The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) are the highest recognition that K–12 STEM teachers can receive. They are given to teachers from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and U.S. territories as a group (American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands).
For the year 2020, both Delaware PAEMST recipients were Wilmington University graduates. (The 2020 awards are the most recent.)
Brandi Luloff of Townsend Elementary School in the Appoquinimink School District was the mathematics awardee, and Leona Williams of Forwood Elementary School in the Brandywine School District won the science award.
The two dedicated teachers took markedly different paths to a career in education.
For Luloff, overcoming a childhood learning disability convinced her that she could make a difference in the lives of students with similar challenges. For Williams, teaching became a second career that brought more satisfaction than her highly successful years in the corporate world.
Luloff earned her B.A. in Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh and, in 2009, her M.A. in Elementary/Special Education from Wilmington University. She is currently studying for her M.A. in School Leadership and Administration at WilmU.
In achieving those academic levels, she overcame difficult elementary and high school years.
“In elementary school, I was identified with a learning disability and told that school would be difficult,” Luloff says. “Those challenging times, although frustrating, made me stronger. The trials I endured became my strengths and turned into my passion for education. I followed my heart.”
Luloff has been teaching for 18 years, the last seven at Townsend Elementary. She was named the school’s Teacher of the Year in 2018. Last fall, she became Townsend Elementary’s full-time instructional coach, a role in which she works closely with classroom teachers to support student learning across the curriculum.
After careful consideration, Luloff says she chose WilmU for both of her post-graduate degrees. “I did research on both UD and Wilmington,” she says. “From the reviews and talking to people who have been in the program, Wilmington got just outstanding comments. And the instructors and everyone there were so supportive. So it was without question where I wanted to return for my second master’s.”
Of her Presidential Award, which was announced on Feb. 14, 2022, Luloff says: “I never imagined experiencing something like this when I first came into education. It’s the most amazing and honoring experience that I could ever have to represent my school and district. They have offered so many opportunities for me to excel and build.”
Williams’ entrée into professional education came as a Parent-Teacher Association mom supporting science education. But first came a successful career as a technical sales representative for Hercules, Inc. in Wilmington.
Williams joined the corporate world after receiving a degree in Chemistry from the University of Delaware in 1987. She enjoyed her 13 years with Hercules, but the job required a lot of travel, which meant time away from her three children. When her oldest entered Forwood Elementary School, she chose to become a stay-at-home mom.
She immediately got involved with the PTA, and began working with Forwood students in a science club format. She soon organized an annual science fair, which is now in its 20th year. Her involvement kindled an interest in teaching, and she enrolled in the Master’s in Elementary Education program at then Wilmington College.
“It fit my lifestyle,” Williams says of the program. “I had a young family, it was cost-effective, and I liked the schedule that allowed me to take classes in the evening when my husband was at home with the kids. And it was respected in the community. I knew many of the teachers I would be working with had earned their master’s at Wilmington.”
After receiving her degree in 2007, Williams began teaching fourth grade at Claymont Elementary School, where she had been substitute-teaching. For the past 12 years, she has taught fourth and fifth grades at Forwood. A Next Generation Science Standards Lead Teacher, Williams piloted NGSS-aligned science kits and enriched learning experiences with STEM in her multicultural fourth-grade classroom, which includes English Language Learners.
When buildings closed due to the pandemic, she made creative use of Zoom as an education tool. Her students investigated sound waves, created musical instruments from recyclables, and met the female marine biologist who helped Disney animators create realistic waves for the movie “Moana.” Williams was named the 2020 Elementary STEM Educator Award winner by the Delaware STEM Council for her efforts.
As a Delawarean, Williams says, having the First State’s Joe Biden in the White House makes her PAEMST “extra special.”
“It’s a tremendous national honor,” she says. “It acknowledges educators who are developing critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills through STEM to prepare students for their future in a technology-rich world.”