Denver teacher wins $100,000 award for excellence |

Denver teacher wins $100,000 award for excellence

DENVER ” In Linda Alston’s classroom, math, science and reading aren’t the only things the kindergartners are expected to learn.

Grace and courtesy are just as important, and everything in Alston’s Fairview Elementary School class ” the plants, the china teacups, the pitcher and bowl used to wash tiny hands ” has been placed there to foster such learning.

“It’s not enough that they are smart and can read and write and do well on tests,” Alston said. “If they have not operated, lived, moved and had their being in a space where they learn to treat each other with respect, dignity and empathy, all of that education will not serve us well.”

Alston’s approach has earned her the first $100,000 Kinder Excellence in Teaching Award, which was scheduled to be presented Tuesday at a ceremony in Washington.

The award’s creators, Houston philanthropists Rich and Nancy Kinder and the nonprofit KIPP Foundation, say it is the largest unrestricted award for a K-12 teacher in U.S. history ” and they hope it brings some attention to what they say is low teacher pay.

“A doctor, a lawyer, they can earn $100,000. Why can’t a teacher?” Nancy Kinder asked.

A study by the American Federation of Teachers showed the average teacher made $46,597 in 2003-04, an increase of 2.2 percent from the previous year.

The salaries of teachers also rose less quickly than other white-collar professions surveyed by the teachers’ union. Between 1993-94 and 2003-04, for every real $1 increase an accountant received in pay, teachers received 19 cents. That drops to 13 cents when compared with each $1 increase in salaries for attorneys.

Ed Muir, the AFT’s assistant director of research, said teachers who leave the profession list working conditions as the greatest factor for walking away, but salary remains high on the list.

“You can still make a decent living, but there are other options with your education level that will pay you a lot more,” he said.

Mike Feinberg created KIPP ” the Knowledge is Power Program ” in 1994 with fellow teacher Dave Levin. KIPP schools, located in 15 states and Washington, pay teachers more on average than public schools, but also require them to work some Saturdays and summer weeks and make themselves available to students and parents when they’re not in school.

Feinberg said a lack of accountability has forced teachers to be defined by their weakest counterparts. By raising the bar for all teachers ” and raising the pay for the best ” the profession and its public perception would improve.

“The best and the brightest coming through the college pipeline will continue, for the most part, to choose other professions if teaching remains at the current level of respect in terms of professionals,” Feinberg said.

Not that Alston worries much about making more money or earning more respect.

“I strive to do my work in my classroom with kindergarten children so well that the living, the dead or the unborn could not do it better,” she said. “And when I put forth that kind of excellence and all that I have, I know that I will be taken care of.”

The 56-year-old designs her lessons around a similarly high level of expectations, from reading assignments that feature Robert Frost or Martin Luther King Jr. to tea parties complete with handwritten invitations and cloth napkins.

Even the simple task of washing hands has been broken down into more than 50 steps in an effort to promote skills her students will use in more academic pursuits.

“I think that high expectation has then been communicated at a very deep level to them,” she said. “There’s an indirect message there that I trust you and I know who you are.”

Kinder said she hoped Alston’s passion ” and her new $100,000 ” will inspire other teachers to set and meet the same high expectations for themselves and their students.

To be eligible for the KIPP award, teachers must have worked in a school with at least 50 percent of its students qualifying for a free or reduced lunch program. KIPP teachers were not eligible.

Alston works in the Sun Valley neighborhood, which has one of Denver’s highest crime rates. Asked what she plans to do with the money, Alston said she hoped to someday travel to South Africa and to learn about education there.

But the bigger prize, she said, was knowing that the Kinders’ want the best teachers to be able to make just as much as a lawyer or doctor.

“I was acknowledged in reading that, that they thought that highly in educators. I think it will make a difference in how teachers are viewed from this point on,” she said. “The earth moved, the planet shifted and my heart rocked gently.”

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