Gwinnett educator receives prestigious Milken award

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

NORCROSS -- A reading specialist at Meadowcreek Elementary School was surprised Monday with a $25,000 award from the Milken Family Foundation.

Kelly Stopp, who teaches second-grade reading classes, was chosen as a recipient of the Milken Educator Award, one of the nation's most prestigious teacher recognition programs.

"I can't do this without my school," Stopp said during an assembly in which the announcement was made. "Every day I learn something from you as you learn from me. We learn together."

Stopp said she decided to pursue a career in education after having poor experiences in the classroom when she was a student. After volunteering in an elementary school as a high school student, she said she know she wanted to be a positive influence for children and become a teacher.

Working toward her Ph.D. in reading, Stopp's focus is to help her students gain literacy skills. Her signature classroom practices include Guided Reading, Readers' Theater and Readers' and Writers' Workshop.

Eager to experiment with new instructional methods, she crafted a program that merges poetry with grammar and social studies. She has written a grammar lesson booklet that is now used countywide. Additionally, she lived with a family in Costa Rica for six weeks to learn Spanish so she could communicate with her predominantly Hispanic students and families.

More than 90 percent of her students -- 68 percent of whom are English as a Second Language speakers -- passed the second-grade reading portion of the Georgia Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests. For the past three years, more than 80 percent of her second-graders posted reading scores that were at or above grade level.

"I'm excited for Kelly," second-grade teacher Tonee Cunningham said. "She works so hard and goes so far beyond the duties. She has earned this."

Although the money that comes with the award is unrestricted, Stopp said she plans to use it to create a community literacy program. She wants to create a library at a nearby apartment complex so students who don't have books at home or who can't get to a public library can have free access to reading materials. Story time programs at the apartments will also be a part of the literacy program, she said.

Since first presented in 1987 to a dozen California teachers, the Milken Educator Awards has honored more than 2,500 teachers, principals and specialists. Stopp was one of two Georgia educators honored this year. The other was Rachel Willis, a third-grade teacher at Morningside Elementary School in Atlanta.

"Our society's most important profession is teaching as it informs all others," said Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation. "We created the Milken Educator Awards to proclaim in a very public way that greatness in education must be recognized and rewarded."

Teacher quality is an essential ingredient in improving public education, Milken said.

"Research confirms that of all the factors that take place at a school site, the most important factor determining student achievement is teacher quality," he said.

Educators cannot apply for the award. Instead, a panel appointed by each state's department of education chooses the recipients based on the following criteria:

* Exceptional educational talent as evidenced by effective instructional practices and student learning results in the classroom and school

* Exemplary educational accomplishments beyond the classroom that provide models of excellence for the profession

* Individuals whose contributions to education are largely unheralded yet worthy of the spotlight

* Early to mid-career educators who offer strong long-range potential for professional and policy leadership

* Engaging and inspiring presence that motivates and impacts students, colleagues and the community