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Denver Kindergarten Teacher Wins $100,000 Achievement Award

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Cool-to-the-touch stones, a miniature Jeep, and delicate teacups helped make Linda Alston’s classroom a learning portal par excellence, and now they have been part of winning the Denver kindergarten teacher a $100,000 award.

The Kinder Excellence in Teaching Award, named for its donors, Houston philanthropists Nancy and Rich Kinder, is thought to be the largest single unrestricted award ever given to an American precollegiate teacher.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the honor yesterday, noting that about 90 percent of the students at Fairview Elementary School, where Ms. Alston teaches, are from low-income families. The award was limited to full-time classroom teachers in a public or private school where at least 50 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-priced school meals.

In accepting the award at a press conference here, Ms. Alston said she took her charge as a teacher from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who counseled doing one’s job “so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.”

Ms. Alston, who has taught kindergarten throughout most of her 25-year career, was chosen from among 400 teachers nominated for the award by someone familiar with their work and 10 finalists whose classrooms were visited. In establishing the award last year, the Kinders joined with the foundation associated with the Knowledge Is Power Program, a network of more than 125 charter schools, which the couple has supported in the past few years. No educator employed by a KIPP school was eligible for the award.

“We think that teachers make the difference in education, and teaching in high-needs communities makes the most difference,” said Mr. Kinder, the chairman and chief executive officer of Kinder Morgan Inc., an energy supplier in Houston. “But like all teachers, [teachers in those communities] are undercompensated and under-recognized.”

KIPP Foundation officials say the Kinders (pronounced like the grade level) have not yet decided whether to make the award annual, as are the 10 $10,000 amounts conferred by the couple on top KIPP teachers.

‘Every Best Practice’

Certified as a Montessori teacher, Ms. Alston says she draws heavily on the work of the Italian pediatrician for the content and approach of her classroom. The pebbles, the toy car, and the teacups are tools for learning mathematics, phonics, and sequencing skills, respectively, in the Montessori way, which emphasizes the use of high-quality materials arranged for individualized lessons.

But Ms. Alston, 56, attributed her success in the classroom above all to an open and eclectic attitude: “I pull from every best practice out there.” What remains constant is this: “I try to create as much beauty, order, and dignity for the learning environment as I possibly can.”

The award-winning teacher is a native of Louisiana with a bachelor’s degree in African-American studies and education from Howard University in Washington. She started her career at a public Montessori school in Milwaukee. Thirteen years ago, she moved to Denver with her three sons, now grown, and earned a master’s degree in literacy at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Other Finalists

• JoAnn Bedwell, Clark Elementary School, Selma, Ala.
• Linda Eberhart, Mt. Royal Elementary School, Baltimore, Md.
• Pam England, Forrest City High School, Forrest City, Ark.
• Brian Freeman, Peterson Elementary School, Red Springs, N.C.
• Faridodin Lajvardi, Carl Hayden High School, Phoenix, Ariz.
• Christopher Vicari, Yonkers Middle High School, Yonkers, N.Y.
• Martin Winchester, IDEA Academy, Donna, Texas
• Steven Wyborney, Nyssa Elementary School, Nyssa, Ore.
• Jill Zacher-Omdahl, Milwaukee College Prep, Milwaukee, Wis.

She moved to Fairview Elementary just this past school year after her former school switched from offering a full day kindergarten program to a half day. “I was seeking an underserved school community and a full day,” she said. “I know the most powerful impact on children is to have them for a full day.”

Mary Ann Bash, who oversees early-childhood instruction for a subdistrict of the 73,000-student Denver schools, said she immediately thought of the teacher when she read a request for nominations.

“They were looking for extraordinary,” said Ms. Bash, who wrote the essays that described Ms. Alston’s practice for the competition. “[Ms. Alston’s] every word and every action says kids can learn at extraordinary levels and help each other learn and use that learning positively in the community.”

She added that the teacher was also a standout in connecting with parents in an ethnically diverse community. “Everything the kids learn, the parents learn,” Ms. Bash said.

Ms. Alston said she had just a few plans, so far, for using the $100,000 prize. She intends to go to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., a popular vacation island off Cape Cod and attend a concert by singer Carly Simon. And after years of collecting handsome objects for her kindergarten, she’d like something new for her flower garden: orange geraniums.

“They’re very costly,” she noted, adding, “oh, and maybe some new cups for the [classroom] tea service.”

Vol. 25

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