(Fourth-grade writing teacher Krystal Contreras, center, is shocked to hear her name called as the winner of a 2018-19 Milken Educator Award. Photo courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation)

Krystal Contreras, a fourth-grade writing teacher at Cash Elementary School in San Benito CISD, was surprised with a $25,000 Milken Educator Award during a Feb. 15 ceremony on her campus. (Click here to watch video from the surprise ceremony.)

Contreras, a TCTA member since 2015, is the only Texas educator receiving the national award this year. The Milken award recognizes exemplary elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists who are furthering excellence in education. The award comes with a $25,000 cash prize.

“Krystal Contreras reflects the very best of the teaching profession in Texas,” Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a news release. “By holding her students to the very highest standards, her hard work and dedication benefits her students today while strengthening the Texas of tomorrow.”

From the 2016-17 school year to the 2017-18 school year, Contreras’s work with her students led to a 5 percent increase in the school’s fourth-graders who were successful on their end-of-year writing assessments, from 82 percent to 87 percent. Both years, the percentage was the highest in the district. Contreras played a key role in the increase by researching new writing strategies, attending professional development workshops and implementing writing boot camps in the cafeteria for her students.

Additionally, she constantly looks for new strategies to move her students forward and puts time into developing innovative and engaging lessons. Her classroom is organized and inviting, with students often working in small groups, crowded around laptops as they work on a lesson about using reference materials or vocabulary. Contreras goes to great lengths to help every student. She tutors after school and on Saturdays, making extra learning sessions fun by incorporating games like Jenga into her instruction. Contreras’s goal, she says, is to help students become independent problem-solvers in the real world.

Colleagues know Contreras is always willing to help with instructional strategies. Contreras has written curriculum and delivered professional development during the district’s “Teachers Teaching Teachers” conference. She has worked on vertical alignment teams and professional learning communities, the attendance committee and the Superintendent’s Advisory Council. A graduate of Cash and San Benito High School, Contreras is a fixture at after-school activities and events.

Contreras earned a bachelor’s degree in English and communications in 2004 from the University of Texas–Pan American.

“Krystal Contreras understands that writing is foundational to every skill we learn in school—from analyzing and critical thinking to problem-solving and communicating with others,” said Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards, herself a Milken Educator from Indiana’s 1994 class. “I commend Krystal for instilling lifelong lessons in her students, and look forward to her contributions to the National Milken Educator Network.”

Contreras now belongs to the Milken Educator Network of more than 2,700 K–12 teachers, principals and specialists from around the country. In Texas, 51 recipients have been presented with the Milken Educator Award since the program began here in 2000. She is the first teacher in San Benito CISD to win the award.

Click here to learn more about the program and see more photos from the ceremony in San Benito.