Hundreds of students at Southeast Washington’s Anne Beers Elementary School gathered Wednesday morning for what they believed was an event to honor their hard work and impressive academic achievement.
That was partly true. But there was another reason for the assembly: The surprise presentation of a $25,000 cash prize to unsuspecting third-grade teacher Jacqueline Simms, who collapsed tearfully into a colleague’s arms upon hearing the news.
“I don’t know what to think. I feel like I’m getting an Oscar,” Simms said. “Since I was little, I always wanted to teach.”
The happy ambush came courtesy of former financier Michael Milken and the Milken Family Foundation, which since 1987 has handed out more than 2,500 such awards to outstanding educators across the country.
The goal, Milken said Wednesday at Anne Beers, is to send a message that great teachers deserve the kind of recognition that our country is more likely to heap on star athletes and A-list entertainers.
“We wanted to let you know how special your teachers are and how important they are,” Milken told the children, whose eyes bulged at the size of the sum this stranger was giving to a teacher at their school. “We should say thank you to our teachers and our educators more.”
Milken credited Simms — a graduate of the District’s Cardozo High School and a 13-year teaching veteran who spent the past four years as an academic intervention coach — with playing a key role in helping special-education students better integrate into general-education classrooms.
“To be able to mainstream kids with learning challenges really changes society, and she is so successful doing it,” said Milken, who made his fortune trading junk bonds in the 1980s before pleading guilty to felony securities and reporting violations. His philanthropic endeavors have focused on education and medicine.
Simms also set up a Saturday school program, recruiting volunteers from among her colleagues to teach students in need of extra help. And among a long list of other accomplishments, she established “book nooks” — corners of the school where kids can go to calm down, read a book or talk to a social worker — and “Cheetah Bucks,” part of a system of rewards to encourage good behavior.
The teacher accepted her oversized check before a phalanx of television cameras and an audience including D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley-Jones and council members David Catania (I-At Large) and Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7).
Afterward, as the cameras began to thin, Simms’s students enveloped her in a group hug. “I think she’s a great teacher,” said Timara Bullock, 9. “She helps me.”
Principal Gwendolyn Payton said Simms is one of many excellent teachers at Anne Beers, which showed some of the city’s biggest gains on last year’s math and reading tests.
Between 2011 and 2012, the proportion of students proficient in math nearly doubled, from 28 to 46 percent, and reading proficiency rose eight points to 48 percent.
“We know that we are absolutely one of the best-kept secrets in the city,” Payton said.