Jennifer Hoffner-Turkowski, a first-grade teacher at University Park Elementary School in the Gateway School District, sat in a school assembly this morning expecting to hear the entire staff and student body commended for the school's performance on the 2012 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams.
Instead, she found the kudos being doled out at the assembly, attended by state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, were directed solely toward her.
In a surprise presentation, Ms. Hoffner-Turkowski, a teacher for eight years in Gateway, received the 2012 Milken Educator Award, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 prize.
Local teacher wins Milken Educator Award
Jennifer Hoffner-Turkowski, a teacher at University Park Elementary School in Monroeville, became the state's 51st winner of the national Milken Educator Award, which comes with a $25,000 cash prize. (Video by Nate Guidry; 11/27/2012)
She is the 51st teacher in Pennsylvania to receive the national award since 1994 and the only one this year. This year, the Milken Family Foundation will give up to 40 awards across the country.
"I'm just completely overwhelmed," said Ms. Hoffner-Turkowski, 38, of North Huntingdon, when her name was called and students jumped to their feet cheering.
But she quickly focused on the fact that the award was due not to her alone but to all of her colleagues at the school.
"It's a team here at University Park that makes the school great. This award is not just for me. It's for all of you," she said to the crowded auditorium.
To keep the award a surprise, Principal Brian Werner told the staff and students the assembly was to celebrate the school's good work on 2012 PSSAs. But shortly after everyone was gathered in the gymnasium, Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards and Milken Family Foundation, explained that she had come from Santa Monica, Calif., to honor an outstanding teacher at the school.
"One of the best teachers in the entire country is here in your school," Ms. Foley said, prompting the elementary students to start scanning the room and looking at their teachers.
She told students her award for the teacher could be compared to an Oscar received by an actor and said the Milken Family Foundation was established to make sure that teachers got the same recognition as actors and scientists and other professionals who receive prestigious national awards.
Even as Ms. Foley made her speech to the students and it became apparent that a teacher at the school would be receiving the award, Ms. Hoffner-Turkowski, known as "Miss H" to her students, said she never imagined she would be the recipient. In fact, in her mind, she was thinking of colleagues who would be the likely recipient.
"I was shocked. Overwhelmed," Ms. Hoffner-Turkowski said. "We're all so dedicated to the kids at University Park, every teacher in the building."
She said she hopes to use some of the money to "give back in some way" to the school and put the rest in college funds for her three children, Zacary, 12, Makenzie, 9, and Ty James, 7.
Ms. Hoffner-Turkowski holds bachelor's degrees in elementary education and in health policy and administration.
She said she worked as a nursing home administrator before deciding to pursue her teaching. She is currently working on a master's degree in education and a principal's certificate.
During her time at Gateway, Ms. Hoffner-Turkowski has served as the district-wide first-grade team leader and developed University Park's school-wide improvement plan and grade-level remedial and advanced lessons in reading and math. She also serves on the PA Leads (Pennsylvania: Leads, Empowering, Advancing and Diversifying Schools) core team, which focuses on increasing student academic achievement and educational growth.
Mr. Werner said Ms. Hoffner-Turkowski "really truly puts the needs of her students first and really looks to best meet the needs of all of her students."
"I love what I do," Ms. Hoffner-Turkowski said. "I love the kids. I love this school and this district."
During the assembly one of the students offered this definition of excellence: "It means that you're really good at something and you know how to do it."
Ms. Foley said that description was spot-on for Ms. Hoffner-Turkowski.
Since 1987, the Milken Family Foundation has awarded more than $63 million to more than 2,500 educators throughout the United States.
Steve Scoville, a physics teacher at Pittsburgh's Brasher High School, won the Milken award in 2011.
Mary Niederberger: email@example.com or 412-263-1590