Two longtime Waukesha school district staff to be honored with lifetime excellence awards
Helgert, Schlais will be recognized by the Waukesha Education Foundation Sunday
Students, instructors and administrators have come and gone.
But over the years and decades, Mark Helgert and Bonnie Schlais were and still are constants in the Waukesha School District and community.
Schlais is approaching 50 years in the district, while Helgert, who recently retired, spent more than three decades in a Waukesha classroom.
For their dedication, the two will be honored with Lifetime Excellence in Education awards at the Waukesha Education Foundation's "A Celebration of Excellence" program Sunday at the Waukesha North High School fieldhouse.
"There's such a tradition of excellence in the Waukesha School District I really have no idea why they picked me, but I'm deeply touched," Helgert said. "I don't want to sound (ungrateful), but I think why I am in this league? It's wonderful to get recognized and to be on a program with Bonnie is amazing."
Sharing his music love
However, after reviewing Helgert's resume and speaking with him, it's not hard to see why he's on this program.
There are not many individuals more invested in the Waukesha music community than Helgert. As the band director, he led the Butler Middle School music department for 34 years.
"I have always been a very serious believer in the power of music in terms of nourishing the mind and the soul," said Helgert, whose wife, Gwenda, recently retired, also taught in the district for many years as an art teacher at Lowell Elementary.
"So much of our culture is expressed in music. I can't think of anything in the world that's not united by music. So to be able to share that with children and provide a safe environment, where your talents are respected, it was a perfect job."
Other jobs included being a founding member of the Waukesha Area Symphonic Band and teaching at then-Carroll College and the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha.
He's also in the Jazz Express Big Band, which plays at the Civic Band Summer Concert Series at Cutler Park.
Staying at Butler
His passion, however, has always been teaching at Butler Middle School.
"Teaching at the middle school level seemed to be the perfect level for me," Helgert said. "It seemed most like home. The learning curve is quite dramatic, but you see so much improvement on a day-to-day basis than you would with professionals."
Some of his students have gone onto professional careers in the music business and some were even pursuing this during their middle school days.
"For any student that walked through my classroom, it was my job to enhance whatever skills they had and give them a safe environment to do their best," Helgert said. "It's incredible that I had a student play in the Milwaukee Symphony, but it's more incredible when old students come up to me in the grocery store and say I sat in the second to last chair playing the clarinet and band was my favorite class.
"Every child was always equally important. But I've learned more from my students than they learned from me."
Helgert is amazed at what the district is accomplishing in the music department, specifically the run of seven straight state marching band championships at Waukesha North and Waukesha West dominating at the state level before that.
"What they're doing at the high school level takes my breath away," Helgert said. "To see my former students be part of that is a great feeling. Elementary band directors are also second to none. My job was just not to mess it up before they got to high school."
That might be the humble side of him speaking. He has been named the Employee of the Month for the district twice, was recently nominated for International Educator of the Year by a prominent European education consortium and was accepted into Phi Beta Mu, the International Bandmaster's Fraternity.
Helgert, who retired four years ago due to health reasons, said his mentor was Jay Whitney, who previously taught at Butler Middle School.
Helgert is also a mentor for many, especially Waukesha North Marching Band Director Greg Redner.
"He has a magnetic personality that draws students into the music world," said Redner, who had Helgert as a teacher when he was a student at Butler. "He is an inspiration that has continued to shape my teaching throughout my career. Mark is one of the best personalities in music education."
Started in the '60s
Schlais is also one of the best, Helgert says.
She started in 1966 as a teacher at Banting Elementary School where she taught fifth and sixth grade. Schlais then spent three years at Bethesda School before turning her attention to a leadership role in the district.
She was the principal at Barstow (it closed after one year) and Saratoga Schools from 1979 to 1990. For the next 20 years Schlais was the principal at Randall Elementary, which was repurposed in the fall of 2010 as the district's new charter school, Waukesha STEM Academy.
Schlais is now in her fourth year as the principal at Hillcrest Elementary School.
"I can't think of anyone who has a better reputation than Bonnie," Helgert said. "When you talk to her and hear comments from colleagues and some of her friends on staff it's nothing but positive in the dedication she brought to the district."
Schlais says an important aspect to her longevity has been the others around her.
"Every place I have been I have had the opportunity to work with supportive and cooperative parents, great students, and most of all, the dedicated and professional staff members," said Schlais, who added that she never wanted to work anywhere else.
She said the "professionalism and dedication of the people" in the district are "outstanding."
"Of special importance to me are the strong relationships I have had with the many people I have worked with," she said. "Many of these work relationships have developed into true friendships."
From school closings to new schools, administrators, technology and trends, Schlais has seen it all.
But through it all, she was drawn to the classroom because of "the rewards of working with the children."
"There is nothing more rewarding than a hug from a young child or a former student coming back to share his or her successes," Schlais said. "Helping children learn is what it is all about."
At a glance
What: Waukesha Education Foundation's Celebration of Excellence
When: 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Waukesha North High School, 2222 Michigan Ave.
Cost: Free, pre-register at www.waukeshaeducationfoundation.org
Info: The event will highlight student achievements in the Waukesha Public Schools. Projects funded by the WEF will be on display. In addition to the WEF honoring Schlais and Helgert, the foundation will honor GuitarTown as its community partner in education. General Electric Company will also be honored as the WEF's Corporate Partner in Education. Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel is the guest speaker and will present the awards.
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