Julie Rowell was shocked Tuesday morning when she heard her name called at a Gresham High School assembly and that she had won the prestigious Milken Educator Award, the only teacher in Oregon to earn the honor this year.
The award, dubbed "the Oscar of Education," comes with a $25,000 cash prize that Rowell can use any way she wishes.
"Honestly, I feel like I'm in a dream right now," she told the assembly, joking, "I'm glad I did my hair today."
The awards are cloaked in secrecy with few people knowing in advance that the award is coming and even fewer who will receive it.
The award was presented at the assembly by Milken Family Foundation Senior Program Manager Greg Gallagher and Director of the Oregon Department of Education Colt Gill.
"We believe educators have the most important jobs," Gallagher said.
He told the crowd that athletes get recognition and trophies and actors and others get Oscars and Emmys, but teachers don't get the accolades they deserve.
"Our educators, who have the most important job of all...don't get that kind of recognition," he said.
After a drumroll, Rowell's name was announced to cheers from the students, dignitaries and other teachers. She also was greeted with hugs and words of wisdom from past Milken award winners.
"Great teachers make a difference," Gallagher said.
Rowell is making a difference for Juliette Fleurimond, a junior in Rowell's AVID class, a class that readies students for the rigors of college.
"She has always been very supportive of me," she said.
"I love her a lot and I'm so glad she won this award," Fleurimond said at a celebratory pizza lunch.
Classmate Simoen Smith said "if anyone deserves it, you guys (the Foundation) were right, it's Miss Rowell."
Rowell, who speaks Spanish fluently, teaches English to students who are just learning the language.
She also teaches AVID, a class that prepares students for college who might not think of themselves as college material. She has her AVID students for two years and nearly all graduate and go on to college.
Rowell also runs the newcomer program at Gresham High for families new to the school and makes sure they settle in and are connected with the resources they need.
The Milken Foundation learned that "when two girls whose family had fled the civil war in Rwanda arrived for ninth grade lacking literacy and numeracy, even in their native language, Rowell leaned in to ensure their success. She worked with them during every lunch break, after school and more, recruiting other teachers to do the same. The girls graduated in five years, went to college on scholarships, and have returned to GHS to talk to other recently arrived students about their experiences."
Rowell is also a TOSA (teacher on special assignment) helping English Language Development teachers across the district improve their teaching techniques.
She is an adjunct instructor at Lewis & Clark College's Graduate School of Education.
Rowell earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish in 2002 from Western Oregon University, Monmouth, and a master's degree in bilingual education in 2005 from Portland State University.
"I'm honored," a shaken Rowell said at the assembly. "There are so many other educators in this building that are very worthy of this award."
Milken Family Foundation works for education
The Milken Family Foundation, Santa Monica, Calif, was formed by Michael and Lowell Milken in 1982. Michael Milken was a Wall Street financier and Lowell a real estate tycoon.
The Foundation "strives to discover and advance inventive, effective ways of helping people help themselves and those around them lead productive and satisfying lives. The Foundation focuses on education to reach that goal."
Lowell Milken developed the Milken Educator Awards to recognize outstanding educators and to encourage talented people to go into teaching. The Foundation expects to honor as many as 40 educators this season. It out exceptional teachers and does not seek nominations for the award.
Lowell also founded the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching which creates leadership and training opportunities for teachers.
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