Sonia Flores one of eight educators across the country honored prestigious award

Photo courtesy Sonia Flores
From left: Adam Honeysett (Managing Director, State and Local Engagement, Office of Communications & Outreach, U.S. Department of Education); Ronn Nozoe (CEO, National Association of Secondary School Principals), Sonia Flores; Stephanie Simpson (CEO, Association for Middle Level Education); L. Earl Franks (Executive Director, National Association of Elementary School Principals).

By Kaylee Arca

Sonia Flores insists she could have never achieved a major national education award without the sacrifices made by her Polish immigrant parents and the opportunities they opened for her life.

As the principal of Dr. TJ Owens Gilroy Early College Academy, Flores earned recognition as an outstanding leader by the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., Nov. 4. She and seven other educators from public, private and charter schools received the prestigious Terrel H. Bell Award. GECA also received the National Blue Ribbon School award as one of 325 schools this year.

“My parents were always putting such a huge emphasis on my education,” Flores said. “They made sure I had the best instruction within my public school . . . As a child of immigrant parents, you don’t want to waste that opportunity that your parents sacrificed for.”

The Terrel H. Bell Award was named after the second U.S. Secretary of Education. It highlights outstanding school leaders across the nation and the vital role they play in guiding students and schools to excellence, frequently under challenging circumstances. The National Blue Ribbon Schools Award affirms the hard work of students, educators, families, and communities in creating safe and welcoming schools where students master challenging content.

“Bell awardees are truly extraordinary leaders,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miquel Cardona, a former principal. “During the past 18 months, in the face of unprecedented circumstances, these school leaders have found creative ways to protect, nurture, and engage children, families, and school staff. Bell awardees have worked tirelessly, investing every ounce of their energy and expertise in their schools and students.”

Melanie Corona, public information officer of the Gilroy Unified School District, recounted being ecstatic after receiving the news of Flores’ honor via a phone call from a representative at the U.S. Department of Education. Flores had been in a meeting and missed the first call so she heard about the honor later from Corona and GUSD Superintendent Deborah  Flores.

“I’m so proud of her,” Corona said. “I have seen her just shine in this role. Sonia is the only one surprised by this recognition, the rest of us are not surprised by anything she achieves.”

Principal Flores originally planned to become an attorney as a career. During her final year at the University of California at Berkeley, she found herself unexpectedly approached by Teach for America. This nonprofit organization recruits high-achieving students from prominent universities to teach in low-income areas to close the achievement gap.

Flores recounts being hooked when the recruiter asked her, “How does it make you feel that just down the street from this university there are students who will never be able to attend this prestigious university because of the quality of the education they’re receiving?”

Teach for America brought Flores to GUSD where she fell in love with helping students achieve their goals. She began her educational career as an English teacher at Gilroy High School in 2007. She transferred to GECA in 2009. The district promoted her to principal of the high school in 2014. Her eight years of leadership grew the size of the student body to about 300.

“I’ve been part of the foundational team of GECA. I was part of that first group of teachers who taught that first group of GECA graduates,” Flores said. “I’ve poured my heart into this school, and I’m very honored to be principal. I have a lot of love for this school.”

Her goal is to “close the achievement gap” by providing excellent educational opportunities to all students. She lives by GECA’s motto: Be someone. Go somewhere. Seek excellence.

GECA was founded in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is located on the Gavilan College campus. Students excel by partnering with Gavilan to prepare for a four-year university. They can obtain up to an associate’s degree or at least 40 units of transferable coursework. About 97 percent of graduates continue their college education.

“I am incredibly thankful for Dr. TJ Owens’ family’s continued involvement and support,” Flores said. “I hope that the National Blue Ribbon Award brings his family pride, as he was instrumental in establishing this school on Gavilan College’s campus. His legacy is tied to the mission of our school.”

She credits the school district as well as the GECA staff, students, and parents for the Bell Award recognition, describing the honor as a team effort.

“It’s not just about achieving academic excellence,” Flores said. “Each student has their own goals and interests. We want our students to seek their own excellence and personal bests so that they can meet their goals and keep striving.”

Flores felt proud to represent the Gilroy community through the award when she received it in the nation’s capital earlier this month.

“My success as a principal is only because of the collaborative effort of all of the people I have the privilege of working with,” she said.

Freelance Author