA Goes Green: Environmental Society and the Green Crew were born in 2008. Thirty 55-gallon trash cans were purchased and distributed throughout the school to collect paper, cardboard, and plastic. Since 2008, Walker said, the Green Crew has kept more than 95 tons of recyclables out of the landfill. 
In addition to the school’s recycling program, the Green Crew also participates in numerous beach clean-ups, and has handed out trash bags before the Buc Days parade for the last 4 years, to minimize littering and make the cleanup easier. The Citgo Innovation Academy also adopted Oso Bay Wetlands Preserve and Learning Center, where they remove invasive species, spread mulch, plant-pollinator plants, and clean up the area. 
“These activities give the kids the opportunity to be part of the bigger picture,” Walker says. “We discuss point and non-point source pollution in class, and it drives the point home when we go out on these field trips. For most, it’s the first time they visited these locations.” 

The work Walker does through the Green Crew, for both our community and her students, is just one of the numerous incredible ways she has left an impact. From co-sponsoring the Destination Imagination team to volunteering countless hours to after-school tutoring, she’s never not putting others before herself. Not one for recognition or awards, she would perhaps prefer for her work to go under the radar. However, when you hear the story of someone like Walker and learn about the time and energy she invests in her students, the way she aims to help them believe in themselves, and take pride in their accomplishments and their community, it’s practically a must to shed light on the path she is carving out for others to follow. 

Rachel Neff

Previous Assistant Principal, Cunningham Middle School at South Park
Principal, Driscoll Elementary

 “My administration team becomes my family. We spend so much time together that we must depend on each other to get through the tough times. I have been so fortunate to be a part of some great teams. As assistant principals, we must be in the cafeteria every day during the lunch rotations to monitor the kids. It is not a fun time, but with my admin team, we always make the best of the situation. For two hours, we walk around with trash cans, joke with each other, talk to the kids, and make sure everything goes smoothly.”

When Rachel Neff came to our office for photos, I asked how her summer had been going. Similar to our other Heroes of Education, she mentioned that it has been weird and filled with unknowns, but more importantly, she mainly just missed her kiddos – having been out of physical learning since March. 
When the students you are serving mean that much to you, the building you teach in is merely the means to an end. This is why when Rachel received the news, just days before coming in for her photoshoot, that she would be starting the new school year as the Principal of Robert Driscoll Elementary, it felt bittersweet, but extraordinarily exciting. Because Neff knows that no matter where she is, there are students to help, teach, encourage, and show love to. After serving Cunningham Middle School at South Park as its Assistant Principal, Neff felt this next move was the right one to help even more students and faculty members in the area. 
Before becoming an administrator, Neff spent 11 years in the classrooms of various schools, teaching our leaders of tomorrow. Born and raised in Corpus Christi, she moved back to her hometown after college and her first run of teaching jobs in Houston, Dallas, and Austin. She’d already acquired her principal certification by this point, and felt the urge to grow into an admin who would allow teachers to have more of a voice and the support they so desperately need. Neff understands that issues the education system faces are deeply rooted in social issues which go unaddressed. 
“I try to promote the good things that are happening in Texas public schools. I try to educate community leaders about the real issues that we are facing in our schools, such as mental health and dropout rates,” Neff says. She added that many of the people making education laws have never stepped foot on a real campus. “Nowadays, schools are expected to do a lot more than just teach children. We have to provide food, clothing, social services, mental health, and sometimes the only stable adult in a child’s life. This is a huge responsibility that schools are ill-equipped to handle, but we do everything that we can every day.”
One way Neff is doing everything she can, every day, is aiming to instill perseverance in her students. A lot of the students with whom she interacts have experienced struggles that children should not have to face. This fact is not lost on Neff, and is why she aims to teach the idea that determination in the face of adversity can help motivate you to work through the struggles and continue forward. She also goes into every decision, every action, with the question “Is this best for my students?” She puts their needs first. “With every obstacle and challenge, we are in this for the kids,” she says matter-of-factly. 
If you ask Neff what moments or accomplishments she is most proud of, her answer isn’t the varied positions she’s been in, the programs she’s helped along, the fact that she has directly helped raise ratings while at schools, or any recognition she’s had. Her answer is simple: She is most proud of her students, all of them. “My last group of students that I ever taught just graduated from college,” she says. “Four years later, I had former students contacting me to tell me that they graduated and what they will do in the future. I get a sense of pride that I had a tiny part to help that happen.”  

As for Neff’s future in her new role, she simply hopes to continue the work. She can be found in her normal uniform of a dress and a pair of low-top white Converse, assisting in whatever way is needed that day. She’ll continue to be a voice for the teachers at her school who have the hardest jobs. She’ll remain an advocate for mental health programs, an increase in vocational school interest and teaching students that college is not necessarily the only “right” path, and most importantly, making room for every student under a wing of love and light. 

