Desert View Elementary School Selected as Finalist for National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s Founder’s Award, $10,000 Cash Prize

February 6, 2024

Desert View Elementary School Selected as Finalist for National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s Founder’s Award, $10,000 Cash Prize

School one of five nationwide recognized for outstanding efforts to foster educator excellence and advance student success, contending for $50,000 grand prize

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San Luis, Ariz. (February 6, 2024) - The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) announced today that Desert View Elementary School in Gadsden Elementary School District #32, Arizona, won $10,000 for its selection as an NIET Founder’s Award finalist. The prestigious Founder’s Award was created by Lowell Milken in 2008 to honor one school in the United States each year for exceptional implementation of NIET’s principles to build educator excellence and advance student success. Desert View Elementary School is among five schools across the country under consideration for the $50,000 grand prize, which will be announced at NIET’s national conference on February 29.

“Desert View Elementary’s long investment in educator effectiveness has yielded large dividends in the forms of consistently high student achievement, strong staff retention, and a vibrant pipeline of teacher leaders,” said NIET Founder Lowell Milken. “The steady guidance of Principal Meredith Nelson and Superintendent Lizette Esparza has propelled Desert View to rank among the very best in Arizona. Congratulations.”

Founder’s Award finalists like Desert View Elementary School are selected by NIET based on several factors, including their efforts to make instructional excellence the cornerstone of school improvement, plans for regular professional learning focused on the real-time needs of teachers and students, creating a culture of collaboration and reflection, and leveraging teacher leaders and administrators to drive student growth. 

NIET’s partner schools have improved outcomes for educators, students, and schools. Desert View Elementary School, among other schools, has continuously improved teaching and learning using NIET’s tools and resources to support instructional excellence and create career pathways. 

"Gadsden Elementary School District #32—and Desert View Elementary School, in particular—has been successful in building teacher leadership roles that support a system of high-quality professional learning and coaching. At Desert View Elementary School, highly effective teacher leaders support current teachers, as well as new teachers, to provide students with great classroom teaching and learning," said NIET Chief Executive Officer Dr. Joshua Barnett. "As a result, being placed in the classroom of an outstanding teacher is the expectation for every student in the school." 

What Makes Desert View Elementary School Unique? 

The Desert View Elementary School campus sits along the U.S./Mexico border, with a nearly 100% Hispanic population and 90% qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch. Desert View Elementary’s 751 students range from kindergarten to grade six. With help from NIET, Desert View Elementary has experienced growth in teacher and leader effectiveness, and in student achievement. Principal Meredith Nelson and her leadership team have prioritized building the instructional capacity of teachers and providing career pathways for educators, all while ensuring every Desert View Elementary student receives high-quality instruction.

“For over a decade, we have focused our efforts on following NIET best practices as the foundation for how we grow as educators to ensure that every student entrusted to our care has the opportunity for academic success,” said Nelson. “The consistent fidelity has ensured that Desert View Elementary attracts, retains, develops, and motivates effective teachers for every classroom.” 

Desert View Elementary has embedded NIET structures and protocols, including the use of the NIET Teaching and Learning Standards Rubric, cluster meetings, and a shared leadership model through an instructional leadership team. This commitment has led to increased student achievement. 

From 2021 to 2023, Desert View Elementary increased the percentage of students passing the Arizona state assessment by 14 percentage points in English language arts and 30 percentage points in math, while the state remained stagnant at 2–3-point increases in both subjects. In 2023, the school exceeded the state in the percentage of students passing the state assessment in both English language arts and math. These assessment results are mirrored in the “A” letter grade that Desert View Elementary has maintained since 2013.

Desert View Elementary has high expectations for teachers, and the school’s leaders provide positive feedback and personalized coaching to ensure that teachers can meet or exceed them. In addition, teacher leadership roles introduced with the support of NIET increased overall instructional leadership capacity on the campus and expanded high-quality coaching for teachers, ultimately leading to better classroom teaching. 

“When I began at Desert View Elementary, I had a challenge in front of me, but I used NIET’s training and support to inspire huge growth over the years in staff that wanted to grow professionally in and out of the classroom,” said Nelson. “There have been classroom teachers that have grown as teacher leaders during my tenure as principal implementing the TAP System. I am proud to have facilitated growth opportunities for many teachers who have grown as leaders.”

In addition to creating a pipeline to leadership, Desert View Elementary has also established a tradition of growing its own teachers. Through their use of the NIET Teaching and Learning Standards Rubric across the campus, school leaders have identified non-teacher campus personnel who would make effective classroom teachers. With the support provided via individual coaching and regular professional learning meetings, these prospective teachers can earn certificates and gain full-time teaching positions. In their focus on building educator capacity, Desert View Elementary’s leaders have created a career pathway that spans from instructional aides entering the classroom to teacher leaders becoming principals.

“NIET’s systematic approach, including comprehensive support, can empower and elevate educators to new heights in their professional journeys,” said Nelson. “The teachers we have grown showcase the tangible and positive outcomes that result from the thoughtful implementation of NIET’s principles and support mechanisms.”  

Desert View Elementary School joins fellow finalists Clinton Elementary School (Clinton City Schools, Tennessee); Lockett Elementary School (Orangeburg County School District, South Carolina); North DeSoto High School (DeSoto Parish Schools, Louisiana); and Winona Middle School (Winona Independent School District, Texas) in contention for the $50,000 Founder’s Award grand prize.

For images of Desert View Elementary School and more information about the NIET Founder’s Award, visit the NIET newsroom. For interviews and more on the Founder's Award announcement, please contact Laura Blank ( or Katie Elliott ( Follow conference news – including the Founder's Award – on social media using @NIETteach or #NIET2024.

About NIET

The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) is a national nonprofit based in Phoenix, Arizona that serves states and districts nationwide. For more than two decades, NIET has partnered with schools, districts, states, and universities to build educator excellence and give all students the opportunity for success. NIET’s initiatives, including the TAP System, teacher and leader development, school improvement, rubric and observation systems, and educator preparation, have impacted more than 300,000 educators and 3 million students across the U.S. Learn more at