2017-03-17 / Schools

Educators groom ‘citizen scholars’

Teachers honored by state Social Studies Council
By Hector Gonzalez

RECOGNITION—Above, Royal High School teacher Brian Dennert (shown with students) and, at right, Royal teacher John Downey were named outstanding teachers of the year by the California Council of Social Studies. This is the first year the council chose two teachers from the same school. RECOGNITION—Above, Royal High School teacher Brian Dennert (shown with students) and, at right, Royal teacher John Downey were named outstanding teachers of the year by the California Council of Social Studies. This is the first year the council chose two teachers from the same school. You could say Royal High School teachers John Downey and Brian Dennert have a few things in common.

“We both live in Simi Valley. We’re both married teachers, department chairs with two little girls in elementary schools,” said Dennert, 40, who teaches world history and geography.

Downey, 42, teaches government. His daughters are in first and second grades, while Dennert’s two girls are in second and fourth.

The two men recently added another notable item to their list of common traits when both were honored as outstanding teachers of the year by the California Council of Social Studies. The nonprofit professional organization promotes and recognizes excellence in the teaching of history and social studies in private and public schools.


Photos by MICHAEL COONS/Acorn Newspapers Photos by MICHAEL COONS/Acorn Newspapers It’s the first year the council selected two educators from the same school district, let alone from the same school, said Laurie Mosier, executive director of the organization.

Each year, the council receives hundreds of applications from around the state nominating teachers, educational leaders and administrators for awards. The nonprofit honors teachers at all levels: elementary, middle and high school, and higher education.

It also bestows special awards named in honor of educators who have made significant contributions to history and social studies education.

This year, the council named five award recipients at its 56th annual convention March 3 through 5 in Sacramento.

“Although Brian and John had separate nominations—not the collaborative award nomination— it was determined by the awards committee that both of these gentlemen were well-qualified and, because both work at the same school site, that we would award both,” said Cheryl Rehome, the council’s chair of professional standards and awards. “The . . . committee was confident that both were equally deserving.”


TEACHERS OF THE YEAR—Dennert teaches world history and geography at Royal, and Downey teaches government. The men launched a speaker series at the school four years ago. TEACHERS OF THE YEAR—Dennert teaches world history and geography at Royal, and Downey teaches government. The men launched a speaker series at the school four years ago. Citizen scholars

About seven years ago, working with former RHS Principal Deborah Salgado, now the director of secondary education for Simi Valley Unified School District, Downey and Dennert established a partnership with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, which nominated them for the council’s award this year.

That partnership led to the creation of the Ronald Reagan Citizen Scholar Institute at Royal, which is coordinated by the foundation and SVUSD. Based on principles outlined in a 2010 report, “Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools,” the local program includes an in-class curriculum of U.S. government, civics and history taught jointly by Dennert and Downey.

Students must also complete a service project in the community and showcase the project at the Reagan Library at the end of the school year.

Upon finishing the civics course, students receive recognition of completion on their diplomas at graduation, a feather in their cap that they can add to their applications to college or for jobs and scholarships.

Four years ago, Downey and Dennert launched the Brown Bag Lunch speaker series at Royal, inviting elected officials and other guests to speak to students at lunchtime. Held in a large, 100-seat conference room, the series has earned the school the California Civic Learning Award from the California Department of Justice and the state Department of Education.

Speakers usually draw standing room-only audiences of students. Last year, students got to hear from nearly every candidate running in local Assembly and congressional races.

“Brian and John are really outstanding educators who push their students to ask the tough questions,” said Tony Pennay, chief learning officer at the Reagan Presidential Foundation. “They really encourage their students to be extremely civically engaged.”

Apart from preparing students for college and careers, Downey said, his job is to get high school students ready to become active and participating citizens.

“It’s not just, ‘Hey kids, you need to vote.’ Students need to be attentive to who the candidates are and what the issues are. Then they can go out and vote intelligently,” he said.

Although the council’s award comes with a $250 cash prize, Dennert said, for him the money and recognition are secondary.

“Everything we do, the awards and the recognition, it’s all for the school,” said Dennert, who graduated from Royal and has taught there for 11 years. “We’re hoping to bring attention to the school so that the people in the community can be proud of their local school.”

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