Ashley Kear (second from left), a fourth-grade teacher at Dogwood Elementary School, was the surprise recipient of a $25,000 cash award from the Milken Family Foundation during an assembly at the school Oct. 4, recognizing her for outstanding achievement in teaching. Pictured left to right are Lowell Milken, the foundation’s founder, Lana Shelton-Lowe, principal of Dogwood Elementary; Jim McIntyre, Knox County Schools superintendent; and Johhny Crow, an official with the Tennessee Board of Education. (Photo by J.J. Kindred)
By J.J. KINDRED
Ashley Kear expected to have a normal day at Dogwood Elementary School, as part of a school assembly featuring school officials and special guests from the Milken Family Foundation.
Little did she know that she was actually the guest of honor. Oh, and she got a little bit of cash to go with it.
Kear, a fourth-grade teacher, was honored by the foundation Oct. 4 during the assembly with its Milken Educator Award, including a $25,000 cash prize to do with whatever she wishes.
“I think my face matches the (red) carpet,” Kear said to the crowd of students and officials. “I haven’t been doing this very long. You don’t get to be a good teacher without exceptional people helping you. I just want to thank all of you for being my family here.”
Lowell Milken, the foundation’s chairman and co-founder, along with Knox County Schools superintendent Jim McIntyre, and other school officials were on hand to participate in the event, whose real purpose was kept in secrecy to Kear.
“We had to keep this a secret for the last 20 weeks. Do you know how hard it is to keep a secret?” Milken told the assembly. “We need to find new and better ways to provide opportunities for teachers, and that’s to recognize them.”
The Milken Educator Awards program was created to recognize the importance of outstanding educators and encouraging others to become teachers.
There is no formal nomination or application process. Outstanding teachers, principals and administrators are recommended without their knowledge by a panel appointed by each state’s department of education, and surprise each recipient with the news of their award.
While working towards her master’s degree five years ago, Kear began an internship at Dogwood Elementary, which is classified as a Title I school where 90 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-lunch. She has not only earned her master’s and became a full-fledged teacher, but she has also become a certified mentor teacher.
“I was completely surprised. I had no idea at all that this was going to happen today,” Kear said after the assembly. “They apparently pick people to nominate, and I did not apply for anything.”
Kear said she will put the money towards her classroom and school needs.
“That’s where it’s coming from ultimately. I feel like that would be the best use,” she said. “I had no idea that there was even a financial reward. To be something like $25,000 is shocking, no matter what.”
Kear volunteers for organizations such as Project GRAD, an education reform program that targets schools with academic needs, at a shelter for abused women and a government-funded housing project where some of her students live. She is also the Knox County Education Association Building Representative, advocating for policy improvements benefiting students and teachers.
More than 2,500 teachers around the country have received the award since 1987. It was first presented to a dozen California teachers, with more than $62 million in unrestricted and individual $25,000 awards doled out. The award alternates between elementary and secondary teachers.
“A lot of how we choose the teachers is secret, but we generally work with state departments,” Milken said. “We identify potential recipients, but the foundation makes the final selections. We believe we want to identify those who are doing outstanding work, with the focus on serving kids, and are not focused necessarily on filling out forms and promoting themselves.
“There were many outstanding educators, even in this school,” Milken continued, “but Ashley was very dynamic and very focused on our attention, because of her outstanding skills and student achievement. The other important thing is that she’s involved the community.”
Lana Shelton-Lowe, principal of Dogwood Elementary, could not contain her excitement for Kear.
“This has been the best day,” Shelton-Lowe said, smiling. “I’ve known (about Kear’s award) for a few weeks. We did a pretty good job keeping it under wraps. Dr. McIntyre asked me not to tell, and when the boss asks you not to tell, it makes it a lot easier.
“Ashley gives so much to the school and so much to the children,” Shelton-Lowe continued. “She knows each child and their family. She does a lot of community work and really gets to know our families.”
The Milken Family Foundation is based out of Santa Monica, Calif., and the event kicked off the National Educator Awards tour across the country, where as many as 50 to 170 awards are doled out each year.
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