Sarah Szymanski is like the net around the trampoline or the mat beneath the monkey bars.
She catches kids before they slip or fall.
For that trait and many others, Szymanski, a second-grade math and science teacher at Soaring Eagles Elementary School in Harrison School District 2, was surprised Wednesday with a prestigious Milken Educator Award.
“I would like to think I’m being recognized for providing a little bit of extra that kids need to succeed,” she said in an interview after the whole school learned she won the award. “I get to them before they can fail.”
When she heard her name announced at a boisterous all-school assembly, Szymanski said she thought she was dreaming.
“I had no idea,” she said. “There are so many phenomenal teachers in this building.”
Soaring Eagles Principal Kim Easdon told Szymanski she was “definitely deserving” of the honor, which carries an unrestricted $25,000 prize to be spent on personal use by the recipient.
“Sarah is an incredible teacher,” Easdon said in an interview. “She’s driven, very dynamic and knows her craft inside and out.”
Moreover, Szymanski “gives it her full heart and soul,” the principal said.
From building relationships with students to understanding how to manage her classroom, “She’s the queen of it all,” Easdon said.
Szymanski, 32, accepted the award with tears in her eyes and a stunned look on her face.
She’s one of 33 elementary school teachers around the nation to win this year’s “Oscars of teaching,” as the Milken Educator Awards have been described.
The award alternates yearly between elementary and secondary educators.
The recognition differs from others in that “You cannot apply for our award,” said Lowell Milken, co-founder of the award and chairman of the Milken Family Foundation.
“You do not find us,” he said. “We find you.”
Candidates emerge through a confidential selection process and then are reviewed by blue-ribbon panels in each state. Those deemed most exceptional are recommended for the award, with final selection by the Milken Family Foundation.
Since the foundation began giving the awards in 1987, 2,800 teachers have been recognized for their excellence in teaching and professional leadership.
The Milken award is not for lifetime achievement, Milken said, but rather identifies up-and-coming young educators who already have realized great accomplishments and show potential to achieve much more in their field.
Szymanski, who’s been teaching for a decade, said she loves each student, present and past, and works hard to make each one feel special.
She “pays attention” not only to students’ academic needs, but also their home lives, families and friends. Because if a teacher doesn’t, children are less likely to succeed, Szymanski said.
“You have to look at the whole child,” she said. “You’re not just here for schoolwork; you’re here for all of them.”
One of her students, 7-year-old Destiny Jaramillo, said “Miss S” is one of the kindest teachers she knows.
“She’s nice and sweet and works very hard to teach us,” Destiny said. “She reads to us. She lets us do fun things like crafts. She’s an amazing and awesome teacher. I call her ‘amasome.’”
Soaring Eagles, a gifted magnet school, also had a Milken Educator Awards winner in 2010, first-grade teacher Gina Oelig.
Several other previous winners from Colorado were at the assembly to congratulate Szymanski, including Michael Arsenault, who won in 2007 as a teacher at Pine Creek High School in Academy School District 20, and Doug Lundberg, a 1995 recipient as a teacher at Air Academy High School in D-20.
To have two winners from one school in a short time is rare, Milken said.
“It tells us how special the teachers, principals and students are here,” he told the crowd.
Soaring Eagles has earned a host of awards, being named a National Blue Ribbon school for academic achievement in 2009 and 2016, and one of 50 National Title 1 Schools in 2011, along with numerous state accolades.
Leon Williams, another of Szymanski’s students, said his teacher is kind and friendly.
“She helps us with math strategies,” the 7-year-old said, “and she helps us with bullies. If someone bullies you, you leave them and tell them you’re going to play with a different friend.”
“We work so hard for you, and we love you so much,” Szymanski told Soaring Eagle students in accepting the award. “We promise to do the best for you.”
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