Somerset Elementary School Receives $10,000 as NIET Founder’s Award Finalist

February 15, 2022

Somerset Elementary School Receives $10,000 as NIET Founder’s Award Finalist

The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) announced today that Somerset Elementary School in Somerset Independent School District, Texas, has earned $10,000 for its selection as an NIET Founder's Award finalist. The school is among five across the country under consideration for the $50,000 grand prize, which will be announced at the NIET National Conference in Dallas, Texas on Thursday, March 10, 2022, at 12 p.m. CT.

"Somerset Elementary Principal Nieves Carrales understands the importance of effective teaching to student success. True to form, she has developed a team of instructional leaders who empower teachers and students alike to reach their highest potential," said NIET Chairman and Founder Lowell Milken. "I congratulate the leadership of Principal Carrales and Superintendent Dr. Saul Hinojosa as shining examples of excellence for the state and nation."

For more than 20 years, NIET has partnered with schools, districts, states, and universities to ensure all students have effective educators. Its work to develop teacher leaders, support successful instructional strategies, and build educator capacity to address student needs have served more than 9,000 schools and have impacted more than 275,000 teachers and 2.75 million students.

NIET's partner schools have shown success by both outperforming similar schools and having greater teacher retention. Schools including Somerset Elementary School have continued to advance during the pandemic through the use of NIET's tools and resources to support instructional excellence and learning acceleration, provide coaching from expert leaders and trainers, and engage a large network of educators united around shared learning. The Founder's Award was created by Lowell Milken to honor one school annually for exceptional implementation of NIET's principles to build educator excellence and advance student success.

"At Somerset Elementary, leaders are helping their teachers transform instructional practice," said NIET Co-President Laura Encalade. "Somerset Elementary has created an empowerment model that provides both rich professional development along with teacher leadership models that are instructionally focused and have led to long-term success by motivating, developing, and retaining teachers."

Founder's Award recipients are selected by NIET based on their efforts to make instructional excellence the cornerstone of school improvement; plan for regular professional learning focused on real-time needs of teachers and students; create a culture of collaboration and reflection; and leverage teacher leaders and administrators to drive student growth. Somerset Elementary has employed these principles in a comprehensive way as part of a district-wide effort to implement some of NIET's key initiatives starting in 2009. 

What Sets Somerset Elementary Apart

Somerset Elementary, located southwest of San Antonio, serves 590 students representing a majority-minority population, with Hispanic students making up 93% of the student population. Of the total percentage of enrolled students, 86% are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Serving all students is at the cornerstone of Somerset’s work, and Principal Nieves Carrales and her team have utilized the TAP System’s distributed leadership model to ensure every student has access to an excellent educator.

"Our beliefs on our campus align with NIET’s idea that student success is truly tied to the quality of the teacher within the classroom," said Carrales. "At Somerset, we spend a great deal of time focusing on growing teachers, building capacity, and making sure we have instructional leaders throughout our campus because we know that, in turn, student success falls in line."

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic in recent years, Somerset Elementary has continued to sustain academic progress, outperforming the state score in all subjects (ELA/reading, math, and writing) in 2019 and 2021. Somerset also increased performance over the state average in all categories from 2019 to 2021. In 2021, the school increased the percentage of students who are considered approaching grade level or above in ELA/reading to 82% and maintained the percentage of students approaching grade level or above in math at 87%. In 2022, Somerset Elementary was nominated by the Texas Education Agency as a National Blue Ribbon School.

NIET’s career advancement model has been a key lever in Somerset Elementary's success by allowing opportunities for increased responsibility and accountability for teachers to lead, model, and drive instructional decisions in collaboration with administrative leaders. In the TAP System, educators who are elevated into master and mentor teacher roles coach and support their peers to improve instruction. "Because these systems have been leveraged and executed at high levels, the quality of teachers campus-wide is reflective of strong teacher leadership where mentor and master teacher roles could be easily assumed; therefore, teachers consistently seek ways to empower and elevate other colleagues," said Carrales.

Another element of Somerset Elementary's success is their focus on instructional accountability. Through support from master and mentor teachers, consistent engagement in professional development, guidance during instructional planning, and real-time coaching, Somerset Elementary teachers are able to grow their practices, positively impact learners, and reach personal, professional, and student learning goals. "The framework we adopted from NIET has proven successful, and we customized support based on teacher needs,” said Carrales. “Our campus, one of the few in the region, has been awarded five distinctions for student performance on state accountability."

Somerset Elementary School joins fellow finalists Brown County High School (Brown County Schools, Indiana); Southport 6th Grade Academy (Perry Township Schools, Indiana); Logansport High School (DeSoto Parish School Board, Louisiana); and Cross County High School (Cross County School District, Arkansas) in contention for the $50,000 grand prize.

For images of Somerset Elementary and more information about NIET, visit the NIET newsroom. For interviews and requests to attend the Founder's Award announcement, please contact Jenny Sawyer at or (256) 652-1376. Learn more about the conference at Follow conference news – including the Founder's Award – on Facebook and Twitter @NIETteach or via #NIET2022.