Each year in schools across the nation, exemplary teachers get the surprise of their lives when they're honored with a $25,000 Milken Educator Award – an honorarium that's considered one of education's most coveted prizes.
This year on Feb. 6, the light shined on the nation's capital when the prestigious award, dubbed by Teacher Magazine as the "Oscar of Teaching," was bestowed upon the unsuspecting Jacqueline Simms, a third-grade teacher at Anne Beers Elementary School in Southeast. Simms, like her school family, believed the special assembly last Wednesday was about student achievement.
"I can't even begin to explain what it feels like to have won. I'm still in awe, amazed and surprised," said Simms. "As an educator, I always strive to do my very best . . . making sure that my students get the lesson that they're supposed to be learning on any given day."
Amid the cheers of family members, students, faculty and staff along with District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and others, gathered in the school's auditorium, Simms accepted the esteemed award as evidence of her exceptional teaching ability.
It was Henderson, however, who had the honor of announcing that Simms – who nearly collapsed upon hearing her name – had won.
"What a great day for DCPS," Henderson exclaimed. "I'm so proud of Ms. Simms for the work she does in her classroom every single day. She's an exceptional teacher – one who is making a difference and changing students' lives. Just by being the star that she is, she's showing everyone that DCPS can, and will help our students excel at the highest levels."
Simms, a graduate of Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest, has taught for the past 13 years. As for her award check, she can use it any way she pleases.
In the meantime, Simms heads up Beers' Incentive and Rewards program which acknowledges students for their exemplary conduct. Simms, who established a Saturday school for students in need of extra learning time, mentors student teachers and conducts home visits with parents during the summer to improve her school's relationships with them. She also penned Beers' affirmation statement which is recited every morning by students.
The Milken Family Foundation (MFF) has recognized and rewarded outstanding educators with $25,000 cash awards since 1987. The awards alternate every year between elementary and secondary school teachers, and what sets the Milken prize apart from others award programs is that recipients – selected for achievements during their early to mid-career – have no idea they've been chosen. That is, not until the announcement is made.
Conceived by Michael and Lowell Milken to attract, retain and motivate outstanding talent in the teaching profession, the program so far, has honored more than 2,500 educators.
Having started with recognition of a few teachers in California, the program over the years has become a nationwide project, devoting more than $135 million in awards and other teacher career funding.
"The idea behind these awards is that everyone likes to hand out prizes to our heroes," MFF co-founder Mike Milken said. "We give Grammys to musicians, gold medals to Olympians, Nobels to scientists [but] nothing assures the success of a nation more than education . . . we give too little recognition to the people with society's most important job – [and] nothing assures the success of a nation more than dedicated classroom teachers instilling a love of learning and sense of wonder in their students."
Beers Principal Gwendolyn Payton said Simms was definitely surprised by the honorarium.
"She had no idea," said Payton, 57. She added that Simms is the second Beers teacher in recent months to win a monetary award for teaching excellence. The other teacher, Valencia Hawkins, received $10,000, Payton said.
"Ms. Simms is an example of the quality and the level of commitment we have among the staff at Beers," said Payton. "Our school is a Rewards School [as the result of achievements that include high test scores] and [Ms. Simms] represents a culmination of what we are working so hard for . . . to me, this validates the fact that we have good teachers at Beers."
Beers PTA President Thomas Herndon, 42, added that "speaking from a parent's point of view, it makes us feel that we have made the correct choices. Any time one of our teachers is rewarded, means that all of our teachers are being awarded because [organizations like MFF] are choosing from a special group," he said.