An agricultural mechanics teacher at Ronan High School was awarded a $50,000 national teaching prize from Harbor Freight Tools recognizing excellence in skilled trades education on Monday.
Casey Lunceford, in his fourth year of teaching at Ronan, is one of 18 educators selected to be recipients of the 2021 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence.
He is the first educator to receive the honor in the state of Montana.
“I don’t think I can stress enough the fact that I think we got it because of the community involvement and how much they know that this program is a key to success for our students,” Lunceford said.
Thirty-five thousand of the $50,000 will be allocated to the school’s agricultural mechanics program. Lunceford will receive the remaining $15,000 to be used personally.
Harbor Freight Tools is awarding $1 million in prizes nationwide. The Tools for Schools award is a program of the Smidt Foundation, established by company founder Eric Smidt with the goal of advancing trades education in public high schools.
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“Among the key things we came to appreciate during the pandemic is the value of hands-on learning and the incredible resilience and commitment of our teachers,” Smidt said. “We are grateful that these outstanding winners and thousands of educators like them across the country are developing tomorrow’s skilled workforce.”
Lunceford got a call from Harbor Freight Tools informing him that he had been selected as a finalist for the award, but he was not aware of the celebratory assembly his colleagues planned on Monday.
He thought Monday’s assembly was only to celebrate his coworker, Jesse Gray, a technology teacher who was recognized as the 2021 Montana Technology Student Association Advisor of the Year.
“So we have a second special surprise today,” said Kevin Kenelty, the principal of Ronan High School.
“I’m very honored to be here this afternoon to share some very exciting news about an amazing teacher and his incredible skills-trades program,” he continued, as Lunceford’s family emerged from a corner of the gym wielding a large check and pushing a yellow tool box to the center of the court.
Students and teachers in the gym erupted into applause and cheering following the announcement.
“That was great, just because I know the kids are pretty excited about mechanics ... they’re coming around on the fact that they know there’s a lot of jobs out there, and I think they’re starting to realize that they can stay home in this valley and still make a good living,” Lunceford said.
Lunceford intends to use the money to buy new equipment for welding and additional safety tools. He mentioned that the program’s air compressors could also stand to be replaced.
“I’m afraid I’ve got to learn just as fast as the kids do, but I think we’ll get to the point where we’ve got a chance to try some stuff that we haven’t had yet,” Lunceford said.
Lunceford’s curriculum covers a variety of subjects including welding, small engines, electrical wiring, hydraulics and more. The wide offerings allow students to explore different options that can lead to internships to prepare them for their future careers.
His classes take on large projects, like a recent overhaul of the Lake County Fairgrounds hog barn and horse stock trailers. Lunceford credits these hands-on projects for helping his students gain real-world experience.
Over his career at Ronan High School, he’s brought the graduation rate for skilled trades education up from 90% to 100% by the end of last school year.
Lunceford’s students were among the most excited about the award.
“It’s been really good (being in Lunceford’s classes), you get to learn about different stuff every day and some of our classes head out to the stock yards and get to work on those so it gives us some hands on work before actually going into any sort of job,” said James Kenelty, a junior at Ronan High School.
This year, the 2021 Hard Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence drew over 700 applications from 49 states. The finalists were narrowed down through three rounds of judging by independent panels of experts from industry, trades, education, philanthropy and civic leadership. The field was narrowed to 61 finalists by July.