The best-kept secret in West Feliciana Parish was announced with plenty of pomp Thursday as The Milken Family Foundation awarded its “Oscars of Education” to Bains Elementary fifth-grade teacher Stephanie Whetstone. The prestigious honor comes with a $25,000 financial award she can can spend however she pleases.
Pulling off a surprise of this magnitude was not easy. "It’s been fewer than four of us who knew the surprise and had to hold on to it for about two weeks,” Bains Principal Jodi Lemoine said of the ruse.
Bains has earned state and national recognition in recent years so faculty and students were told that local, state and national dignitaries were going to be on campus for the presentation of a special award to the school.
The staff and students were assembled, guests invited, an envelope was opened, Oscar style, and the secret was released.
“I am completely shocked, and I just want to thank the other fifth-grade teachers that I teach with,” Whetstone said, fighting back tears. “I know that we at Bains work really hard to push our kids and sometimes we feel fear that we push them too hard, but it’s nice when it pays off.”
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That hard work paid off, with her students’ LEAP test scores rising from 75.3 in math in 2017 to 94.8 in 2018 and from 77.3 in science to 87.9.
Bains was one of 33 schools across the nation for the 2018-19 school year to have a teacher receiving the award. The Milken Educator Awards, created in 1987, recognizes teaching excellence not only to celebrate and elevate K-12 educators, but also to inspire young, capable people to consider joining the adventure of teaching. “More than $138 million in funding, including $68 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall initiative, which includes powerful professional learning opportunities throughout recipients’ careers,” according to a foundation news release.
A delegation of veteran Milken educators was on hand Thursday, including a former Baton Rouge teacher, a Port Allen educator, two north Louisiana educators. They spoke of how their lives changed when, out of nowhere, the Milken Family Foundation walked into their lives.
Whetstone didn’t apply for the award and she was not nominated. The Milken Family Foundation found her.
The foundation's summary of Whetstone highlights a long string of innovative teaching methods: “Step into Stephanie Whetstone’s fifth-grade classroom at Bains Elementary School in Louisiana’s West Feliciana Parish and you’ll find students spread out on the floor, balancing on stability balls or working at standing desks while Whetstone teaches a small group at her horseshoe shaped table. … Whetstone leaves no student behind in her science and math lessons, using a combination of small groups, individualized instruction and common formative assessments.”
She said her methods are successful because each year the school raises the bar. “Every year we look at our performance and try to beat it."
Whetstone is graduate of Southeastern Louisiana University. She started her college career in communications and had hopes of becoming a reporter. After a short time working in media, she realized education was a strong calling in her life. She became certified to teach through a program with the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators and started her education career as a special education teacher in Livingston Parish for four years.
She and her husband live in Woodville, Mississippi, and they have a 7-month-old and a 2-year-old. She said the $25,000 Milken award will be a blessing for her family because her baby spent time in neonatal intensive care after his birth, and she’s “excited about paying off those NICU bills.”
She also hopes she and her husband they can go someplace fun: “Parents need a little break sometimes.”