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Retired teacher honored for inspiring students

Meadow Vista's Daetz receives Kennedy Cente/rStephen Sondheim Award
By: Martha Garcia, Colfax Record Editor
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A retired high school teacher’s influence continues to have an effect on one of his students, who credits Meadow Vista’s Denney Daetz for opening his eyes to new possibilities.

Jonathan Matas, a student in Daetz’ social studies class at Saratoga High School in 1976, nominated Daetz for the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award. On March 22, composer Sondheim’s birthday, Daetz was named one of seven teachers nationwide to receive the prestigious award for 2013. The annual award recognizes the contributions of teachers and the impact they have on the lives of their students.

Daetz called the award “a wonderful honor,” one that is a “representation of all the teachers who inspire students. It’s nice that I got it but there are thousands of teachers every day who inspire their students.”

Daetz said he was fortunate to have been nominated by Matas.

In nominating Daetz, Matas, now 51 and a professional videographer and missionary with a group called Youth with a Mission, said he was one of a dozen students who accompanied Daetz on a three-month trip to live with African families in their villages. Matas called it a “journey that ruined me for the ordinary.”

“We lived in compounds experiencing daily village life, visiting schools, religious events, funerals, concerts, and festivals. … My 15th birthday was in Swedru village with the Bimpong family who served snails and chicken claws stewed in peanut soup,” Matas wrote. The trip, he said, “created in me a thirst to see the world, and a drive to be involved with it. That adventure and a faith that wanted something more from life changed my course.”

Daetz also showed him how to introduce others to a life of service, Matas said. “Denney’s passion changed my life and I have never seen the world in the same way since. … He showed me … that I could make a difference.”

The Inspirational Teacher Award comes with a $10,000 prize, which Daetz said will go toward a project of the nonprofit Akwaaba Foundation, founded in 2007 by Daetz and his wife, Laura, with some of his former students and their parents. Through Akwaaba, Daetz now wants to make available on the Internet to educators throughout the world the computer program he created – Simpolicon – to help students learn how to make the world run better through politics, economics and the environment. Daetz, who spent three years in Ghana with the Peace Corps, developed the economic simulation program when he realized students had little understanding about the Third World and its struggles.

In order for students worldwide to interact with each other, the Simpolicon program will have to be reprogrammed for the Internet, Daetz said. “We have our programmers we need to pay. … I’m working with Ph.D. students from Columbia Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City … to get it beta-tested.”

Laura Daetz said the simulation program has been used successfully in classrooms in more than 750 schools throughout the U.S. and in several foreign countries in its earlier versions. She said beta testing will begin by early fall.

While the Kennedy Center attaches no strings to the use of the cash award and Daetz could have kept it for personal use, Denney Daetz said donating it to the Akwaaba Foundation is the right thing to do.

“If I can use this to get our object done with our educational foundation that would even be icing on the cake,” he said.