For years, Raytheon Missile Systems has been a champion for education, sponsoring math nights, mentoring students and partnering with schools for innovative projects.

Though approximately half of its giving efforts are already devoted to education, the defense company is stepping up its game with the Raytheon Leaders in Education Awards.

The honor, which recognizes three teachers for outstanding classroom performance, leadership on campus and in the community and supporting their peers, comes with a $2,500 prize and a matching monetary gift for their schools.

The educators — Ashley Reed Curtis of Vail Unified School District, August “Sandy” Merz III of the Tucson Unified School District and Cymry DeBoucher of Amphitheater Public Schools — have a combined 67 years of teaching experience.

They will be recognized Jan. 7 during an education summit to address the challenges and opportunities of today’s teacher. The summit is dubbed “Let’s Talk ED: Teacher Workforce.”

Raytheon, along with Tucson Values Teachers, the Southern Arizona Leadership Council and other community partners, are putting on the event featuring state and national experts discussing solutions to retain quality teachers and restore respect to the profession.

It’s important to not only Raytheon, which needs a qualified pool of candidates to continue operations, it is also important to the community at large, said Raytheon Vice President of Communications Jon Kasle.

“We recognize our nation’s highest performing teachers make an impact far beyond their teaching of students on a day-to-day basis,” Kasle said. “Their presence, their leadership — these kinds of things can be felt throughout their schools, their school systems and their communities.

“Supporting education is one of the most important things we can do. It ensures our industry and our company has a pipeline of talent that we can consider for our future generation workforce.”

MEET THE WINNERS

Cymry DeBoucher is the most veteran teacher of the bunch with 30 years of experience.

A gifted specialist at Canyon del Oro High School, DeBoucher teaches two levels of honors internship, as well as International Baccalaureate visual arts and film.

As an advocate for gifted students, DeBoucher has organized conferences for families and educators, and has offered teacher training to best meet students’ needs.

Texana Sonnefeld‘s children are two of many who have benefited from DeBoucher’s commitment to service.

Though she only directly taught one of Sonnefeld’s children, both would say she is one of the teachers that they credit for helping to shape their lives, Sonnefeld said.

“Cymry takes the time to get to know each of her students and what makes them unique,” Sonnefeld said. “She was able to help my son see how his strengths could be used to overcome the things he saw as weaknesses.”

Because DeBoucher knows her students so well, she gets to know their families and was able to give guidance to Sonnefeld’s daughter several times, even following up later to see how things were going.

DeBoucher has also affected hundreds of students through the Odyssey of the Mind Program, which she introduced to the Amphitheater District when she came on board.

She grew the program, which develops creative problem-solving skills, from four teams at three schools to multiple teams at nearly every Amphi campus. Some of the students she coached now coach teams at their own children’s schools.

“Mrs. DeBoucher is well respected by all who come into contact with her because they quickly understand her commitment to excellence for students, for her belief in and inspiration of and for students, the individual progress she makes with our gifted students, and for her tireless efforts on behalf of her students, her peers and her community,” said Amphi Superintendent Patrick Nelson.

August “Sandy” Merz III has spent 28 years at Safford K-8 School, teaching engineering, math, science and STEM electives.

Using various methods, Merz makes learning relevant, resulting in nearly all of his eighth-graders meeting or exceeding grade level standards and earning high school credit.

“He knows what he provides students today can open doors for them tomorrow,” said Kathleen Wiebke, executive director of Arizona K12 Center where Merz serves on the Teacher Solutions Team.

“While I suspect Sandy could take his skills and knowledge and use them in the private sector, he continues to teach because he knows the difference he makes and the potential in his students.”

Merz has mastered not only the art of teaching, he also mentors colleagues at Safford and writes articles for national education publications and blogs about classroom management, getting to know students, being a teacher leader and building a culture of achievement.

“He is open to new ideas, questions the status quo and collaborates well with his colleagues,” Safford Principal Steven Gabaldon said.

Ashley Reed Curtis is a fifth-grade teacher at Vail Academy and High School. She’s been in education for nine years, but continues to hone her craft by regularly attending professional development courses and seeking out learning opportunities.

Curtis shares that knowledge with her peers — both new and experienced — to elevate the level of teaching for students outside of her own classroom.

In the classroom, Curtis instills that same love of learning in her students.

“Ms. Curtis is one of those teachers who inspires student after student to exceed,” her colleague, Joshua Burke, said.

“I can see in their faces signs of great exuberance for learning. They have extreme respect for her and it shows.”

Sarah Webb has had three children go through Curtis’ classroom and has seen her form connections with each one.

“She by far surpasses the expectation I have come to have of what a teacher is and should be,” Webb said. “She is professional, poised, well rounded, and I would consider her an elite.”

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@tucson.com or 573-4175. On Twitter: @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.