WASHINGTON – She may have just 15 students in her Maryland kindergarten class, but the students Kimberly Oliver teaches represent nearly every continent on the globe.
She has Vietnamese, Latino, African, African-American and Haitian students. All but one speaks another language. Their school, Broad Acres Elementary in Silver Spring, is largely low-income, with 90 percent of students receiving free or reduced meals, and it was at risk of state takeover when Oliver arrived six years ago.
Yet despite the apparent barriers, Oliver has helped boost her students' scores, involved their parents in their education and gotten youngsters engaged in their school.
"My students are full of energy and they are excited about learning and coming to school," she said. "They really have great potential."
For those accomplishments, Oliver, 29, was named Teacher of the Year on Tuesday by The Council of Chief State School Officers.
She was the 56th teacher to win the annual award, selected from the state teachers of the year. After meeting President Bush on Wednesday, she will serve as a teacher advocate for the coming year.
Oliver credits her interest in teaching to a daycare teacher in her hometown of Wilmington, Del., who knew how to make a young child feel special. It was an ability she wanted to emulate when she chose to become a kindergarten teacher.
After college at Hampton University and graduate school at Wilmington College, she took a position at Broad Acres.
At the time, test scores at Broad Acres were dismal, with only 11.8 percent of third-graders demonstrating proficiency in reading on state tests. But after restructuring, which included smaller class sizes and full-day kindergarten, roughly 75 percent of third graders are now considered proficient.
Much of that improvement can be linked to programs Oliver and her colleagues implemented.
Oliver received grants to buy electronic tablets that the children could take home and use to work on their reading skills. Teachers now stay late on Wednesdays to coordinate their curricula. Four nights each year, parents are invited to school to eat a meal and spend time reading with their children.
For Oliver, getting parents involved is critical. She meets with parents at the beginning of each year to discuss what they want to see their children learn and what she thinks is important for the year. Making that connection is important, especially with those who come from cultures where parents often aren't involved in schools.
"Some cultures believe that school is the job of the educators," she said. "I believe it is about building a relationship with those parents."
Oliver becomes most animated when she talks about her class, her calm and clear voice is the sign of a person experienced at speaking to energetic five- and six-year-olds.
"They just ring with energy and creativity," she said. "I am a nurturer, I want to just work with young children, shape and influence them and build strong people."