Capo elementary teacher is a finalist in presidential awards program for math and science educators

An elementary teacher in the Capistrano Unified School District is among a half-dozen state finalists in the 2020 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching program.

Leslie Whitaker, who teaches third grade at Esencia Elementary School, is now in the running for what’s considered the highest recognition in the nation for math and science teachers at the elementary and secondary levels.

Presidential Awards for Excellent in Mathematics and Science Teaching logoEnacted by Congress in 1983, the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching program, or PAEMST, is administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. The president can present up to 108 awards each year, alternating annually between primary and secondary teachers.

Whitaker, who has taught for 20 years, is among California’s three math finalists. Among her credits, she has supported many student-teachers, served as a math teacher on special assignment in her district, and worked with an OCDE team to provide professional learning for fellow teachers from transitional kindergarten through grade five.

Over the summer, Whitaker also developed third-grade, distance-learning math lessons through Canvas for Capistrano Unified’s first two trimesters. Lessons compared fractions by reasoning about their size, number of parts, and relationship to benchmarks.

The state’s other math finalists are Anamarie (Mia) Buljan of Fairview Elementary in the Hayward Unified School District and Khamphet Pease of Wilson Middle School in the San Diego Unified School District.

This year’s science finalists from California are Angela Chavez of Vena Avenue Elementary in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Judy Cook of William Collier Elementary in the Lake Elsinore Unified School District, and Marlys Williamson of Wolf Canyon Elementary in the Chula Vista Elementary School District.

“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,” said State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, who announced the state finalists this week.

“They’re bright stars and prime examples of excellence in our educational system,” Thurmond said, “and we hope that all students can enroll in great STEAM and computer science programs with educators like them, to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow.”

The California Department of Education partners with the California Mathematics Council and the California Association of Science Educators to recruit and 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, according to the CDE. 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