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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Canyons School District honors employees, volunteers, community for dedication, service

Feb 02, 2024 10:15AM ● By Julie Slama

Eastmont Middle’s Principal Stacy Kurtzhals was amongst those honored at Canyons School District’s Apex awards. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

It’s been said it takes a village to raise a child. 

For 14 years, Canyons School District leaders have given Apex Awards to those who dedicate themselves to teaching, advocating and helping mold the education of children. This year, a teacher, a volunteer, administrators, support staff and community leaders were recognized for making a positive impact in their community and with students. 

Leading the charge in schools are Jordan High’s Principal Bruce Eschler and Eastmont Middle’s Principal Stacy Kurtzhals, who were honored for their dedication to students.

“It was a surprise,” Eschler said when he received a letter from Canyons Board of Education President Amber Shill. “I’m honored. I couldn’t do anything I do without my [administration] team and my family backing me up. If I’ve done anything right, it’s because I’ve had good people around me, and I’ve had good mentors in my life.”

Eschler has dedicated his three years at Jordan High by “bringing new programs that resonate and are unique to our community.”

Under his leadership, Jordan officials introduced a drone program, which included electronics courses and a bike-repair program. He has seen to the addition of CTE courses, adding classes in game development and web development as well as bringing Alta High’s successful Step to the U program to Jordan and providing Salt Lake Community College’s Education 1020 or Intro to College concurrent enrollment class.

Now, Jordan High is rolling out the Navy Defense Cadet Corps.

“This will be beneficial to not only the students who are here, but students in the future,” he said. “I’m proud of our students—as students as well as our athletes, our unified programs, our performing arts, our career and technical organizations. We celebrate the amazing things our students are doing. I’m happy to see change within our school culture, like recognizing all our kids and having positive relationships. Those are impactful on educational outcomes. I’m personally a product of that. I’m here because a teacher saw potential in me and took the opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I’m an advocate for you,’ and that’s what I try to do for our students.”

A positive school culture and advocating for students is key for Kurtzhals, who’s now in her eighth year leading the Eastmont Patriots. Not even flood, construction, nor asbestos, which forced the students to move to another temporary location, derailed her.

Nominated by students, parents and faculty, she said: “This is everybody’s award. It’s not about me; it’s about we. I can’t do anything without them.”

Instilling Patriot Pride from student leaders who took the initiative to welcome their classmates to a temporary new school building to creating a community of teachers who support each other, and their students has helped to “rebuild the culture, which was one of the best things that I’ve done,” she said. “The thing that motivates me the most is watching the growth in our students.”

Under her leadership and teacher innovation, students have engaged in learning from hands-on STEM engagement to puzzling out escape rooms. She also has seen her students embrace learning through AVID, a program that helps students identify strategies for learning from note taking to problem-solving and collaboration.

“It’s giving them the tools so they can be successful in school and in life,” she said, adding that the school is working to be a national demonstration school as well as a state STEM-designated school. “I love my kids. I want them to know what is possible.”

The Apex teacher of the year award was given to Midvale Middle math teacher Max Eddington, who was a finalist for the statewide teacher of the year award. 

He taught at four schools before finding a home at Midvale Middle.

“I try to communicate with every single student in every class every day,” he said. “I try to know things about them outside of academics and to find ways for them to know that I am not just a teacher, but I’m a person who cares about them.”

Caring about students is a trademark of Apex district administrator of the year award winner, Charisse Hilton, who initiated Canyons’ Peer Court, where peers annually review about 100 cases of challenging behaviors within schools and provide positive outcomes. 

Also on the district level, Canyons’ library media specialist Gretchen Zaitzeff, received the Apex Student Support Services Professional of the Year award for her dedication in creating policy in among the political turmoil of books in school libraries. 

Canyons also honored four area legislators—Utah Sen. Kathleen Riebe and Reps. Gay Lynn Bennion, Steve Eliason and Andrew Stoddard—with the Apex award for elected officials of the year for their support of public education.

Tacos El Cuñado, which has given free tacos to students at events such as Butler Elementary’s World Night, as well as to teachers during teacher appreciation or PTA conferences, was thanked for its dedication with the APEX community partner award. 

The Apex education support professionals of the year award went to nutrition services. These individuals not only provide healthy food choices for students now, but even with a worker shortage, they came up with a solution to safely provide breakfast and lunch to thousands of students during the pandemic.

The Apex Legacy Award was given to Bob Dowdle, who served as Canyons School District’s assistant superintendent after a career in education. His duties extended from recruiting and hiring directors as the district began to establish academic programs and helping lead students to successfully navigate their online learning through the pandemic.

Honored for years of service without being on the payroll is Apex volunteer of the year Rebecca Martin. Mother of four, she has served as president or on the PTA executive board for the last 15 years at Peruvian Park, Midvale Middle and Hillcrest High as well as on several Canyons Districts committees.

“I stepped up when the need arose,” she said. “I know it’s important to have parent volunteers in the schools. I’m here to advocate for our students. I’m a parental voice for our students with our own administration, with Canyons Districts, the school board and at a state level. I email legislators about issues that are affecting our children in education to help make things better in our schools.”

At Peruvian Park, where in addition to PTA presidency duties, she organized the school’s 50th birthday party in 2015 that introduced the panther mascot costume, the writing and singing of the school song, a 50th birthday essay contest, a caricature artist, a timeline of events that took place, a creation of a time capsule and other activities.

“It was fun to bring in alumni, current and former teachers and principals with the kids at the school,” she said. 

At Midvale Middle PTA President for two years, she encouraged use of PTA money to purchase books.

“We used money from the book fair to buy books for the school library and classrooms. We wanted to get books in kids’ hands,” she said, adding that another effort was to involve all kids in the school fundraiser. “We tried to make it more of a spirit event to include everyone.”

At Hillcrest High, Martin’s volunteerism extended to helping get others, including her own family, to set up 500 flags at late notice for a memorial service for Hillcrest alum, Sgt. Taylor Hoover, who was killed in Afghanistan. Not only did the flags get set up, but she decorated for the reception and gave tours of the new school. 

During COVID and post-pandemic, she concentrated on teacher appreciation, making sure “faculty and staff felt appreciated and valued.” She also helped with activities her children have been involved in from cross country to drama.

“Whenever I’ve interacted with the students, they are always very appreciative, very respectful to me and other parents,” she said. “They always say thank you, and that means so much to me—as much as the Apex. I want them to know that there are adults who support you, care about you, and we want to help you. I believe in community and connection. Everything I do in the schools is to help everyone feel part of the community that we are here together.” λ