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Kentucky school bus driver wows 9,000 colleagues

NEA award winner Helen Cottongim: ‘We must now turn our hopes into action!’

NEW ORLEANS - July 04, 2010 -

At a gathering of 9,000 educators on the nation’s birthday, the fireworks came courtesy of a school bus driver from Kentucky.

In a lively and emotional speech to delegates at the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly (RA) here in New Orleans, Helen Cottongim—NEA’s Education Support Professional of the Year for 2010— insisted that the challenges facing public education are no match for the commitment and caring of the nation’s teachers and other school employees. “Public education and the future of America’s children are counting on all of us—you and me—pulling together to provide our students the best education possible,” said the Florence Ken., native.  “We now must turn our hopes into action!”

“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.” 

As part of her award, Cottongim received a $10,000 grant, half of which she donated to the American Kidney Foundation.  Thanks to matching grants, that donation ended up being worth $15,000, an important investment in a cause close to her heart because of her son’s kidney disease.

Cottongim , the second school employee from the Bluegrass State to win the prestigious national award, is known to students as a compassionate and committed bus driver, and she has had a profound effect on many of them in a career that has spanned 36 years.

“I have driven three generations of students,” she said. “I knew their dogs and cats, grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncle. I probably knew much more than their families than their parents could have imagined. The kids told me stuff that if their parents knew, they would not be able to face me in the grocery store!” she joked during her address.

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

Nearly 9,000 educators from every state are in New Orleans for NEA’s  RA, which runs through July 6. The RA is the top decision-making body for the 3.2 million-member NEA. Delegates set Association policy and address issues facing schools, students and the teaching profession.

For more information about ESPs and their role in America’s public schools, visit
Photos from Helen Cottongim’s address are available by visiting

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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: Stacey Grissom  (202) 486-3491,