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Sunnyside teacher wins $25K award

Joins 2,600 educators noted for excellence

There was no red carpet but plenty of flashing cameras as Carrie Harper, a third-grade teacher at Sunnyside Elementary School, was named a Milken Educator, called the teaching equivalent of an Oscar, on Wednesday afternoon.

“We think that greatness in education should be recognized, too,” said Lowell Milken, co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, which gives the award. There have been 2,600 honorees since the program was founded in 1987. “You do not apply to be a Milken Educator, we find you.”

Milken presented the award to Harper at an all-school assembly Wednesday afternoon. She becomes the 86th Colorado recipient and the only one from Southwest Colorado. The award comes with an unrestricted check for $25,000.

“She’ll credit her colleagues who helped her,” Principal Vanessa Fisher predicted before the announcement was made public.

And so she did.

“This is so unfair,” Harper said. “I was trained by a lot of much better teachers. They’re amazing, and I’m part of a team. Thanks to all of them and all of you amazing kids, too.”

Keith Owen, former Durango School District 9-R superintendent and current deputy commissioner at the Colorado Department of Education, said most of the districts in the state nominate teachers into a talent pool, and a blue-ribbon panel forwards a list of possibilities from the pool to Milken.

“I do look for several things: strong instructors and leaders academically who are getting results; teachers who are powerful mentors to other teachers; and teachers who are invested in their community,” Milken said.

Harper is in her seventh year of teaching, and that’s the point, Milken said.

“This is not a lifetime-achievement award,” he said. “We’re looking for teachers who are in early to mid-career, so there are still many years to extend their influence and impact.”

How does Harper inspire strong learning from her students?

“I believe in them even when they don’t believe in themselves,” she said. “Even if they don’t show me they’re learning, I expect them to. And I take it personally. When they fail, I feel like I’ve failed.”

Harper, who still was a bit in shock later Wednesday afternoon, had no idea how she might spend her prize money. Milken said about two-thirds of honorees spend it furthering their own education or their children’s or their students’ education. The other third mostly used it to pay bills. Some have gone on dream trips, others have adopted children.

“We have no problem with that,” he said. “They have made a financial sacrifice to go into teaching.”

The Milken award is not a one-off experience. The honorees, 40 across the nation this year, join the Milken Educator Network, a group of educators who share their expertise with fellow educators, legislators, school boards and others involved in the future of education.

Alex Carter, the superintendent of Montezuma-Cortez School District, who was named a Milken Educator in 2003 when he was in the classroom in Virginia, also attended the assembly.

“The fun is just beginning,” he told Harper. “This represents everything good about teaching, and you become a role model for other teachers. And there’s nothing more rewarding than getting together with other Milken educators and sharing what we do for kids.”

Harper’s students were delighted with their teacher’s award.

“I was really surprised and really proud of her,” said Acelynn Samora, the daughter of Kori Samora and Richie Samora. “I like how she sometimes pushes us to learn and helps us learn.”

abutler@ durangoherald.com

This story has been updated with the correct website address to find information about TAP – The System for Teacher and Student.

Milken Educator Award FAQ (PDF)

Carrie Harper bio (PDF)

Milken Educator Cool Facts (PDF)

What makes a great teacher?

Sunnyside Elementary School Principal Vanessa Fisher, students from Carrie Harper’s third-grade class and Harper herself weigh in:

Fisher says:

“She makes learning fun, hands-on and innovative.”

Harper works frequently with community partners, such as Pine River Valley Bank and the DoubleTree Hotel. “They offer expertise and more power to lessons because they make the learning tangible.”

“One size does not fit all in her classroom. If you go into her classroom, you’ll see students doing a lot of different things based on their interests and goals.”

“Carrie makes her students own their learning. Her kids are self-assessing, monitoring and graphing their own progress.”

Her students say:

“She makes sure all her students get the same education,” said Sophie Waters, daughter of Rick Waters and Sonnin Dahl. “If someone falls behind, she makes sure they catch up.”

“She teaches us really cool stuff and really important stuff,” said Owen Davidson, son of Ben and Kelli Davidson. “She teaches us things the older grades are studying.”

“She always gives us awards when we do a good job,” said Michaela Bierly, daughter of Michael and Tonya Bierly.

Advice Harper would give a young teacher:

Teaching is more about relationships than tests, relationships with students and with teammates.

I like to start with social studies and science, and the reading and math just flows into that. It gives them real life meaning.

We don’t teach to the test, but we teach more life skills and problem solving. We’ll tell them they’re going to see something they’ve never seen before, and tell them to start by figuring out what they know already.

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