Kimberly Ellis
Assistant Principal, Faye Webb Elementary

“An ultimate favorite memory I have at my current campus is the initial meeting of a girls empowerment group that I organized, ‘Woman Up.’ This is a mentorship program I started on my campus for 5th grade girls. After a rigorous selection process, I was able to hold our first meeting. As the facilitator, I had the unique experience of connecting with students outside of the classroom setting, and guiding them in their social emotional development as well. I received great feedback from the students, staff, and parents. Unfortunately, the meetings came to a sudden halt due to the rise of COVID-19. This is a program I will continue in the upcoming school years, and hope to see grow.”

Kimberly Ellis has a genuine presence, almost an aura – instantly seeming caring and compassionate before saying a word. Basically any question you ask Ellis about her career, the answer will always come back to the kids. She never even had a dream of working in education – it was a luxury she didn’t believe she had. Growing up, she watched her mother deal with substance abuse and a father who was in the U.S. Navy. Education wasn’t paramount, and being the oldest child, Ellis had a duty to care for her siblings. Passions such as basketball were quickly overruled by survival mode as she worked multiple jobs while continuing high school. However, despite her circumstances, not only did Ellis graduate, she graduated with distinguished honors. 
It’s this lived experience that inspired Ellis to enter the field of education in the first place. “When I consider how many students walk the halls of our campuses every day, carrying so many various external factors that have a direct impact on their academic attainment,” she says, “I ask myself, ‘How could I not?’ How could I not be for children what I needed as a child?”
She feels this sense of obligation to be there for students whom she can so closely relate to, and she takes it personally. She knows doing her part in developing the hearts and minds of every student she comes in contact with could be vital to a student’s success. Ellis says, “[Even with] the societal unappreciation, arguable salaries, controversial politics, and several other contributing deteriorations, simply put, the children are and will forever be ‘my why!’”
The responsibility she feels to ensure an equitable education experience for each student, especially those traditionally marginalized, is something Ellis put into practice in the classroom when she was a teacher. Working mainly at schools which were predominantly economically disadvantaged, usually labeled as “Improvement Required,” instilled a work ethic and all-inclusive mission to her methods that remains to this day. “As I’ve transitioned into school leadership, my mission and responsibility to be a servant leader has remained,” Ellis says. “I believe every single student is capable of learning, and has the right to a solid education. Which is why I find so much joy in working alongside teachers to provide high quality instruction.”
Ellis recently organized an empowerment group on her campus called “Woman Up,” a mentorship program for fifth grade girls as they grow out of elementary and into middle school – a rather scary and daunting change, as I remember it. The program is designed to help the girls with organizational and time management skills, dealing with anxiety, building confidence, and navigating friendships, rumors, and bullying, among other things. 
Ellis has a mantra she repeats and instills in her students: “Education may not make you rich, but it will make you free.” The idea is that the more you know, the more access you will have in this world to make decisions, receive opportunities, embrace confidence, and ultimately take control of your own life. “Not only was education my vehicle out of poverty, knowledge allows for a more impactful contribution to society,” she says. 
Although working in a disciplinary position can be demanding and overwhelming. Ellis knows that is just one of the many hats she wears as an Assistant Principal – but everything she does revolves around the intentional effort put into each student. This effort allows for a connection to be formed that becomes sacred. It is what Ellis is most proud of when it comes to her work. Not the fact that she was named H-E-B’s Educator of the Year, or the various other recognitions she’s received during her career. It’s the fact that the first group of students she ever taught will be graduating high school, or that every milestone reached, big or small, is a sign of growth, or that she truly views their success as her success. 
Simon Rios
Intro to Engineering design Teacher and Robotics Coach, Moody High School

 “No memory in particular, but I find it especially rewarding when I have a chance to dress up and be a part of the themed days related to pep rallies. I have dressed as Mankind, Subzero, a domino, Post Malone and other crazy wig characters.”

