By JEAN CLAVETTE GRAVESPublic affairs specialistFORT POLK, La. — Dione Bradford, principal, Parkway Elementary School was honored recently at the Cecil J. Picard Educator of Excellence Gala by the Louisiana Department of Education as the 2021 Principal of the Year.Bradford, the daughter of a retired Army officer and two Louisiana educators, will work to build networks among principals across the state and represent the state at the regional and national levels. As winner of the coveted title, Bradford said she plans to bridge gaps and build relationships across the state to benefit all students in Louisiana.The Louisiana Department of Education honors students, teachers and principals annually in partnership with Dream Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Principals. The nomination process begins each school year with nomination packets due in mid-October. The competition for principal of the year is stiff. There are 70 school districts in the state of Louisiana. Each district nominates three principals who exemplify excellence in education at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Of the 210 individuals nominated, the field is narrowed to nine finalists and one winner is selected from each category. Of those finalists, one principal is selected as the overall winner.Vernon Parish School Board Superintendent James Williams said winning this honor is a tremendous achievement and a testament to Bradford’s dedication to children, parents and stakeholders.He said Bradford exemplified the characteristics of a hardworking and dedicated employee from the beginning.“Ms. Bradford is a very deserving recipient for the State of Louisiana Principal of the Year,” he said. “Ms. Bradford works tirelessly to strive for continued and consistent academic improvement when it comes to accountability for her school. She has very high expectations for her students, faculty and staff at Parkway Elementary. She leads by example and truly loves her students, staff and school. She has spent her entire life helping children.”According to Bradford’s biography on the Department of Education’s award write up, the leadership she provides to Parkway continues to set the standard for academic achievement. Consistently receiving high ratings, the school was recognized last year for Top Gains of 10.1 growth points and the most growth in the district with a school performance increase of 9.6 points.What this means is that at Parkway, each student increased overall test scores and performance between third and fourth grade, said Tiffany Koch, School Liaison Officer for the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk. This distinction is reflected by two components of performance standards that resulted in increased end of year test scores and student growth.“As an educator by trade this an amazing accomplishment for Ms. Bradford,” Koch said. “It showcases her leadership and how she leads her staff with the mantra that at Parkway: Everyone is Loved, Everyone Learns and Everyone Grows. It’s an absolute honor to work with such a dedicated leader and educator as we provide quality education for our military Families during their time here at Fort Polk”With nearly 600 students, Parkway is more than 90% military affiliated and on average gains and loses five to seven students monthly. Despite the challenges of a transient population, Bradford remains resilient and ensures that a notable learning impact is made for all students. Bradford said the majority of Parkway’s staff is also military affiliated.“They get it, they understand that kids serve too and their Families need support in ways that maybe they don’t need in other areas of the state,” she said.She explained that the military counselors and staff work hard to ensure that the transition of military students as they move in and out of the district is a smooth one.Col. Ryan Roseberry, Fort Polk garrison commander, said education for military children is one of the most important issues for incoming Army personnel.“Education is the number one quality of life issue for our military Families and knowing that our principal at Parkway Elementary is the Principal of the Year is a big lift for our Families and their confidence in our school system,” he said.Bradford said she wanted to be a dentist growing up. As the daughter of two teachers, she thought she’d be the one to break tradition and take a new path.She discovered her love for the educational growth and development of children while a student at Deridder High School. She had a part-time job helping out at the Mother Goose Day Care center.“I fell in love with those kids and what I was able to do working at that day care center during the summers,” Bradford said. “My freshman year at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, I changed my major from biology to education.”Her father, Stacy Bradford, a former communications officer and Army retiree, began his teaching career at South Polk Elementary School when Dione was a third grader in Deridder.“I’ve watched Dione grown into who she is,” Stacy, now a fourth grade teacher at Parkway, said. “She was destined for something like this. She’s always had a great attitude, she always does her very best and she has always reached for excellence.”He said not only does she strive for personal excellence, she encourages and pushes those around her to maximize their full potential. “I think the state made a very good choice in her selection because she is an all-around great person to work with and to work for,” he said.Bradford said she began teaching third grade at West Leesville Elementary. A photo of her first class, she affectionately refers to as the original Bradford’s Best, is proudly displayed in her office.“In 2002, when I was 21 years old, I got the keys to room 21, and I had 21 students in my first class,” she said. “I am the same Dione Bradford today. Those poor babies in that picture, they didn’t know that I was learning right alongside them, but I made sure they knew that each and every one of them was special and had potential and that they were the best.”She still refers to her students as Bradford’s Best because she encourages all of her students to do their best in school and in everything they do.“Every student is top notch,” she said.She continued in the classroom for 14 years and completed a master’s degree in Educational Leadership from McNeese State University before joining the administrative staff at South Polk Elementary School as the assistant principal in 2016.When the school closed its doors and was replaced by Parkway Elementary, she continued as assistant principal until her promotion in 2017.Being Principal of the Year is more than just honoring the individual, Bradford said.“The title will allow me to bring light to Parkway and our district,” she said. “Vernon Parish is always in the top five and this is our opportunity to put our district in the spotlight. We have the hardest working teachers in the state. We are at the top of our game in Vernon Parish.”Bradford was nominated by her peers in Vernon Parish as Elementary School Principal of the Year. In addition to a banana split she treated herself to and the trophy she received, the principal of the year title provides a platform and voice to share successes with other school principals, build networks and work to improve the quality of education for every child in the state. She said she will have the opportunity to explore Louisiana, meet with other school administrators and travel to Washington, D.C.Bradford vouches for the educational standards and the highly qualified faculty and staff in Vernon Parish.“If you are looking for a district that puts people first, that adheres to Tier 1 curriculum, this is the school district for you,” she said. “If it becomes a community and school effort, we will continue to get better. It is a team effort. When we say our stakeholders mean the world to us in Vernon Parish, we mean that.”Bradford said she defines stakeholders as the students, parents, teachers, district leaders and community members who work hard every day.“When you are talking about our district, you are talking about all of us. We all have a vested interest in the success of our schools and our students,” she said.Bradford attributes her win to her team. She said her relationship with the JRTC and Fort Polk leadership is strong.“This honor is the current reality for our school and our district,” she said. “This is an opportunity to highlight the strides made together, for the love of the kids that made this possible. This recognition is about changing attitudes. Bradford said win or lose, the passion for education and for students is what motivates and drives her every day.Editor’s note: To learn more about Tier 1 curriculum, educational initiatives in Louisiana as well as the Teacher and Principal of the Year competition visit the Department of Education website at www.louisianabelieves.com.