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Honored educator
Dryden wins district's first Horizon Award
Dryden's Horizon Award 2024
Fort Larned Elementary third-grade teacher Jami Dryden’s class last year gathered for a glow party as one of her activities designed to keep her students engaged. Dryden was nominated and won a Horizon award for excellence in teaching. The award is presented to 32 deserving teachers each year from all across the state. - photo by COURTESY PHOTO

The Kansas Department of Education has been honoring outstanding K-12 first-year teachers for 20 years.

While several school districts across the Golden Belt have had recipients, USD 495 in Larned had yet to have a winner.

Until last Thursday. Fort Larned Elementary third-grade teacher Jami Dryden was surprised by Dr. Randy Watson, commissioner of education, who informed her that she had earned a Horizon award for 2024.

Jami is deeply committed to the success of every student
Catrina McGurk

Dryden’s surprise

Fort Larned Elementary Principal Catrina McGurk nominated Dryden for the award in the fall. On Thursday, they instigated the announcement of her selection through a phone call from Dr. Watson. “There were some happy tears,” McGurk noted.

“Jami is deeply committed to the success of every student,” McGurk noted. “She takes the time to understand the unique learning styles, strengths, and challenges of each student, tailoring her teaching approach to meet diverse needs. She firmly believes that every child has the potential to excel, and relentlessly works to unlock that potential in each student in innovative ways.

“It has been enjoyable getting to watch Jami grow into the profession from librarian aide to classroom teacher after switching careers. I am so glad she did because Fort Larned District is fortunate to have gained another amazing teacher. She continues to further her education working towards a masters degree while being actively involved in extracurricular activities and groups within the district.”

Before gaining her own classroom, Dryden, a 2007 Larned High School graduate, was already a familiar face.

She joined the district in 2013 as a kindergarten paraprofessional and had several roles within the district, including library aide at the former Phinney Elementary School.

At Phinney, she discovered her passion for teaching and learned a lot about classroom management.

Wishing to transition into education, she embraced the Teacher Apprentice Program (TAP) at Wichita State University, where she obtained a bachelor of arts in education.

The TAP program allowed her to work full-time while completing her student teaching experience and provided a perfect opportunity for her to learn online while still raising two young children at home.

“I love USD 495 because it is home,” Jami said, emphasizing the invaluable support and mentorship she received from her coworkers, shaping her into the educator she is today.

“When it came down to looking for my first teaching position, I just couldn’t fathom going anywhere else. I’m incredibly grateful that I get to be a part of this team.”

She is continuing her education, currently pursuing a master’s degree in education in learning and instructional design.

When not in the classroom, Jami is usually found reading a good book. She spends her time with family at the river, the lake or whatever adventure they come up with.

According to Dryden, first-year teachers should note that every student has a desire to be noticed and to feel important.

“You can watch a student sit up taller just because you told them they’re doing a great job,” she said. “It’s also OK to make mistakes in front of them.

You may be overwhelmed by test scores and data, but your students aren’t going to remember that.

They will, however, always remember how they felt in your room. Nine months go by in the blink of an eye, so love them hard while you can, and they will learn more because of it.”

Dryden's Horizon Award 2024
Jami Dryden was surprised to learn Thursday that she had been nominated and won the Horizon award. - photo by COURTESY PHOTO

About Horizon

Since 2003, KSDE has identified and recognized representatives of excellent teaching in the state’s elementary and secondary classrooms.

While the award is open to nominations for all fulltime first-year instructors, the award is limited to four elementary and four secondary classroom teachers from four regions, corresponding to the state’s four U.S. congressional districts. That means out of all 287 school districts in the state, only 16 elementary and 16 secondary teachers are awarded each year.

The recognition occurs while the instructor is in their second year of teaching. Following nomination by their building principal and school district, they are evaluated in all aspects of daily education, from student assessments and preparation of lesson plans to parent-teacher conferences and discipline.

After they are selected, the teachers are then recognized during a luncheon hosted by the Kansas Exemplary Educators Network (KEEN) at a conference in February.

Past Golden Belt recipients

Over the past 20 years, the Golden Belt has had a number of Horizon Award winners. They include:

• Rochelle Rey, Ellinwood, 2006

• Alexander Underwood, Russell, 2010

• Andrea Dolezal, Hoisington, 2011

• Karisa Cowan, Hoisington, 2016

• Olivia Casey, Ellinwood, 2017

• Jessica Williams, Stafford, 2018

• Macey Dinkel, Stafford, 2019

• Kinsey Volk, Russell, 2023