There was electricity in the air as the students, teachers and staff of Westside Elementary School; district school board staff; school board members; and several out of town guests gathered in the school cafeteria. The room was festooned with gold and black balloons (the school colors) and banners sporting images of a roaring tiger, the school mascot. You could tell that something important was going to happen.
The reason for the event was to honor one of Westside’s teachers, April Crisci, with the coveted Milken Educator Award. She was one of only two teachers in Florida to win this award.
Since 1987, The Milken Family Foundation has presented this award each year to “innovative, inspirational, dedicated and transformational teachers.” This year they will present these awards to just sixty teachers in the whole country.
Candidates for the award are sourced through a confidential selection process. Then “blue ribbon” panels appointed by state departments of education review the candidates’ qualifications. The most exceptional ones are recommended for the award, with final approval by the Foundation.
Not only does this come with accolades, but there is also a $25,000 check awarded to the recipient. According to the foundation, “The $25,000 cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways. For instance, some have spent the funds on their children’s or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even adopting children. ”
Teachers who receive this award also have opportunities to network with other exemplary educators. In addition, each recipient is matched with a veteran Milken Educator who provides mentorship in “preparation for future leadership opportunities.”
The past two years of the Coronavirus pandemic has shown just how important teachers are. They’re considered front line workers, just like doctors, nurses and first responders, with all the stress that people in these other fields experience.
According to a press release from the Foundation, “Teachers expressed feeling increasingly overwhelmed…These findings illustrate just how exceptional the recipients of this year’s Milken Educator Awards are amidst one of the greatest challenges of our time.”
Another reason the Milken Family Foundation started this award program was to encourage people to go into the teaching field, recognize those who choose education as a career and encourage them to continue in this profession. Fewer college graduates are choosing K-12 teaching as a profession because of the stress and relatively low pay scale. Those that do often quit after just a few years.
This award program “aims to reverse this trend by focusing attention on the need for able, caring and creative people to join the teaching profession in order to improve achievement for all students.”
These awards do not go to teachers who have been in the field for many years. They are awarded to those in the early to middle years of their careers “for what they have achieved−and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities inherent in the award.” The names of the chosen few are kept secret up until the presentation ceremony takes place.
Prior to the announcement of the winner of this year’s award, Jacob Oliva, Senior Chancellor at the Florida Department of Education overseeing the Division of Public Schools, spoke to cheering pupils when he congratulated them for being some of the best students in the state of Florida.
Stephanie Bishop, Vice-President of Milken Educator Awards and a past recipient of the award, greeted the crowd with a rousing, “Hello, Tigers of Westside Elementary!”
“Educators have the most important job in our country, the awesome responsibility of educating all of you,” Ms. Bishop stated.
When Ms. Crisci’s name was called the enthusiastic crowd of students clapped and screamed. You would have thought they were at a Bucs game when Tom Brady threw the pass for the winning touchdown.
Ms. Crisci is a sixteen-year veteran of teaching and presently teaches English Language Arts and Social Studies to kindergarteners and first graders. She also has an ESOL (English for Speakers of other Languages) and Reading endorsement.
In choosing Ms. Crisci for this award, a press release from the Milken Foundation stated, “Her students outperform their peers at Westside and in Hernando County. During spring 2020, even with the pandemic, 92% of her students ended on or above grade level in English Language Arts with 98% meeting expected growth.”
Ms. Crisci’s dedication to looking for fresh ideas and innovative techniques for the classroom was another factor they considered. She also mentors new teachers. Building strong relationships with her students and their families is important to her and this doesn’t end when they progress through school. Many of her former pupils return to her classroom as visitors and volunteers.
In accepting the award, Ms. Crisci stated, “I would not be up here without my team of teachers at this school… Every day we come to school for you [the students]. I am so blessed to call Westside Elementary my home.”
When speaking of the rewards of teaching, she commented, “Your school and colleagues become a second home and family. The students become your kids.”
As with any profession, there are challenges also.
“I never have enough time in a day to teach my students all that I would like. Another challenge right now is all the negativity there is about teaching. The benefits far outweigh the challenges. We create safe spaces and create memories that will last a lifetime for these kids.”
Congratulations April Crisci! You’re a credit to the teaching profession and make Hernando County proud.