Five Schools Across the Country Named Finalists in Prestigious National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s Founder’s Award, Contending for $50,000 Grand Prize

February 6, 2024

Five Schools Across the Country Named Finalists in Prestigious National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s Founder’s Award, Contending for $50,000 Grand Prize

Schools recognized for outstanding efforts to foster educator excellence and advance student success

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Scottsdale, Ariz. (February 6, 2024) - The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) announced today that five schools have received $10,000 as finalists for NIET’s 2024 Founder’s Award. 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. Each school will be honored during NIET’s national conference in Dallas on February 29, culminating in the announcement of the grand prize winner and a cash prize of $50,000 for the school. 

The finalists are Clinton Elementary School (Clinton City Schools, Tennessee); Desert View Elementary School (Gadsden Elementary School District #32, Arizona); 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). 

Founder’s Award recipients 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 to drive student growth.

“The 2024 NIET Founder’s Award finalists demonstrate the potential for success in America’s schools when educator effectiveness and leadership are the driving force to attain student learning,” said NIET Founder Lowell Milken. “We proudly honor Clinton Elementary, Desert View Elementary, Lockett Elementary, North DeSoto High and Winona Middle as models of excellence in their community, state, and the nation. Congratulations.”

NIET’s partner schools have successfully improved educator, student, and school outcomes. Schools, including the 2024 award finalists, have continuously improved teaching and learning using NIET’s tools and resources to support instructional excellence and create career pathways. 

"While we know from research that teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school factor for student success, too often schools struggle to implement strong instructional practices across all classrooms,” said NIET Chief Executive Officer Dr. Joshua Barnett. "These five exemplary schools focused on building the capacity of teachers and leaders in their buildings, with support from their district leadership. As a result, they raised the level of instructional excellence across the building, so that all students have access to great classroom teaching and learning."

What Makes the NIET Founder’s Award Finalists Unique?

Clinton Elementary School, Tennessee

Clinton Elementary School is located in Clinton, Tennessee, about 30 minutes northwest of Knoxville. The school serves 541 students ranging from kindergarten through sixth grade. Clinton Elementary School began its partnership with NIET in 2020 while in the process of identifying strategies for accelerating student learning through the pandemic. Since then, the partnership has expanded as the school has set goals to increase teacher effectiveness and deepen student engagement and success in learning, particularly in math. Principal Jenna Sharp and her leadership team put student academic goals at the center of professional learning, provide continuous feedback and coaching for teachers, and create a positive learning environment, all to increase student achievement.

In both 2022 and 2023, Clinton Elementary School received an overall rating of 5 on a scale of 1 to 5 in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS), meaning there was significant evidence that students made more growth than expected. Clinton Elementary School also earned the highest growth score of 5 in numeracy in 2023, an increase from their 3 rating in 2022. In addition to these improvements in student achievement, the school boasts a 97% retention rate of teachers, further contributing to a strong and stable school environment.

Learn more about Clinton Elementary School.

Desert View Elementary School, Arizona

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.

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. As of 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.

Learn more about Desert View Elementary School.

Lockett Elementary School, South Carolina 

Lockett Elementary School, set in rural South Carolina’s Orangeburg County School District, educates 236 students in pre-kindergarten through 5th grade with 64% of students qualifying as “pupils in poverty.” With help from NIET, Lockett Elementary changed its culture to focus on growth, feedback and reflection around academic goals and student needs. Principal Chasity Fralix and her leadership team have prioritized building the reflective practices of teachers and strengthening professional learning meetings to ensure every student receives high-quality instruction.

In 2023, Lockett Elementary School received an overall rating of “Excellent,” the highest rating in South Carolina’s education accountability system, an improvement from the 2022 rating of “Good.” Additionally, Lockett students outperformed students statewide in English language arts and math on the 2022 and 2023 South Carolina College- and Career-Ready Assessments. From 2021 to 2023, the percentage of Lockett students meeting or exceeding expectations on the state assessment increased in both English language arts and math.

Learn more about Lockett Elementary School.

North DeSoto High School, Louisiana 

Located just south of Shreveport, Louisiana, North DeSoto High School (NDHS) is a rural school that serves 809 students, nearly half of whom are economically disadvantaged. Through its partnership with NIET, the school has seen increased teacher and leader effectiveness and improvements in student achievement. With a focus on fostering growth for teachers, Principal Tammie Phillips and her leadership team build their reflective and instructional skills while also providing students with high-quality learning opportunities.

For the past three years, NDHS has outperformed the state of Louisiana in the percentages of tests scoring “mastery and above'' on state assessments in all subjects combined. The percentage of tests increased from 2021 to 2023 by 13 percentage points, compared to a three-point increase statewide. Additionally, NDHS has maintained an “A” rating from the state since 2015.

Learn more about North DeSoto High School.

Winona Middle School, Texas

Winona Middle School educates students in grades 6-8 in Winona, Texas, about 20 minutes northeast of Tyler. Of the rural school’s 251 students, almost 90% are economically disadvantaged and 20% are English learners or “emergent bilingual.” Winona Middle School has partnered with NIET to transform the school’s culture into one of continuous reflection and learning for leaders, teachers and students alike. Principal Johnny Walker and his leadership team have focused on building the instructional capacity of teachers, providing time for collaboration and professional learning, and using data to identify needs—all while keeping student success at the forefront.

Winona Middle School improved its state letter grade from an “F” in 2019 to a “B” in 2022. 2023 letter grades have not been released yet, but leadership anticipates seeing further growth in student achievement and a rating that reflects a continued positive trajectory. 

Learn more about Winona Middle School.

For images 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.