Denver Teacher Gets $100,000 Award for Excellence in Teaching

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 those lessons.

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, D.C.

"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."

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 pay for teachers. 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.

"A doctor, a lawyer, they can earn $100,000. Why can't a teacher?" Nancy Kinder asked.

To be eligible for the award, teachers must have worked in a school with at least 50 percent of its students qualifying for a free or reduced lunch program. Alston works in the Sun Valley neighborhood, which has one of Denver's highest crime rates.

Schools associated with the KIPP Foundation on average do pay teachers more 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. KIPP — the Knowledge is Power Program — has schools in 15 states and Washington, D.C. Its teachers were not eligible for the award.

"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," said Mike Feinberg, who created the first KIPP academy in 1994 with fellow teacher Dave Levin.

Alston, however, doesn't worry about making 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 teacher designs her lessons around high expectations, from reading assignments that feature Robert Frost or the Rev. 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."

She hopes to use the money to travel to South Africa and learn about education there. But the bigger prize, she said, was knowing that the Kinders want the best teachers to be able to make as much as a lawyer or doctor.

"The earth moved, the planet shifted and my heart rocked gently," said the Howard University graduate who began teaching in Denver public schools in 1989.