OC teacher a state finalist in Presidential Awards program for math and science instruction

Suzanne Huerta, a fifth-grade special education teacher at Whitaker Elementary School in the Buena Park School District, has been named California’s math finalist in the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching program.

A photograph showing a field of sunflowers in Suzanne Huerta’s classroom prompted one student to ponder over how many seeds were in a sunflower. 

Rather than turn to Google, the Whitaker Elementary School class planted sunflower seeds, then nurtured and watered them until eight plants reached maturity. From there, they didn’t just count the seeds; the students explored concepts like most, least, difference and total, and they used graphs, tables and statistical measures like mean, median and mode to further analyze their findings.

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

“I like to mathematize the world for my students,” Huerta said. “Math is all around us, and it’s fun for the students to discover that asking and answering questions is a great way to interact with the world.”

Huerta, who teaches a special day class of fourth- and fifth-graders at Whitaker Elementary in the Buena Park School District, recently learned she’s been named one of three state finalists in the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching program. The distinction is considered the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government for science, math, engineering and computer science teaching in kindergarten through grade 12. 

“I can’t quite believe this award,” she said. “I’m still in shock.”

Passion and talent

Enacted by Congress in 1983, the PAEMST program is run 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, putting a spotlight on educators who demonstrate subject mastery, innovative instructional strategies, lifelong learning and leadership in education. 

This year, those who teach kindergarten through grade six were eligible to apply, with each candidate required to submit a 30-minute video lesson. 

Huerta is California’s sole finalist for math. Cherene Fillingim-Selk of the Berkeley Arts Magnet School in the Berkeley Unified School District and Dr. Phuong Uzoff of Richmond Street Elementary School in El Segundo Unified were both recognized for science.

“These amazing teachers model excellence in how we prepare California students for the challenges and advancements of the future,” State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said in a news release. “Let me offer my sincere congratulations to these educators, whom we honor for their leadership and instructional practices and how they are inspiring a new generation with passion and talent for science, technology, engineering and math.” 

Personalized approach

Huerta began her teaching career in an inclusive classroom that included general education students and those with special needs. For that reason, she pursued strategies tailored to a variety of learning styles.

Since going back to school to earn a credential as a mild-to-moderate education specialist, she has exclusively taught special education classes.

Insiders say Huerta has dedicated her career to redefining special education, transforming her classroom into a vibrant, interactive workshop — one where math problems often come with elaborate backstories that feature her students and their real-life questions. 

If Perla needs 1.5 cups of sugar to bake one rainbow cake, how many cups of sugar does she need to bake six rainbow cakes?

Students tackle each prompt in ways that make sense to them, creating a personalized approach to problem-solving. Afterward, they discuss their methods with a partner, which debunks the notion that there’s only one “correct” way to solve a problem. 

“It’s a joy to watch the students in Suzanne’s class collaborate and make discoveries,” Buena Park Superintendent Dr. Julienne Lee said. “Their energy is contagious, and I love sitting in on her lessons and learning new ways to think about math.”

Family engagement 

Huerta’s methods are set to be featured in a forthcoming book called “Rethinking Disability and Mathematics,” and she continues to serve as a presenter and panelist at county and state conferences. She also launched “Bring Your Grownup to Math Day,” encouraging parents to experience how their children are learning at school while promoting ways to engage them with math at home.

“I have no words, to tell the truth — it’s amazing,” one mom said. “I’m amazed at how my son was this low and suddenly he’s up here. I actually didn’t think he was this advanced, and then I got to see the way he was understanding everything and able to solve it so fast in his head.”

Each year, the U.S. president can present up to 110 PAEMST awards, which alternate annually between primary and secondary teachers. To date, more than 5,200 teachers have been recognized.

Huerta and her fellow recipients will be honored at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., and receive a $10,000 special award from the National Science Foundation. 

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