Orange County Math Teacher Among Finalists for Presidential Award

December 24, 2020 Updated: December 29, 2020

The California finalists for the 2020 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching have been announced—and an Orange County teacher is among them.

Leslie Whitaker, a third-grade teacher in the Capistrano Unified School District, is one of three finalists in the mathematics category. Whitaker is based at Esencia Elementary in Rancho Mission Viejo.

Whitaker is a 20-year veteran teacher in the Capistrano Unified district. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from the University of San Diego and a Master of Arts degree in curriculum and instruction from California State University–Fullerton, among other credentials.

She has also worked with the Orange County Department of Education, providing professional training for teachers as they transition from kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms.

This past summer, Whitaker developed third-grade math lessons on comparing fractions for the first two trimesters of distance learning.

Whitaker will be competing against Anamarie (Mia) Buljan of the Hayward Unified School District and Khamphet Pease of the San Diego Unified School District for the math award.

The science finalists include another Southern Californian, Angela Chavez of the Los Angeles Unified School District, along with Judy Cook of the Lake Elsinore Unified School District and Marlys Williamson of the Chula Vista Elementary School District.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who announced the finalists on Dec. 22, called the nominees “bright stars and prime examples of excellence in our education system.”

“These teachers are incredible educators, role models, and mentors to all those around them, and through mastery of their craft, they inspire students to study math, technology, engineering, and science—including computer science,” Thurmond said in a statement.

“We hope that all students can enroll in great STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics] and computer science programs with educators like them, to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow.”

The California Department of Education called the Presidential Awards the “highest recognition” that an elementary or secondary school teacher of math or science can receive. The department partnered with the California Mathematics Council and the California Association of Science Educators to select the nominees for the program, which is administered by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Candidates are judged based on their mastery of the subject, instructional methods and strategies, lifelong learning, and leadership outside the classroom, and are required to submit a 30-minute video lesson along with their application.

Winners are chosen from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Department of Defense schools, and four U.S. territories (as a group). The winners receive $10,000 each from the NSF, and are traditionally honored at a ceremony in Washington. The dates for the announcement of the winners and the ceremony weren’t announced.