WASHINGTON -He could have used the cash prize to pay off some of his $60,000 in student loans. Or put it toward a down payment on a home. And there was the dream spring break vacation he hoped to take with his husband to Hawaii.
But when Justin Lopez-Cardoze, 30, was named the District of Columbia's 2020 Teacher of the Year, he knew exactly what he would do with the money that came with the honor: give it back to his students.
The seventh-grade science teacher at Capital City Public Charter School plans to use most of his $7,500 prize - $5,000, to be precise - to help send a graduating senior interested in science to college.
The rest will go to his mother who is recovering from heart surgery in North Carolina.
Lopez-Cardoze said his own finances are stretched, but each month he has enough to cover rent and student loan payments with his teacher salary. At Capital City, the average teacher earned $52,230 in 2018, according to city data.
"The moment I found out that I was nominated for the award, I knew I wanted to use the cash reward as an opportunity to start a scholarship," Lopez-Cardoze said. "That's what motivated me to put my all into the application."
Lopez-Cardoze said an unexpected scholarship his senior year of high school enabled him to attend college, earn a master's degree - and eventually lead a science classroom in D.C.'s Fort Totten neighborhood at Capital City Public Charter.
During Lopez-Cardoze's teenage years, his father, who fled El Salvador during a civil war in the 1980s, struggled with addiction. Money was tight. The future uncertain.
"It was bad," he said. "It was really bad. I viewed school as my safe haven."
But Lopez-Cardoze said a few teachers in high school recognized the struggles he faced at home in Durham, North Carolina, and believed in him. He competed for a state scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Maybe, he said, the scholarship he established - the acronym-heavy CCPCS LoCa STEM Scholarship - will catapult a student at the school to the same success he found. He aspires to double his $5,000 contribution through fundraising.
"It changed my life when I got that scholarship," Lopez-Cardoze said.
Nearly 100 of D.C.'s 8,000 public school teachers were nominated to be teacher of the year. A selection committee from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education interviewed Lopez-Cardoze, visited his classroom, read his application essays, reviewed his letter of recommendations.
Lopez-Cardoze will be the District's nominee for the National Teacher of the Year competition. Last year, Kelly Harper - a third-grade teacher at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Southwest Washington - was the first D.C. teacher to be named a finalist in the national competition since 2005. A teacher at a detention center in Richmond took the top honor.
"When we are selecting our teacher of the year, we are looking for educators who are, of course, good teachers in terms of instruction," state Superintendent Hanseul Kang said. "But we are also looking for teachers who inspire their students."
When Lopez-Cardoze looks at his middle-school students, he sees himself. Like him, many of their families emigrated from El Salvador. He encourages students to find personal connections and meaning in the material they are learning.
There was the time a student with sickle cell anemia approached him in 2017 upset about news that the government was making cuts to the National Institutes of Health.
Lopez-Cardoze rallied his students and developed an organization that educates the public about genetic diseases prevalent in communities of color. Each year during the genetics portion of the curriculum, students update the organization's website with information about genetic disorders and the relevant science behind them.
Lopez-Cardoze said he tries to be vulnerable with his students, letting his class know when he makes mistakes.
"I say fail as quickly as possible, and learn," he said.
Amy Bonilla, 12, said Lopez-Cardoze is a remarkable teacher because he articulates his own emotions - and asks students to do the same.
At the end of class Thursday, Lopez-Cardoze explained why he was extra strict that day as students worked on projects they would present to their families at school.
"The reason why I'm strict, and the reason why I'm no nonsense today, it's because I wanted to see you succeed in this," Lopez-Cardoze said.
When he saw a typically social boy sitting alone on a couch in the classroom, he asked him how he was doing. When the student said he was fine, Lopez-Cardoze still sensed something was amiss and made a note to follow up with him the next day.
"He likes to express his feelings. He always asks us if we're okay," Amy said. "He's the first teacher I've had that's like that."
Jonathan Duncan, 12, said Lopez-Cardoze has made science fun, recalling the song the teacher taught students so they would understand how photosynthesis works in plants. Ninth-graders, two years removed from Lopez-Cardoze's class, still sing the song in the hallways.
"He's fun with it, it's new stuff everyday," Jonathan said. "There's something different about his class. Everyone just gets happier when they're here."
Lopez-Cardoze said he is confident his $5,000 is being well spent on a scholarship - even if he could use the money himself.
"I'm living my dream job," he said. "I wouldn't trade that for the world."