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Broken Arrow’s Donna Gradel named one of four finalists for 2019 National Teacher of the Year

Winner to be announced this spring

Broken Arrow High School environmental science teacher and 2018 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Donna Gradel has been named one of four finalists for the 2019 National Teacher of the Year.

“It’s been an incredible honor to watch Ms. Gradel dedicate her life to educating Oklahoma students,” Superintendent Dr. Janet Dunlop said. “Her passion, wit and intelligence inspire students to believe in themselves and know they are capable of changing the world. There is no better person to represent public education.”

Gradel’s focus on innovation and solving real-world problems has led to seven years of student-led international projects to provide clean water and protein to orphans in Kenya. In 2014, her class was the first in Oklahoma to receive a $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT Program’s InvenTeam initiative.

Under Gradel’s instruction, Broken Arrow students designed a way for Kenyan orphans to produce fish food for one-twelfth the current cost.

Last summer, she led a group of students to Machakos, Kenya, to create a sustainable means to feed chickens, providing protein for a school that rescues victims of sex trafficking.

Because of the success of Gradel’s initial projects, BAHS established an innovative research class in 2017. It allows students to choose real-world problems aligned with their passions to impact their community.

“I constantly encourage them to dream big and make a difference in the world,” Gradel said. “They know our classroom is a safe, caring place to imagine and not be afraid to fail. In our learning environment, innovation outweighs the final product.”

Gradel’s students have recently worked with Broken Arrow city engineers to develop an outdoor classroom, which contains an 84-foot by 45-foot floating wetland in the shape of the school district “BA” logo, adjacent to the high school. Sustainable plants on the floating wetland actively remove nitrates from the water to combat algae growth caused by fertilizer runoff.

Realizing the initial success, Broken Arrow voters recently approved $500,000 as part of a bond package to continue efforts at the site to improve ecology and water quality.

Gradel has taught in Broken Arrow for 22 years and is spending the 2018-19 school year traveling the state to share her knowledge and expertise with educators across Oklahoma.

A former college basketball player at West Virginia University in the height of the Title IX era, Gradel is passionate about leading students to success regardless of their background.

“As teachers, we have the keys to recognize and unlock the potential of our students and propel them to success,” Gradel said. “In too many cases, we may be the only positive voice in their world of negative self-talk. We must be their champion.”

The National Teacher of the Year Program began in 1952 by the Council of Chief State School Officers. This program identifies exceptional teachers nationwide, celebrates their effective work in and outside of the classroom, amplifies their voices, and empowers them to take part in policy discussions at the state and national levels.

One of the four finalists will be named the 2019 National Teacher of the Year by a national selection committee and President of the United States at a White House ceremony this spring.

The winner will spend the next year traveling the country as an ambassador for education and an advocate for all teachers and students.