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Nelson Family Foundation presents awards to five local educators

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John P. Nelson, second from left, poses for a portrait with this year’s Nelson Family Foundation Excellence in Teaching Award winners outside the Council Bluffs Country Club on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. From left, Nathan Van Zante, Nelson, Denise Hoag, Becky Liston, Susan Drustrup and Traci Stoop.

The Nelson Family Foundation honored five local educators with Excellence in Teaching Awards during a ceremony Tuesday at Council Bluffs Country Club.

It marked the 14th year the awards have been presented, according to Donna Kush, president and CEO of the Omaha Community Foundation, where the Nelson Family Foundation was established by H.H. “Red” and Ruth H. Nelson in 1997. Through the Excellence in Teaching Awards, the Nelson Family Foundation has awarded more than $250,000 to outstanding teachers and counselors from the Council Bluffs and Lewis Central Community School Districts, according to information from the OCF.

On Tuesday, five teachers were awarded a $5,000 check, $250 in Sonic gift cards to be used as incentives for their students and specially designed trophies and lapel pins.

“These teachers provide so much more than just classroom instruction to students,” Kush said. “I’m sure we can all relate to a time when a teacher nurtured our creativity, inspired us to be more or encouraged us to stand up and be a leader. “And never has there been a time like the last two years when teachers have had the ultimate test in resiliency – their own and building resiliency in their students.”

Kush thanked the teachers, the guests and the Nelson family before turning the floor over to John P. Nelson.

“We are excited to host our 14th year of recognizing educators with our Excellence in Teaching Award,” he said. “After my parents passed away in 2007, we created this award to honor their dedication to education. And tonight, we are delighted to be able to acknowledge some truly excellent teachers.”

The foundation provided notes about each educator from those who nominated them.

Susan DrustrupTitan Hill Intermediate School

Susan Drustrup is currently a third-grade teacher at Titan Hill Intermediate School. She has spent all 29 years of her teaching career with the Lewis Central School District and 20 years teaching third grade.

Susan holds a Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education with an early childhood endorsement from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Doane University. She also earned a reading endorsement from Morningside University.

Over the years, Susan has served on her school’s Literacy Lead Team, held a teacher leadership position on the Building Leadership Team at Titan Hill and actively participated in the Lewis Central Education Association. She currently works with her building’s Technology Lead Team.

Colleagues, parents, and former students all agree that Susan is not only a teacher who works tirelessly for her students’ success but also makes sure to take time individually with every student. In her many years of teaching, Susan has touched the lives of many children, families and fellow educators – and they are all grateful for the chance to have known her.

As one grandparent of a current student noted, “I have witnessed Susan taking special time to make sure my granddaughter was ready to learn. Our family suffered the loss of my grandson a couple of years ago, so my granddaughter deals with grief — but Susan’s understanding and caring ways make her excited to learn every day. Susan is a wonderful educator who tirelessly works for ‘her kids.’ She never seeks praise but certainly deserves to be honored for her hard work and dedication.”

Susan connects with her students and supports them emotionally in order to drive their personal as well as academic growth. Children don’t always leap out of bed each day to learn about fractions, but they will leap out of bed to go spend time at school with Susan.

In a nomination, one parent shared, “This is the first year my daughter has been so excited to get to school every single day. Susan has made it easy for all the kids to ask for help without feeling a lack of confidence. She doesn’t just offer an educational experience, she offers emotional support. She is very caring, passionate and down-to-earth. Susan has made my daughter’s third grade experience something she will always cherish.”

Not only does Susan serve as a support for her students, but she also has mentored a number of educators. She teaches valuable lessons about classroom management and “thinking on the fly,” how to make lessons count and how to reach each learner for every lesson. Her passion for teaching lifts up other educators around her and even inspired one of her former students to pursue a career in education as a third-grade teacher.

When asked to reflect on her experiences as an educator, Susan said, “I look back and in the blink of an eye, 29 years of teaching have come and gone. I have such fond memories from working with wonderful students, families and amazing and supportive teachers. I often think, ‘What other job can you go to each day and get hugs all day long?’ And I also get to experience children showing compassion and caring for one another – what a beautiful way to spend your days!”

Denise HoagThomas Jefferson High School

Denise Hoag is currently a computer science teacher for grades 9-12 at Thomas Jefferson High School. She has been teaching with the Council Bluffs Community School District since 2006. Denise holds an associate degree from Iowa Western Community College, a Bachelor of Science from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in education with a focus on instructional technology from Peru State College.

Denise is very involved in STEM activities – she coaches high school robotics, sponsors the Iowa Technology Student Association, volunteers for students’ coder events and serves on the Governor’s Computer Science Standards Review Team, the Governor’s Computer Science Work Group and the governor-appointed Southwest Iowa STEM Advisory Council.

Denise’s passion for computer science is obvious both in and out of the classroom. She is involved in an impressive list of activities that enhance students’ educational opportunities and Iowa’s computer science offerings. Her work consistently engages students and provides them with essential professional skills for their future.

