Educator, student advocate to receive Tony Hill Memorial Award

Michael Watkins, Santa Cruz County superintendent of schools, known for fighting for equity, social and economic justice, and bridge building

The fact that he knew Tony Hill well makes this award “all the more precious to me,” Michael Watkins said.

Michael Watkins, Santa Cruz County superintendent of schools and a tireless advocate for students, is this year’s winner of the eighth annual Tony Hill Memorial Award.

Watkins, who has a special place in his heart for special needs students,  will receive the award as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation on February 12 in downtown Santa Cruz.

This special honor recognizes individuals whose lives and actions exemplify the late Tony Hill’s work and legacy. Hill, a longtime advocate for social and economic justice in Santa Cruz County, was known for his skills as a community bridge-builder and mediator. He died in 2007 at age 62. Award recipients receive $500 to donate to the charity of their choice.

Melanie Stern, Tony Hill's widow and a member of the award selection committee, praised Watkins’s sincerity, hard work, and commitment.

She first met him in the early 1990s while she was serving as program manager and clinical director for Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance. She was part of a program for students who felt disenfranchised, at risk for gang involvement or already affiliated, whose needs were not being met in a traditional school setting. 

“I was impressed by Michael’s calm presence,” she recalled. “I felt he listened fully to each of us. Michael is an innovator, a big-picture thinker, and at that moment, I experienced his compassion and commitment for young people of color, those young people who did not have access to the resources or support to assist them in becoming healthy and productive citizens.”

She said Watkins shared Tony Hill’s “urgency” when it came to making a difference in young people’s lives.

“Tony knew Michael well, and they were similar, both fighting for equity, social and economic justice, and bridge building,” she said.

The fact that he knew Tony Hill well makes this award “all the more precious to me,” Watkins said.

Watkins’s work is far-ranging, but the award selection committee is praising him, in particular, for his work with special needs youth and restorative justice, and, in Watkins’s words, “trying to level the playing field for those who are a little less fortunate.”

He is also known for his work to increase the number of African Americans in administrative positions in schools. Watkins noted that there are only 28 African American school superintendents in 1,000 schools across the state. He also serves on the five-member California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, charged with improving outcomes in underperforming school districts.

Watkins now lives in Aptos, but he grew up in Oakland. His parents, who moved out of the South to improve their circumstances, were not college educated. He picked up on their strong work ethic, which stuck with him while he was starting his teaching career at a junior high school in Oakland. He gravitated toward special education, and developed a strong respect for fellow teachers who shared his commitment to the students.

“I’ve always gravitated to the ones who are less fortunate,” Watkins said. “I’ve worked in a children’s shelter, teaching educationally handicapped or emotionally disturbed students. What prompted me is a strong need. You just can’t create a special education teacher; it has to be a passion, a calling. I’ve learned so much from the special needs students. They’ve taught me, as much as I’ve taught them, about empathy, humor, and compassion. It was fun going to work because I learned a lot. I learned they really appreciate someone who is caring.”

Watkins plans to donate the $500 stipend to the Special Parents Information Network (SPIN), an organization that works with parents of special needs children to help them overcome challenges.

Past Tony Hill Award honorees include Jacob Martinez, founder of nonprofit Digital NEST; Deutron Kebebew, a former foster child who became a strong advocate for foster children; and the Rev. Deborah Johnson, founding minister and president of Inner Light Ministries.