Arizona Educational Foundation Names 2024 Arizona Teacher of the Year®, Efrain Casillas
Phoenix, Arizona, October 14, 2023 — Today, Arizona Educational Foundation (AEF®) announced Efrain Casillas, Music teacher at Porfirio H. Gonzales Elementary and Desert Oasis Elementary, in the Tolleson Elementary School District, as the 2024 Arizona Teacher of the Year®. Initially, there were 15 candidates for the award, which was then narrowed down to five finalists (known as Ambassadors of Excellence). All five finalists were present during a ceremony held today at the Madison Center for the Arts in Phoenix where Casillas was announced the winner of the award. Desert Financial Executive Vice President, Cathy Graham, presented the award along with AEF’s Chief Executive Officer, Kim Graham. Desert Financial has served as the presenting sponsor of the Arizona Teacher of the Year Awards for the past four years. Casillas now goes on to compete as Arizona’s candidate for National Teacher of the Year.
“All of our Teacher of the Year nominees exemplify the best that Arizona has to offer in terms of educational excellence, being a role model, and inspiring students in their community,” said Kim Graham, AEF’s executive director. “We are so proud of each and every one of them. AEF congratulates Efrain Casillas on being named 2024 Arizona Teacher of the Year and looks forward to him representing us in Washington, DC, as Arizona’s 2024 National Teacher of the Year candidate.”
Efrain Casillas, 2024 Arizona Teacher of the Year
Music | Grades 5th-8th
Porfirio H. Gonzales/Desert Oasis | Tolleson Elementary School District
Total Years Teaching: 22
Efrain Casillas, Coordinator of Music Programs for Tolleson Elementary School District in Tolleson, has had a tremendous impact on his students. A public-school music teacher for 22 years, he is currently teaching both general and instrumental music at two schools in the Tolleson district. He graduated with a BA in Music Performance and Education degree from Western Connecticut State University in 1999. While wearing both a classroom teacher and Department Coordinator hat at TESD, he created the district’s first Mariachi, Jazz, Marching, Concert and Latin Jazz bands. The Tolleson Elementary School Mariachi band has competed at the Tucson Mariachi International Conference and won 1st and 2nd place for the Choice Awards for 3 years in a row. They’ve also performed at Disneyland and in the Disneyland Parade. His Latin Jazz Band opened for Pete Escobedo and played alongside him. They have also participated in the Fiesta Bowl Parade for three consecutive years.
Casillas is an active member of the Arizona Music Education Association and a candidate for National Board Certification (NBCT). He has also been a presenter for the National Symposium of Multicultural Music at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in 2004. In 2015, Casillas was selected for TESD’s Teacher of the Year and nominated for the Life Changer Award in 2017. He was selected to receive the Esperanza Award from Chicanos Por La Causa in 2018, and the Music Teachers of Excellence from the Country Music Foundation. His dedication as a music teacher also had him featured at the Kelly Clarkson Show in 2020.
The prize package for the Arizona Teacher of the Year includes $15,000 from the Arizona Educational Foundation and travel to National Teacher of the Year events, including a trip to the White House to meet the President and a weeklong trip to International Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. Casillas will also be considered for an honorary doctorate from Northern Arizona University.
The 2024 Arizona Teacher of the Year and four Ambassadors for Excellence also receive professional speech and media training to aid them in delivering hundreds of presentations during their year of recognition. AEF also has generous partners who contribute toward a prize package for the top ten teachers including a free membership to Treasures4Teachers, scholarships from the Arizona K12 Center to pursue National Board Certification, the opportunity to ride on the APS fire engine during the Fiesta Bowl Parade, and a “Fiesta Bowl Experience” package including tickets and on-field recognition provided by Fiesta Bowl Charities. In addition to serving as presenting sponsor of the ceremony, Desert Financial Credit Union provides each teacher with an iPad and keyboard case.