A nomination from a former student illustrates Denise’s impact on her students: “Everyone has ‘that one’ teacher that made an everlasting impact on their life. For me, the teacher was Mrs. Hoag. I spent more time and effort trying my hardest to succeed and learn new things from Mrs. Hoag’s classes. She not only opened my eyes to the different fields and possibilities within IT but also helped me develop the interpersonal skills required to be successful in the workforce.”

This student had an idea to build an app for students to receive school announcements and other information. Denise encouraged the student’s project, created posters to hang around the school for promotion and advocated for the app to school administrators. These actions helped this young student make their idea a reality.

“I know, without a doubt, that Mrs. Hoag’s support is what made me a successful student and set me up for success into adulthood. I am forever grateful and fortunate to have been a student in Mrs. Hoag’s classes.”

Denise also goes above and beyond for her colleagues. When a fellow educator joined Thomas Jefferson as an electives teacher, Denise took time out of her summer to help the new teacher get ready for the start of the school year.

“She took me through every class I was going to be teaching and taught me everything I needed to know,” the teacher said. “She would not take no for an answer. Any question or problem I had, she took the time to help me through it. I have never had a teaching colleague do that for me before. Thomas Jefferson High School and the Council Bluffs Community School District are extremely lucky to have her as a teacher and mentor to so many.”

Another colleague’s nomination sums up Denise’s dedication to her work, saying, “Denise is a driving force for STEM in the Council Bluffs Community School District. She is always willing to learn new skills to better help her students prepare for the ever-changing IT field. She has given up her nights, weekends and summers to help her students succeed. She exemplifies every aspect of Excellence in Teaching.”

Looking back at lessons learned during her time as an educator, Denise said, “The experiences of teaching go beyond knowing the material you are teaching and include such things as being an advisor, mentor and listener. It is incredibly rewarding to guide and help young students find their passions and not only help them grow but to learn from them myself to become a better teacher and person.”

Becky Liston

College View Elementary

Becky Liston has been teaching with Council Bluffs School District for seven years. She is currently a kindergarten teacher at College View. Before coming to her current position, Becky taught kindergarten at Edison Elementary for five years and Nebraska City for 16 years. Becky holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and early childhood education from the University of Nebraska at Kearney and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Peru State College. She was selected as the 2019 Council Bluffs Schools’ Teacher of the Year and the 2019 Schatz Book Trust Teacher of the Year.

Becky’s nominations paint a picture of a dedicated, creative and extremely generous educator. Her ability to create engaging learning opportunities within any conditions, provide mentorship to her fellow educators and connect lessons to service in the community all make her an inspiring educator who consistently creates environments for learning to thrive.

One nominator illustrates Becky’s ability to excel regardless of any circumstance: “As a parent, sending our youngest child to kindergarten in 2021 was not a comfortable feeling. In what was a chaotic year of navigating back and forth for all, the blessing was who our child received as a kindergarten teacher. Becky Liston is simply phenomenal. I can speak all day long on the flexibility, compassion and positivity she showed throughout the year.”

Becky’s lessons also engage her students and impress parents with their thoughtfulness and creativity. Nominators describe a “Push and Pull – Motion” lesson that was taught through a sledding day, which was one of the highlights of kindergarten year.

One parent says, “With all of the other pressure on teachers last year, the fact that this was a priority, and all the extra work that went into this — it was so impressive.”

Another example of her creative lessons incorporated a cereal drive for New Visions Homeless Shelter. In order to learn force and motion, students collected boxes of cereal and then created a domino path in the middle of the school.

One parent shares, “The screams of joy of the children and the excitement of the learning was so contagious. This not only taught our children the knowledge that was needed but also showed them the greater good of giving back to those in need.”

Becky’s influence travels beyond her classroom. She is a leader in her school and district, as two colleagues highlight in their nomination: “Becky can be found in the halls of College View long before the school day begins and long after the students have left. She is a leader in the building for her peers, and many colleagues seek her expertise and guidance on many issues. Teachers throughout our district also seek out Becky because of her reputation as an awesome teacher. Becky keeps parents informed about instruction, school events and little stories about their children via her class Facebook page every day. She is involved in students’ events and activities outside of the classroom. And she is generous in our community and inspires students to take action to help others such as a cereal drive for New Vision Homeless Services, a blanket drive for Promise for Paws and many other organizational drives. We at College View are truly blessed to have such a wonderful teacher and role model for our students – as well as ourselves.”

When asked to reflect on her experiences as an educator, Becky said, “It means so much to me to be honored for a job that I am so passionate about. My job requires teamwork, and I am blessed to collaborate daily with an amazing village. In my role as a kindergarten teacher, I am there to generate a love for learning that I can only hope will continue as they grow older.”

