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

February 6, 2024

Winona Middle 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 in fostering educator excellence and advancing student success, contending for $50,000 grand prize 

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Winona, Texas (February 6, 2024) - The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) announced today that Winona Middle School in Winona Independent School District, Texas, 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. Winona Middle 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.

“Winona Middle School’s effort to systematically strengthen educator effectiveness, leadership opportunities, and support has been nothing less than transformational,” said NIET Founder Lowell Milken. “Under Principal Johnny Walker, collaboration and morale are high, reaping historic gains in student achievement growth and positioning the school as a destination of choice for new teachers. Congratulations to Winona Middle staff and Superintendent Damenion Miller on their significant progress and serving as an inspiration for others.”

Founder’s Award finalists like Winona Middle School are selected by NIET based on several factors, including their efforts to make instructional excellence the foundation 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. Winona Middle School, among other schools, has continuously elevated teaching and learning using NIET’s tools and resources to support instructional excellence and create career pathways. 

"The pace of improvement at Winona Middle School is impressive, moving from an F rating in 2019 to a B rating in 2022,” said NIET Chief Executive Officer Dr. Joshua Barnett. "Investing in teacher leaders, and focusing their support on instructional improvement, has helped to fuel this success. In addition, the school has been able to diversify and strengthen teacher recruitment and retention by offering new teachers opportunities for professional growth."

What Makes Winona Middle School Unique? 

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. 

“When I became principal of Winona Middle School, our culture was on life support and teachers worked in silos,” said Walker. “Today, I am glad to report that collaboration and teachers supporting teachers are at an all-time high. I am proud of the culture at our school because students are reaping the benefits of a robust professional learning community grounded in collaboration and continual improvement.”

Winona Middle School initially partnered with NIET on school improvement work but quickly expanded the partnership to include a broader focus on best practices. These practices include weekly professional learning meetings using the NIET Five Steps for Effective Learning, shared leadership through an instructional leadership team, and ongoing coaching and feedback for teachers. 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. 

To address teacher recruitment and retention challenges Winona faces as a rural school surrounded by larger districts, school and district leaders have created a new teacher pipeline in partnership with educator preparation programs at The University of Texas at Tyler and Stephen F. Austin University, in addition to alternative certification programs. This pipeline has allowed the school to broaden and diversify its teacher talent pool. Winona Middle School uses its partnership with NIET to provide new teachers with targeted support in instructional and classroom management strategies through a mentor teacher program, as well as providing new and veteran teachers with ongoing professional learning opportunities to ensure continued instructional capacity advancement. 

“NIET has provided the support and coaching needed to meet our school's challenges,” said Walker. “Having NIET senior specialists with such a wealth of knowledge and understanding of school improvement is comforting and reassuring. They show us that we are not alone in this work. When NIET is in the district, they are fully invested in our success. This is evident because they know our teacher's names, they know our story, and they ask about our families. The just-in-time support has been integral to the success of our campus.”

In addition to supporting new teachers, NIET’s partnership with Winona Middle School has also strengthened the instructional leadership skills of school leaders. Through NIET training and support, school leaders are better equipped to analyze and interpret student data and lead data meetings with teachers. The sharpened skills and knowledge of school leaders around the use of data have increased the relevance and rigor of Winona Middle School’s professional learning meetings and are ultimately increasing student achievement. 

“NIET has had a profound impact on my leadership as I have learned essential systems for improvement,” said Walker. “NIET has provided me with resources and the confidence to effectively lead instructional leadership meetings, engage in in-depth discussions with teachers around content and pedagogy, and chart a course for sustained school improvement.”

Winona Middle School joins fellow finalists 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); and North DeSoto High School (DeSoto Parish Schools, Louisiana) in contention for the $50,000 Founder’s Award grand prize.

For images of Winona Middle 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