A welding teacher from Grants Pass has won second place in the 2019 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence, earning his high school skilled trades program $50,000 as part of $1 million awarded nationally.
Jacob Leair, who teaches welding at , Grants Pass High School in Grants Pass, was surprised in his classroom by a representative from Harbor Freight Tools for Schools with the news that his school will receive $50,000. Because of school, district or state policy regarding individual cash awards, Leair’s school will receive the entire prize winnings.
“Skilled trades educators are crucial to helping students stay engaged and motivated in high school,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “These amazing teachers connect students to promising careers, show them how to apply academics to the real world and help them feel pride and accomplishment — something they might not experience in all their classes. We make these awards because we believe in these teachers, we believe in these students, and we believe this vital sector deserves more support and investment.”
Three $100,000 first-place prizes were awarded to Cesar Gutierrez, a manufacturing teacher from Tucson, Arizona, Wendy Schepman, a landscape operations teacher from Stuart, Florida and Brent Trankler, a welding teacher from Sikeston, Missouri, with the prize winnings shared between the individual teacher or team and their high school skilled trades program. Fifteen second-place winners across the country, including Leair, were also surprised with the news that they and their schools had won the cash award. Because of school, district or state policy regarding individual cash awards, the schools of three of the winners will receive the entire prize winnings, including Leair’s. In addition to the more than $1 million in first- and second-place prizes awarded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, the company Harbor Freight Tools donated $32,000 to 32 semifinalists.
The Prize for Teaching Excellence was started in 2017 by Harbor Freight Tools Founder Eric Smidt to recognize extraordinary public high school skilled trades teachers and programs with a proven track record of dedication and performance. Prizes are awarded by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, a program of The Smidt Foundation.
“All of our roads and bridges, our schools and homes, and our planes and automobiles are built and are maintained by tradespeople,” Smidt said. “It is our dedicated skilled trades teachers, who inspire students to pursue these meaningful careers, that allow our economy to thrive and make so much of what we depend on possible. We are deeply honored to be able to shine a light on these extraordinary teachers today.”
While pursuing a master’s degree in education, Jacob Leair paid his way through school in part by working as a welder. When he finished his degree and began working as a substitute teacher, he developed a niche as the teacher to call to fill in for a skilled trades educator.
After six years substituting, Leair became a full-time skilled trades teacher at his alma mater, Grants Pass High School. His curriculum, which incorporates welding, fabrication and manufacturing, is aligned to the needs of the local and regional welding industry, and classes fulfill college credit at a local community college. Students receive American Welding Society certifications and can apply to join the local plumber’s union while still in high school.
“My educator friends across the country and I are in the business of changing lives,” he said. “That is our passion, that is our drive.”
Leair’s students graduate from high school at a higher rate than the overall student body and have better attendance records. All 14 of his graduating students in 2019 finished high school with job offers in the trades or admission to technical school. His students placed sixth in welding and 10th in welding fabrication at the SkillsUSA national competition in 2019.
The first-place winners of the 2019 prize are Cesar Gutierrez, a manufacturing teacher at Desert View High School in Tucson, Arizona, Wendy Schepman, a landscape operations teacher at South Fork High School in Stuart, Florida and Brent Trankler, a welding teacher at Sikeston Career and Technology Center in Sikeston, Missouri. Gutierrez, Schepman and Trankler will each receive $100,000—$70,000 for the school’s skilled trades program and $30,000 for the teacher personally.
The school’s prize winnings will support the skilled trades program being recognized, and the teacher’s or teacher team winnings can be used as they wish. The high schools of the remaining 32 semifinalists will each receive a $1,000 Harbor Freight Tools gift card to support their skilled trades programs.
The 2019 prize drew nearly 750 applications from 49 states and included three rounds of judging, each by a separate independent panel of experts from industry, education, trades, philanthropy and civic leadership. The field was narrowed this summer to 50 semifinalists. The application process, which included responses to questions and a series of online video learning modules, was designed to solicit each teacher’s experience, insights and creative ideas about their approach to teaching and success in helping their students achieve excellence in the skilled trades. All learning modules are available here.