As an elementary school teacher for 20 years, June Apaza poured her energy into teaching children to read — whether it was at a one-room school house or in a traditional classroom.
“I loved teaching kids to read. I truly loved it,” said Apaza. “Reading opens up the world for all of us. It’s a great leveler. If kids really can read, they have access to all the knowledge of the world. There’s nothing like getting taken away by a good book—it can take us to places we may never get to otherwise."
Apaza has been the director of Education and Outreach at Sanford Underground Research Facility since 2015, and the director of CAMSE (Center for the Advancement of Math and Science Education) at Black Hills State University since 2006. This December, after a long career in education, she retired.
“I want to be able to spend time with my children,” Apaza said. “I want to be able to go Knoxville, Tenn., to see every concert my son is in.” Her son, she said with a fair amount of pride, is the principal bassoonist for the Knoxville Orchestra.
“June has done a tremendous job in Education and Outreach at Sanford Lab,” said Mike Headley, Sanford Lab director. “She’s brought the program to a whole new level. Under her leadership, the team developed an excellent K-12 curriculum program that benefits students and teachers across the State of South Dakota. I’m very proud of the work she and her team have done and wish her the best in her retirement.”
At Sanford Lab, Apaza focused on researchand development of curriculum modules, assembly presentations and field trips for K-12 students, as well as teacher development programs.
“When I got here, the team had informal programming pieces in place, but I knew we needed formalized programs that teachers could rely on, programs that would benefit students and teachers and be seen as useful by the education world in South Dakota,” Apaza said. “And I wanted them to be fun, engaging and informative.”
That’s not surprising, considering that was the same approach she took as a teacher right out of school. Armed with her degree, a passion for reading and a desire to inspire every child she encountered, Apaza arrived at Lincoln School, a one-room schoolhouse in Haakon County, S.D., where she taught Kindergarten through 8 Grade. She had 14 students—four from the same family.
“The mother would come to class every year and say, ‘we’re moving the cattle north.’ So, that meant the children also moved north and into another one-room school somewhere closer to the cattle,” Apaza said.
Teaching in a one-room school is a bit different from traditional classroom teaching. She had to prioritize not only lessons, but who needed the most attention.
“The biggest priority was the younger children. I needed to teach them to read and introduce them to the basic concepts of mathematics,” Apaza said. “The older kids had to be pretty independent — even in terms of reading and math. Once they got to be pretty good readers, I just had to make sure they had something good to read then spend a few minutes with them to see what they were reading and whether they liked and understood it. But really, I always thought the most important thing was that these little kids learned to read.”
From Haakon County, Apaza moved to Hot Springs where she was the fifth-grade reading teacher. There, she discovered many of the boys had a real aversion to reading, which she blames on Basal readers (textbooks used to teach reading and associated skills to schoolchildren, but aren’t very inspiring, she said).
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“My goal was to turn every Fifth-Grade boy into a reader,” Apaza said. “I knew I was on track when parents would say, ‘my kid is reading at home. What did you do to him?’”
Apaza’s passion for teaching, however, did not extend to cursive writing. It simply wasn’t a priority in the larger scheme of things.
“In my classroom, I never made anyone use cursive. I just wanted them to write,” she said.
Apaza’s next stop was at TIE (Technology and Innovation in Education), where she spent nine years creating professional development programs for teachers. While there, she was asked to write a high-level math grant. To better serve her audience, she went back to school to get a Ph.D.—this time the emphasis was on math. And that eventually led to her roles as director of CAMSE at BHSU and Education & Outreach at Sanford Lab.
“When I was first asked to work at Sanford Lab, I told Mike Headley, ‘I don’t know anything about science’ — I just didn’t think I was the right person. But Mike said, ‘we have all kinds of people who know the science. We need someone who understands education.’ I could understand that.”
And so, she agreed. Over the years she and her team have developed and delivered a “program of resources that teachers and students in the state and region look to as a way to supplement their existing science programs and experiences,” Apaza said. “The South Dakota Department of Education looks to us as leaders in this area and realize that we are on the cutting edge of science education.”
Through it all, Apaza has never forgotten why she got into education.
“It’s got to be fun and interesting,” she said. “And that’s my main role — I’m the fun cop. We have a lot of scientific people on our team who do a great job developing programs. But I’m more interested in drawing a kid into science than making sure he has a deep scientific experience. So, I balance out the team.”
She’s had a lot of success in every education position she’s had. She believes it’s because she understood that children were her priority.
“I’ve always, no matter what I was doing — whether working in a one-room school house, or with this team — I’ve always tried to think of what’s best for students before anything else,” she said. “I’ve got this really strong passion for making kids readers, so, I learned what I needed to know to make that happen. I did the same when I saw kids being underserved in mathematics. I spend a lot of time thinking about what a person can do and have always been able to put kids first and students first and to advocate for students who have the greatest need.”
But she does have one regret.
“I always felt I should have learned more, that I should have been more willing to stay up late and read research,” she said, then added. “There was so much to learn and I couldn’t quite learn it all.”