2024 FINALISTS, AMBASSADORS FOR EXCELLENCE
The Finalists, known as Ambassadors for Excellence for 2024, were celebrated during the Arizona Teacher of the Year Awards, are:
Andrea Barallardos – 2024 Ambassador for Excellence
Engineering-CTE/Physics | Grades 10-12th
Douglas High School | Douglas Unified Schools District #27
Total Years Teaching: 24
Andrea Barallardos is a Physics and Engineering teacher at Douglas High School in Douglas, Arizona where she has been teaching for 24 years. Barallardos landed in the teaching profession completely by accident originally studying to be a doctor and graduating from Cebu Doctors’ University in 1998 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Applied Sciences. In 2009, Barallardos received a Master of Science in Education from Arizona State University. She is certified in mathematics, biology, physics, chemistry and industrial and emerging technologies and has taught many subjects over the years with her favorites being physics and engineering sciences. Aside from being a teacher, Barallardos is also a head coach for the Douglas High School Spirit Line where she has won a total of 5 state championships with the most current being 2023 in Division III Coed Cheer. Barallardos was named the 2023 Cochise County Teacher of the Year, Arizona SkillsUSA State Advisor of the Year, and National Region 5 SkillsUSA Advisor of the Year. Her SkillsUSA Engineering Technology Chapter was the National Champion in personal Skills in 2022 and is a finalist for Models of Excellence again in 2023. Barallardos has had students win gold medals in Robotics and Automation technology in 2022 & 2023 as well as Mobile Robotics in 2023. She attests her success to creating educational momentum in her students. She believes when we approach our work with a genuine love for learning and a commitment to students’ success, we inspire them to do the same.
Marian Johnson, NBCT – 2024 Ambassador for Excellence
Mathematics/Special Education | Grades 10th-12th
Amphitheater High School | Amphitheater School District
Total Years Teaching: 12
Marian Johnson is a special education math teacher at Amphitheater High School in Tucson, Arizona. She teaches students from grades 10-12 in geometry and intermediate algebra, as well as helping with credit recovery of various courses during summer school. Johnson graduated from the University of Arizona with a double degree, a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and a Bachelor of Science in Geoscience. While working as a secretary at Amphitheater High School, Johnson joined the district’s Grow Your Own program and received her teaching certificate through a certification program at Pima Community College. In 2020, Johnson received her National Board Certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. Johnson was named as a finalist for the 2022 Raytheon Leaders in Education Award and was chosen as the 2022 Arizona Athletics High School Teacher of the Year. Johnson makes learning accessible and more fun for her students by including hands-on activities, videos, projects, and games that engage the students and allow them to apply their mathematics in meaningful ways. She creates a classroom environment that allows students to feel comfortable and safe sharing their ideas, making mistakes, and ultimately learning. Johnson believes that every student is capable of learning and works tirelessly to find the best method for each one.
Kathleen Malkhassian – 2024 Ambassador for Excellence
General Education | 4th Grade
Thomas Elementary | Flagstaff Unified School District
Total Years Teaching: 12
Kathleen Malkhassian is a fourth-Grade teacher at Thomas Elementary School
in Flagstaff Arizona. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Northern Arizona University and a Masters of Science in Curriculum and Instruction from Western Governors University. Kathleen has been a presenter at the National Multiage Conference at Northern Arizona University and has completed a two-year school leadership cohort through the National Institute of School Leadership. Kathleen was a Coconino County Teacher of the Year Nominee in 2023. Kathleen believes when we are engaged in what inspires and drives us, and encourage and support our peers in their passions, we model the love of lifelong learning to for our students. Bringing the community together to create a vibrate and engaging learning experience is a passion of Kathleen’s both inside and outside the classroom walls.
