DECATUR – Sarah Smith was a cinch when nominations for Educator of the Year arrived at the Decatur Public Schools Foundation office.

The instructional coach at Dennis Lab School received five nominations.

She was praised as exceptional, innovative, insightful, helpful, creative, life-long learner, curious, selfless.

Also distinguished knowledgeable, aware, vivacious, essential, supportive, sympathetic, professional, advantageous.

Also empowering, brilliant, patient, hard working, passionate, encouraging, diligent, collaborative, awesome.

Smith will be honored along with Dawn Morville Johnson, Alumna of the Year, and George Pinney, Alumnus of the Year, at the foundation's “Celebrate! The Legacy of Learning” reception and award dinner at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15, at Richards Treat University Center on the Millikin University campus.

This is Smith's third year at Dennis. She describes herself as a collaborator. A graduate of St. Teresa High School and Millikin University, she has a master's degree in elementary education from Eastern Illinois University. She taught fourth grade and fifth grade at Johns Hill Magnet School and then became the go-to person for Dennis teachers.

Dennis is affiliated with Millikin University, and Millikin student teachers work with Dennis students.

“Through her leadership and empowerment of teachers, Dennis School has implemented so many new initiatives,” one of the nominations pointed out. “So often the teachers get the credit, but I know that I would not have been successful without her leadership. She helped me transform my classroom into a powerful learning environment. She was right by my side to console me, cheer me on and give me a kick in the pants when I needed it.”

One of the new teachers last year at Dennis said: “I struggled to find the passion for teaching that I have had throughout my life. Sarah Smith guided me in a direction that allowed me not only to love my job but also show success with student understanding and growth. I became a student centered, data driven, creative instructional method teacher who finally loved my job due to guidance, support and innovative ideas from Sarah Smith.”

Dawn Morville Johnson knows about helping people, too. The Stephen Decatur High School (class of 1979) and Eastern Illinois University graduate is an attorney with Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale in St. Louis and vice chairman of the College Summit program that helps low-income students enroll in college and stay for a diploma.

“I use my writing skills to help students apply for college,” she said.

Johnson, who lives in Ballwin, Mo., was a reporter for the Decatur Herald & Review for seven years, 1983 to 1990, before returning to school, the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. She represents clients in civil and commercial litigation cases.

She is also on the board of Gateway Legal Services in St. Louis, which helps poor and disabled persons who have been turned down for government help.

“The death of her brother. Jerry, in a vehicle accident 30 years ago changed her life,” her mother, Judi, said. “She was close to her brother. She decided she wanted to be an attorney.”

Johnson started a group for bereaved siblings as part of the Compassionate Friends, a national self-help group. She has written articles and spoken at national and local conferences, showing through her example that life can go on despite tragedy.

“She has always been determined, wanting to come out on top,” her mother said. “I remember her playing clarinet at Mound School and being challenged by another student for the first chair position. Dawn won.”

Professor George Pinney was a winner from the time in first grade he played a dancing firefly at Southeast School. His father sang in the choir at Prairie Avenue Christian Church, so George did, too. His parents introduced him to classical music at Decatur Concert Series events.

He attended Johns Hill Junior Hugh School and then Eisenhower High School, class of 1970, where he played in “Brigadoon” for Shirley Kistler and in other stage productions. He has educational degrees from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and Illinois State University, Normal.

This is Pinney's 28th year in the theatre and drama department at Indiana University, Bloomington.

He has been a producer, director, choreographer. When he was a young teacher he came back to Eisenhower and choreographed “Brigadoon” for Kistler and took a role in the show.

His resume and creative accomplishments fill 15 pages. Highlights:

Emmy Award for choreography, “Blast,” 2000-2001

Tony Award for best special theatrical event, “Blast,” 2000-2001

Several Broadway on Tour nominations for “Blast.”

Herman Frederic Lieber Memorial Award for distinguished teaching, 1998

Alumnus of the Year 2000, Department of Theatre. Southern Illinois University

Indiana University teaching recognition award, 1997, 1998, 1999.

He has provided entertainment for many community groups

In addition to the Smith-Johnson-Pinney awards, scholarship awards will be given to two exceptional seniors from Eisenhower and MacArthur.

Also on the program: A short film about Eisenhower's innovative Operation Calculus program featuring student, parent and faculty interviews and a presentation by Heart Technologies on the importance of the high school renovation projects and being prepared for what comes next in 21st century education.

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