Denver Teacher Wins $100,000 Kinder Prize

Recipient draws on Montessori method to enrich classroom.

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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.

Linda Alston, center, expresses her appreciation to Nancy and Rick Kinder, left, after winning the Kinder Excellence in Teaching Award, while Margaret Spellings looks on.
Linda Alston, center, expresses her appreciation to Nancy and Rick Kinder, left, after winning the Kinder Excellence in Teaching Award, while Margaret Spellings looks on.
—Roey Yohai for Education Week

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 at a June 13 press conference here. She noted 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 public or private schools where at least half the students qualify for free or reduced-priced school meals.

In accepting the award, 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 a pool of 400 teachers, who were each nominated by someone familiar with their work, and 10 finalists whose classrooms were visited. Evidence of students’ academic progress was required, including standardized-test results, if available.

‘Teachers Make the Difference’

In establishing the award last year, the Kinders joined with the foundation associated with the Knowledge Is Power Program, a network of 46 mostly charter schools, which the couple has helped support. The KIPP Foundation administered the competition. No educator employed by a KIPP school was eligible.

“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 awards of $10,000 each 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 physician and educator for the content and approach of her classroom. The pebbles, the toy car, and the teacups are tools for learning mathematics, phonics, and sequencing, 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,” she said. 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.

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.

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 is 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 has a few ideas for using the $100,000. She wants to go to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., the vacation island off Cape Cod, attend a concert by the singer Carly Simon, and buy orange geraniums for her garden.

Vol. 25, Issue 41, Pages 5, 13

Published in Print: June 21, 2006, as Denver Teacher Wins $100,000 Kinder Prize
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