An unsuspecting Spokane middle school teacher received the surprise of her career Thursday – a prestigious national award and a $25,000 check to go with it.
Kymberly Larson was cheered like a rock star – standing ovation included – as her name was announced for the Milken Educator Award during an assembly at Shaw Middle School.
“Larson’s awesome,” kids yelled from the bleachers.
Larson, 40, who teaches seventh-grade science, is the only educator in Washington to receive the award this year.
The award goes to those who raise student achievement and create innovative ways to keep students engaged. The Milken Family Foundation honored 52 others, including a Boise teacher.
Since 1987, the awards have been given to about 2,300 educators in the U.S. The purpose of the award is to attract, retain and reward outstanding educators, state officials said.
“The funny thing is that during my first year of teaching I remember hearing about this award and thinking I will never, never, never be able to win that,” said Larson, who has taught for 13 years, including seven at Shaw.
Principal Chris Lynch, herself named Washington’s 2009 middle-level principal of the year by the Association of Washington School Principals, said Larson’s tenacity sets her apart.
“When her students aren’t getting what they need, she calls home to make sure they can stay after school,” Lynch said. “She’s the teacher Energizer bunny.”
Teachers who receive Milken awards usually have reputations in the community as good teachers, even before they’re honored, said Randy Dorn, state superintendent of public instruction.
Larson said Thursday she was shocked to receive her award.
It was kept secret from nearly everyone until the moment her name was announced. The Milken foundation and the state superintendent’s office worked with Lynch on a ruse to call everyone to the gymnasium for an assembly.
“I thought someone had donated a bunch of money (for a fundraiser),” Larson said.
The teacher shook as she spoke to the crowd. “I have to say it’s the staff, and you guys … oh, my gosh.”
Larson didn’t grow up knowing she wanted to teach. She thought she’d use mathematics in some other career field.
“As an elective, I took an education class, and I thought I might be good at this,” she said.
Her students describe her as fun and smart, someone who spends a lot of one-on-one time with them making sure they understand science.
The Milken awards, which have been called the Oscars of teaching, alternate between elementary and secondary educators each year. Spokane Public Schools teachers have claimed two in the past three years.
Erin Jones won the award in 2007. “It changed my whole life,” the former Rogers High School teacher said.
Shortly after receiving the Milken, Jones was hired by the state superintendent’s office to lead the center for improvement of student learning, a bridge between community and family, focusing on kids in poverty and minorities.
“Because of that work, I was promoted to assistant state superintendent for student achievement,” she said. “It all started with the Milken. It really gave me credibility.”