In seventh grade, Simon Rios told his Spanish teacher at Cunningham Middle School that he would never be a teacher. “They don’t get paid enough and they don’t get the respect they deserve,” he said. He wasn’t wrong about either of those statements. However, after never fully finding his footing while studying Biomedical Science in college, he visited his alma mater Moody High School, and reconnected with his former English teacher Anne Huckabee. Huckabee, who had sculpted Rios as a writer, encouraged him to switch his major to English and become a teacher. 
Rios did just that, and ended up completing his student teaching at Moody around the same time they had planned the STEM Academy for Engineering, Environmental, and Marine Science. As luck would have it, they needed an English teacher who had the ability to infuse math and science into the curriculum, and Rios was the perfect fit. He was brought on and eventually became an Intro to Engineering Design teacher. 
Nowadays, you’ll find Rios teaching engineering, and also coaching an award-winning robotics team and teaching yearbook. When he isn’t busy in the classroom, he’s often volunteering time to tutor students, running summer STEM youth camps with curriculum he has designed himself, or crafting DIY costumes to dress up for themed days and pep rallies. Needless to say, Rios doesn’t stop when it comes to his Moody community and his students. After all, the entirety of his education career thus far, 14 years, has been spent working at his alma mater. 
When it comes to the responsibility a teacher holds, Rios talks about supporting students and advocating for better resources and opportunities. “I feel as if the resources and opportunities for our students are not adequate enough,” he says. “We need them to have deeper and more authentic experiences, while guiding them toward opportunities to gain more college credit and internship opportunities.” 
He does this by encouraging his students to take standardized testing like the SATs earlier in order to get a baseline experience and be able to prepare to excel earlier, and to have his students take advantage of both dual-credit classes and AP testing to gain as many college credits while still in high school as possible. This is to help possibly lower the cost of school, as most of his students’ decision-making when it comes to college is based on being able to afford it or not. 
Not only does he aim to help provide those experiences for his students, but he also strives to motivate each student toward a better trajectory than they had before he met them. “I have seen numerous students go through my class and school programs, and see evidence that I am making a difference, even if it was only a small part I played.” Based on his passion alone, we believe Rios is definitely playing more than just a small part in these kids’ lives. 
I asked Rios what his students mean to him. “Sometimes they challenge me to my core, and other times I feel as if I am not even working,” he says. “My most favorite moments are when I am preparing my students for competition, because I get a chance to provide words of encouragement and cheer on their victories and pick their spirits up when they fall just short of their expectations.” 

No matter the adversity being faced, Rios hopes to instill in his students that there is always something that can be done – always something that can be produced. “I can work with something,” is what he tells them, “I cannot work with nothing.” He’ll advise and modify, but he’ll never give the answer away. Because at the end of the day, he wants his students to be proud of the work they did and the accomplishments they have achieved, no matter how small. 

Dana Hawkins

English Teacher, Port Aransas High School 

“When the school shut down after Hurricane Harvey, my husband and I volunteered in the community distribution center. I saw many of my students there, some helping, some in need. I wondered to myself how we recover from this. How does a community of teenagers get through this? For months “my kids” were scattered to the wind in various schools throughout the region. When the day finally came to bring them back to the classroom I was nervous. We were in portables and there would be no sense of normalcy. To my surprise, the building was not as important as the community. The school, it turned out, were the students and the teachers, not the facility. I saw them begin to flourish in the most difficult of circumstances. I think my favorite memory is that first day back.”

Dana Hawkins can be described as a firecracker. When asked to give her best “serious look” during our photoshoot, she laughed uncontrollably and finally replied, “I don’t have one.” She radiates positivity. 
Hawkins, who was just named the National Honor Society Advisor of the Year, always knew she wanted to be a teacher. Picture a 7-year-old in her garage, playing school with her sister – where roll call was done daily and lessons of some kind were certainly taught. After moving to Port Aransas from North Texas, she fell in love with the high school and knew she wanted to be a Marlin until retirement day comes. 
As a high school English teacher, Hawkins has had to deal with students’ shorter attention spans (most people have computers in their pockets, after all), and digital communication has diminished students’ aptitude at certain aspects of her subject, like spelling and grammar and reading long-form text. So she set out to make sure her classroom felt more like a safe, relaxed space that students would be excited to learn in. 
“One thing I love about Port Aransas ISD is that they have allowed me to try new things,” she says. “My classroom looks more like a coffee shop: there are chairs, couches, lamps, fairy lights – all to promote an atmosphere that grasps their attention and provides an oasis in their day.” 
The support Hawkins has from admin on down to be innovative in helping her students is key. The setup she has created has opened doors to students’ relationship with the classroom and Hawkins herself in ways she couldn’t have imagined – something which she believes is one of her biggest accomplishments as a teacher. 
“This may sound odd,” she says when asked what she is most proud of, “but I think my greatest sense of accomplishment comes from the fact that on any given day – before school, during lunch, and often even after school – my classroom is full of students looking for somewhere they feel comfortable.” 
Two years ago, students finding solace in her classroom expressed interest in starting a Gay/Straight Alliance. Several LGBTQIA+ students approached Hawkins to sponsor the alliance and without a moment of hesitation, she agreed. “In my past, I have seen way too many kids bullied, ignored, and physically threatened. A child should never be scared of who they are,” Hawkins says. “After this, I noticed a larger and larger group of students showing up in my classroom during non-instructional times.”
Now Hawkins, like every other teacher around the country, will have to adjust and adapt to the challenges of a COVID-19 world. Through digital learning and smaller classroom sizes, the task of continuing to teach and provide safe spaces for students will be one Hawkins does not take lightly. However, similar to returning to school after Hurricane Harvey, it’s a “new normal” she hopes her kids will embrace. After the hurricane, she remembers being nervous for students recovering from loss and scattered throughout various schools in the area. “To my surprise,” she says, “the building was not as important as the community. The school, it turned out, was the students and the teachers, not the facility. I saw them begin to flourish in the most difficult of circumstances.”  

Hawkins is the type of teacher we would all have hoped for at some point in our education. She is the type of teacher who fights for her students – who will do whatever it takes to make sure, whether she has them in a classroom or not, they don’t feel left behind.