Jennifer Hoffner-Turkowski, a first-grade teacher at University Park Elementary School in the Gateway School District, sat in a school assembly Tuesday 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 at the assembly, attended by state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, were directed solely at her.
In a surprise presentation, Ms. Hoffner-Turkowski, a Gateway teacher for eight years, received the 2012 Milken Educator Award, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 prize.
She is the 51st teacher in Pennsylvania to receive the national award since 1994 and the only one this year. The Milken Family Foundation will give up to 40 awards nationwide this year.
"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 scan the room.
She told students the award could be compared to an Oscar received by an actor and said the Milken Family Foundation was established to assure that teachers get the same recognition as actors, scientists and other professionals.
Even as 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, she was thinking of colleagues who might be.
"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 was a nursing home administrator before pursuing teaching. She is 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 districtwide first-grade team leader and developed University Park's schoolwide improvement plan and grade-level remedial and advanced lessons in reading and math.
Mr. Werner said Ms. Hoffner-Turkowski "really truly puts the needs of her students first..."
"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 is 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 prize in 2011.
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1590.