Updated: November 30, 2023
The Hawaiʻi State Department of Education named Leilehua High School’s natural resources teacher, Jackie Freitas, as the 2024 Hawaiʻi State Teacher of the Year. Freitas received the state’s top teaching award from Gov. Josh Green and Superintendent Keith Hayashi during an awards ceremony at Washington Place on Oct. 3.
The honor is presented annually to a classroom teacher selected from more than 13,000 Hawaiʻi educators. Freitas was among 15 Complex Area Teachers of the Year and the Charter School Teacher of the Year recognized.
Freitas is the natural resources teacher and Future Farmers of America advisor at Leilehua High School where she has taught her entire 13-year career. Leilehua’s Natural Resources program runs one of the state’s largest high school agricultural farms, which includes a 3.5 acre farm lab with a hydroponic greenhouse, traditional farm land, bee apiary, animal husbandry, floriculture and agriculture technology farmbots and vertical towers.
The farm, which requires year-round maintenance, is where Freitas can often be found not only during the school year but during summer months, weekends and holidays, making sure that crops, plants and animals are maintained and cared for.
Affectionately known to students, staff and the community as “Aunty Jackie,” Freitas constantly keeps up with the newest technology and techniques in natural resources so that she can not only implement them into her lessons, but also lead professional development workshops for colleagues. She has developed and expanded the school’s animal husbandry program to incorporate more hands-on learning for students, and has introduced different agriculture tech equipment into her curriculum — like Zspace, smart farms, farm bots and off the grid Aeroponic Vertical Towers- to teach students how to grow produce through coding and stem research.
“It’s clear that Jackie’s passion and innovative teaching methods allow students to reach new horizons,” Hayashi said. “She is a prime example of a teacher leader in our state- pioneering new curriculum to ensure that students are globally competitive, initiating community programs that connect student work with real-world challenges, and connecting with colleagues to support future teacher leaders. We are grateful to have teachers like Jackie, who do so much to help elevate our Hawaiʻi public school system.”
Freitas expands her lessons beyond the classroom, helping to establish the school’s “Buy 1, Give 1” program where students curate a produce box to sell within the community. For every box that was sold one would be donated to a family at another school within their complex. Students had to plan and grow the crops, coordinate with the school, prepare the boxes, market them and distribute them. She even helped to set up the school’s now annual fall festival, where Career and Technical Education students can celebrate their work with the community.
“I have been consistently impressed by [Jackie’s] dedication, passion and effectiveness in the classroom and in the field,” said Jason Nakamoto, Leilehua High School principal. “She has a deep understanding of good agricultural practices and uses innovative teaching methods to help engage her students… She beams pride and exemplifies the Leilehua way of leadership, humility, and service.”
Freitas will represent Hawaiʻi in the National Teacher of the Year program. A national winner will be named in the spring.
“I just love what I do… but everything I do is for my students,” said Freitas, who was surprised by the recognition. “The students give me the passion, my family is there to back up everything I do. This is a very rewarding experience… This is not what I was expecting at all.”
The Teacher of the Year ceremony included:
- Monetary awards to each Complex Area and Public Charter School Teacher of the Year by The Polynesian Cultural Center, the Teacher of the Year program’s corporate sponsor for over 30 years, and an additional $1,000 award to the State Teacher of the Year.
- A one-year lease of a 2023 Chevrolet Trailblazer LT courtesy of the Hawaiʻi Automobile Dealers Association and Cutter Chevrolet to the State Teacher of the Year.
The full list of finalists honored, in alphabetical order:
- Laurie Chang, Kaimukī-McKinley-Roosevelt Complex Area, Aliʻiolani Elementary
- Laura Cummings, Castle-Kahuku Complex Area, Sunset Beach Elementary
- Pinky Grace Francisco, Ka‘ū-Keaʻau-Pāhoa Complex Area, Ka‘ū High & Pāhala Elementary
- David “Kawika” Gonzales Jr., Hāna-Lāhaināluna-Lanaʻi-Molokaʻi Complex Area, Kaunakakai Elementary
- Marina Higa, ‘Aiea-Moanalua-Radford Complex Area, Major General William R. Shafter Elementary
- Jennifer Ilaban, Honoka‘a-Kealakehe-Kohala-Konawaena Complex Area, Kahakai Elementary
- Gregory Kent, Kailua-Kalāheo Complex Area, Kailua Elementary
- Kara Kitamura, Kapaʻa-Kauaʻi-Waimea Complex Area, Kapaʻa High
- Jessica Peterson, Pearl City-Waipahu Complex Area, August Ahrens Elementary
- Christopher Pike, Hilo-Waiākea Complex Area, Kapiolani Elementary
- Norman Ray Sales, Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani Complex Area, Farrington High
- John “Parker” Sawyer, Public Charter Schools, Kaʻohao School
- Donna Soriano, Nānākuli-Waiʻanae Complex Area, Waiʻanae Elementary
- Melanie Teraoka, Baldwin-Kekaulike-Kūlanihākoʻi-Maui Complex Area, Wahieʻe Elementary
- Ariel Villanueva, Campbell-Kapolei Complex Area, ‘Ewa Makai Middle