Rebecca Oravec, NBCT – 2024 Ambassador for Excellence
Art | Grades 6th-8th
Wrightson Ridge K-8 | Sahuarita Unified School District
Total Years Teaching: 6
Rebecca Oravec teaches middle school art at Wrightson Ridge K-8 School in the Sahuarita Unified School District (SUSD), just south of Tucson, Arizona. Oravec’s prior experience at a before-and-after school care center, an aide in a special education preschool classroom, and as an elementary school secretary contributed to her desire to pursue teaching. She earned a Bachelor of Science in social science from the University of Maryland and Master of Arts in teaching from Seattle Pacific University in an alternative route to certification program. She grounds her teaching in holistic competencies: skills, intellect, criticality, identity and joy - using arts education to connect the world to her students, and to empower her students to go out into the world with efficacy. In 2022, Oravec achieved National Board Certification for Professional Teaching Standards (NBCT) in early/middle childhood art. She is an active facilitator for the Sahuarita Professional Learning Institute and has presented at several conferences on topics including supporting students’ identities, creating positive classroom culture, community-engaged learning, and neurosequential processing. She is currently the Program Director for the Sahuarita CommunityShare teacher fellowship in which she leads other teachers through developing their own community-engaged learning projects with focus on collaboration, inquiry, and student agency. Oravec is an avid supporter of the arts, and serves as an Ambassador on the Act One teacher advisory board committed to providing arts field trip experiences to students in Title 1 schools. Oravec was honored to be named the 2023 Teacher of the Year for Wrightson Ridge.
The Semifinalists, who also were celebrated during the Arizona Teacher of the Year Awards, are:
Caroline Chung-Wipff (ELA/Social Studies) Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies, Mesa Public Schools, serving 17 years as a teacher.
Clare Contreras (2nd grade General Education), Sahuarita Primary School, Sahuarita Unified School District, serving 15 years as a teacher.
Stephanie Likes (Theatre Arts/Stagecraft), Chandler High School, Chandler Unified School District, serving 15 years as a teacher.
Jessie McKinley (Computer Science & Robotics, Engineering), Madison Camelview, Madison Elementary School District #38, serving 23 years as a teacher.
Bridget Montoya (CTE-Education Professions/Math), Flowing Wells High School, Flowing Wells School District, serving 20 years as a teacher.
2024 HONORABLE MENTIONS
The Honorable Mentions, who also were celebrated during the Arizona Teacher of the Year Awards, are:
Elizabeth Colton (STEM/CTE), Crane Middle School, Crane Elementary School District, serving 17 years as a teacher.
Kayce Kahl (5th grade General Education), Clarendon Elementary, Osborn School District, serving 14 years as a teacher.
Melody (Mia) Khayduangta (Math), Cesar Chavez High School, Phoenix Union High School District, serving 19 years as a teacher.
Jessica Marks (English), Aspire High School, Yavapai Accommodation School District #99, serving 15 years as a teacher.
Grazyna Zreda (Chemistry) Tanque Verde High School, Tanque Verde Unified School District, serving 25 years as a teacher.
To make a donation or for sponsorship inquiries for 2025 TOY, please contact Kim Graham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About Desert Financial Credit Union
About Desert Financial Credit Union
Celebrating more than 84 years in Arizona, Desert Financial is the state's most trusted local credit union with over $8 billion in assets, 400,000+ members and 45 branches. Membership eligibility is open across Arizona with contactless solutions making it easy to click, call or come in. As a not-for-profit cooperative, Desert Financial takes pride in sharing success. In 2023, members received $16 million in dividends via the Member Giveback Bonus, and the credit union became the official retail banking partner of Arizona State University. Federally insured by NCUA. Learn more at www.desertfinanical.com.
About Arizona Educational Foundation, AEF®
The mission of AEF is to celebrate excellence and cultivate equity in Pre-K-12th grade Arizona public education. This is accomplished through a variety of programs for teachers, administrators, and students. Some programs shine a spotlight on excellence; others provide a stepping stone to help support schools and educators on the road to awesomeness. In addition to the Arizona Teacher of the Year® program, AEF also coordinates the Arizona State Spelling Bee, the A+ School of Excellence® Award, the Principals Leadership Academy of Arizona, teachSTEM, Our World, and Take Your Legislator to School. AEF was founded in 1983, by then State Superintendent of Public Education, Carolyn Warner, who felt a nonprofit needed to be established to champion public education and recognize the great work of public school educators. AEF annually reaches over 500,000 students, teachers and administrators throughout Arizona. For more information visit www.azedfoundation.org, or contact email@example.com.
Melissa Kaszuba, Urias Communications, for AEF®
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Phone: 732-865-6687
Terri Bradford, AEF® Director of Communications & Digital Strategy
Email: email@example.com | Mobile: 720-468-3996