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Kentucky school bus driver wins prestigious national education award

Helen Cottongim is named NEA’s 2010 ESP of the Year, receives grants for charity work

WASHINGTON - March 12, 2010 -

Helen Cottongim, a school bus driver from Florence, Ken., was honored as the National Education Association’s 2010 ESP of the Year—becoming only the second from the Bluegrass State to win the prestigious education award.

America’s nearly 3 million education support professionals—more commonly known as ESPs—comprise 43 percent of the public school workforce. There are nine types of ESPs who work ‘behind the scenes’ at the country’s public schools and higher education institutions.  From bus drivers and teacher’s aides to food service workers and custodians, ESPs keep schools and colleges clean, safe and healthy.

“Education support professionals are the glue who hold our public schools together,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.  “Without them, education in America’s public schools would come to a screeching halt.  The school doors would be closed and a student’s options in life would be drastically limited. Helen Cottongim is a shining example of the ESPs who work tirelessly to make great public schools for every student.” 

Cottongim is known for her compassion and commitment to the students—most of whom have special needs—often buying hats and gloves for those who rode her school bus in the winter.  As a result, she has left a profound effect on many of the students she has transported over her 36-year career.

(Click to watch a slide show of Cottongim winning her award)

“Helen is always the first to lend a hand to those in need—supporting food drives and homeless shelters among others,” said Sharron Oxendine, president of the Kentucky Education Association.  “She never lets anyone get by with saying, ‘I’m only a bus driver’ or ‘I’m only a custodian.’  Helen is a person who is proud of what she does and believes all employees should take pride in their work—regardless of the job they do.” 

The ESP of the Year award is one of the highlights of NEA’s annual ESP Conference, which is designed to provide professional development opportunities for participants to sharpen their leadership skills.  As part of her honor, Cottongim will be awarded a grant that she is donating to the National Kidney Foundation, a non-profit organization of which she became an avid support after her son became gravely ill and had to be placed on dialysis. 

As a leader, Cottongim is acutely aware and concerned about the budget cuts hampering school districts nationwide and their impact on students and families in the affected communities.  For instance, conference host Las Vegas lost a staggering 550 ESP jobs when budget cuts hit in the fall. But the situation is not unique to Las Vegas.  In city after city, and district after district, ESP jobs have been cut and hours reduced.  Elsewhere, privatization threatens ESP jobs while threatening to force even more cuts and squeeze out vital services for students.

“Many of us would like to be retiring, but the economy just gets worse, making it harder for our members to get by,” said Cottongim.  “These are the reasons that I continue to advocate for our issues.”

NEA is currently working with members of Congress to pass federal legislation that would raise awareness and recognition of ESPs to new levels.  Sponsored by Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and 56 co-sponsors, H.R. 2377 would establish and administer a National ESP of the Year similar to the National Teacher of the Year.

For more information about ESPs and their role in America’s public schools, visit

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The National Education Association is the nation's largest professional employee organization, representing 3.2 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers.

CONTACT: Staci Maiers  (202) 822-7823,