Capo math teacher named finalist in presidential awards program for the second time in two years

Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching logo over blurred science lab

For the second time in a little more than two years, a Capistrano Unified teacher has been named a state finalist in the prestigious Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching program.

Leslie Whitaker of Esencia Elementary School in Rancho Mission Viejo was among six outstanding math and science educators announced as honorees on Thursday by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. 

Leslie Whitaker
Leslie Whitaker

Whitaker, who was also a finalist in 2020, was lauded as a math teacher on special assignment who worked with OCDE to provide professional development on cognitively guided instruction.

Enacted by Congress in 1983, the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching — or PAEMST — are considered the highest honors bestowed by the federal government for K-12 science, technology, engineering, math and computer science teaching.

The program is administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Awards are presented in all 50 states, recognizing educators who have deep content knowledge and the ability to motivate students to be successful.

Each year, the president can present up to 108 awards, which alternate annually between primary and secondary teachers. To date, more than 5,200 teachers have been recognized.

Here’s what the California Department of Education had to say about Capo’s Whitaker:

Leslie was a Math Teacher on Special Assignment in the Capistrano Unified School District and has worked with a team at the Orange County Department of Education to provide professional development in Cognitively Guided Instruction for transitional kindergarten through fifth grade teachers. A teacher for 22 years, Leslie has presented at multiple conferences, including California Mathematics Council South as well as the Cognitively Guided Instruction Biennial Conference in 2015. She also wrote Canvas third grade math lessons for Capistrano Unified School District distance learning and was a previous PAEMST California State Finalist in 2020.

Along with Whitaker, this year’s math finalists are Anamarie (Mia) Buljan of Fairview Elementary School in the Hayward Unified School District and Therisa Cash of the Casita Center for Technology, Science and Math, which is in the Vista Unified School District. 

The science finalists are Jennifer Trochez of Gates Street Elementary in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Terri Serey of Orange Grove Middle School in the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District and Dr. Phuong Uzoff of Richmond Street Elementary in El Segundo Unified

“These teachers have persevered through the challenges of the past year and are prime examples of excellence in the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math to their students,” State Superintendent Thurmond said in a news release. “Their incredible efforts inspire STEM and computer science students to think creatively and critically in the classroom in preparation for the challenges of tomorrow.”

The California Department of Education partners with the California Mathematics Council and the California Association of Science Educators to select nominees for the PAEMST program.

Applicants must demonstrate subject mastery, appropriate use of instructional methods and strategies, evidence of lifelong learning and leadership in education outside the classroom. Each candidate is also required to submit a 30-minute video lesson in support of their application.

For more information, visit the CDE’s Presidential Awards for Math and Science Teaching webpage or