Traci Stoop

Abraham Lincoln High School

Traci Stoop has been teaching in the Council Bluffs Community School District for 12 years and is currently a science teacher for anatomy and physiology, biology, and forensic science at Abraham Lincoln High School. Before coming to the Council Bluffs Community School District, Traci taught biotechnical engineering through Project Lead the Way and was a finalist for the Albert Einstein Fellowship for Science Educators in Washington, D.C., where she had the chance to interview with NASA. Traci holds a bachelor’s degree in secondary science education from Midland University and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Alongside her teaching, she has been involved in coaching girls cross country and track for 11 years, and she now serves as the head coach for both programs.

Nominators highlight the energy, creativity and dedication of Traci as she coaches young adults in the classroom, on the track and in their daily lives. As one colleague states, “If you find yourself roaming the hallways of Abraham Lincoln High School on any given day, there is a strong chance that you will hear students buzzing about their ‘favorite teacher,’ Mrs. Stoop.”

Traci consistently creates hands-on and real-life lessons that engage her students and provide them with meaningful application of subject matter. One nominator shares that during a human biology unit, Traci invited a neurosurgeon out of Kansas City to join the class so that students could ask questions and explore a career pathway related to the content. You might also find Traci’s students lying in the hallways on giant pieces of paper to trace the outline of their classmates for biology or learning about the cardiovascular system by running stairs and doing push-ups to record their blood oxygen levels.

Outside of the classroom, Traci has coached both the cross country and girls track programs for over a decade. One colleague notes that “It is well known that Mrs. Stoop will physically go out of her way to provide whatever means necessary to ensure that her athletes don’t miss out on a valuable experience. She coordinated with parents and building administration to provide daily rides to practices and meets for a student who did not have the means to do so on their own. It’s an example of Mrs. Stoop recognizing the true potential of a student and sacrificing her time to improve our building’s culture.”

The impact Traci has on her students is immense, as a former student’s nomination shows: “Mrs. Stoop is one of the most selfless teachers I have ever met. She always goes above and beyond to make relationships with each student so they feel welcomed at school and in class. She is dedicated, hardworking and all-around a great teacher. She is one of the reasons I am currently in school to become a teacher!”

Traci also serves as a role model for her fellow educators. A colleague says, “I have admired Mrs. Stoop and her ability to lead and mentor young adults from the moment I met her. Her capacity to build authentic relationships with her students is unmatched. She is an asset to our community, our school and my own life. I am so proud to call her a colleague. This school would not be the same without her influence and her natural ability to lead.”

As Traci considered her career as an educator, she said, “Education should and can be fun. Each day I try to bring positivity, engagement and happiness to students’ lives. I love being someone students can turn to for life advice, a light-hearted joke and an uplifting lesson. I’m equally as thankful for the positivity that is reciprocated through the students that I teach and coach.”

Nathan Van Zante

Lewis Central Middle School

Nathan Van Zante is in his third year of teaching eighth-grade science at Lewis Central Middle School. Nathan holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a middle school math and science endorsement from Central College, and he is currently finishing his master’s degree in STEM education from the University of Iowa. Nathan, along with two of his colleagues, have started a plastics manufacturing program called “Titan Plastics,” which teaches students how to create products from people’s used plastic. He is also the co-sponsor of Lewis Central’s Leadership Academy Chapter.

In his short time at Lewis Central Middle School, Nathan has impressed all those around him with his energy for science, creative lessons and commitment to creating the most engaging learning environment possible for all students.

Nathan doesn’t waste any time in showing his students how exciting learning can be. The first week of school, Nathan teaches the concept of inertia by lying underneath a bed of nails while another teacher crushes a cinder block on top of the bed of nails with a sledgehammer. Following that demonstration, he consistently provides engaging opportunities for his students, including making his room completely dark for light experiments or turning an exercise bike into a generator so students can learn about resistance and electrical energy flow. As one colleague states, “These activities get students excited and working to discover how all the topics he covers can be connected to hands-on activities.”

Nathan is dedicated to providing students with all learning opportunities that are available, and this means making sure that there are also available resources for these opportunities. Not only does he write successful grant proposals for Titan Plastics, but he also has helped a Level 3 teacher win a grant to bring science to her classroom through a variety of activities that students can engage with in her room. By creating these opportunities for students, other doors are opened for them, such as the chance to present at the Iowa State Fair or present to the governor and legislators in Des Moines. Because of Nathan’s leadership, “students at LCMS have the luxury of being a part of something truly unique in the nation.”

One colleague noted, “His energy and love for teaching are obvious to everyone on a daily basis, and I can’t think of anyone I have worked with in my 25 years of teaching who would be more deserving of an award like this.”

Another colleague shared, “From the very first day of working with Nathan, I have been in awe of him on a regular basis. I’ve met and worked with hundreds of science teachers in my 37 years in education, and he is without a doubt in the top 1% in the nation. His first hobby is science. His next hobby is science. He spends the vast majority of his time researching new ways to make any concept exciting for the students, as well as a challenging learning experience.”

When asked to reflect on his experiences as an educator, Nathan said, “I really do have the best job. I’ve been working with some incredible people over these past few years, including the educators, the businesses that support our programs or the students who make my job all worth it. All of them helped me become the educator I am today, and for that I am grateful.”


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