Bains Elementary fifth-grade teacher Stephanie Whetstone, surrounded by her students, made a video call to her husband to tell him she received a national award that no one had prior knowledge of, and she also won $25,000. He said, ‘Oh, no you didn’t’ and was met with the children’s immediately response: “Oh, yes, she did.”
A school assembly planned for Jan. 25 was an elaborate cover staged like the Grammys or Nobel Prize awards. The Milken Family Foundation awarded what is termed the “Oscars of Education” to Whetstone and the prestigious honor came with a $25,000 award she can spend in any way she chooses.
Pulling off a surprise of this magnitude was no easy feat, but honors and achievements of Bains Elementary served as an impressive backdrop for the rouse. Bains Principal Jodi Lemoine said only four people in the district knew of the honor beforehand.
“A very small core committee in the district have known for about two weeks,” she said. “We have been working behind the scenes to prepare for the assembly. It’s been fewer than four of us who knew the surprise and had to hold on to it for about two weeks.”
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 to present a special achievement award to the school. The distraction had its base in true-to-life achievements at Bains, and West Feliciana schools Superintendent Hollis Milton addressed the students and expressed how proud he was of their accomplishments. “The secret to success is hard work,” he said.
He was followed by Louisiana first lady Donna Edwards, a former teacher, and state Assistant Superintendent Hannah Dietsch, who spoke on behalf of her boss, state Superintendent of Education John White.
Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Jane Foley was introduced, and she began to unravel the minor web of deception when she announced that her organization sought out the best educators in the country and that this year, a Bains teacher would be one of only 30 teachers in the country to receive the special award. The auditorium shook with excitement because all the students and teachers were learning the news together.
Foley further built suspense by placing students in front of the crowd holding individual numbers that started with a total of $25. Two more “zero” cards were added, and Foley surveyed the children: “Wouldn’t it be great if one of your teachers was about to receive a check for $2,500?”
The superintendent then came forward with one more surprise “zero” card, shocking the screaming children into realizing that one of their teachers would be awarded $25,000. Edwards handed over the envelope, Oscar style, and announcement was finally verbalized: “The Milken Educator Award goes to Stephanie Whetstone.”
“As you heard earlier, you are receiving the Oscars of teaching," Edwards said, addressing Whetstone. “You represent what’s best in Louisiana and in education.”
“John Bel, your governor, and I are so proud of everyone here at Bains and what you have accomplished, Edwards said. “It takes all of us working together to make such great accomplishments.”
A delegation of veteran Milken educators was on hand to encourage their new member, including a former Baton Rouge teacher, a Port Allen educator and two north Louisiana educators. They spoke of how their lives changed when, out of nowhere, the Milken Family Foundation walked into their lives. The Milken Educator Awards, created in 1987, recognize teaching excellence publicly not only to celebrate, elevate and activate K-12 educators but also to inspire young, capable people to consider joining the adventure of teaching.
A foundation release said the honor, to be presented this 2018-19 season at 33 schools across the nation, has been described as the “Oscars of teaching” by Teacher magazine. “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 the release.
Lemoine, one of the four keepers of the secret, said emotions ran high when the Louisiana Department of Education revealed the coming presentation. “We were shocked initially and then overjoyed, she said. “For one of our teachers to recognized and honored, it is a reflection on our whole school and the teachers here.”
“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.”
Whetstone didn’t apply for the award and she was not nominated. The Milken Family Foundation found her. The group conducts a search each year to find pillars of excellence in education and identifies the educators leading the charge.
The Milken foundation summary of Whetstone highlighted a long string of results and innovative methods. “Step into Stephanie Whetstone’s fifth-grade classroom at Bains Elementary School in Louisiana’s West Feliciana Parish and you’ll find student 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,” it read. “Whetstone leaves no student behind in her science and math lessons, using a combination of small groups, individualized instruction and common formative assessments.”
The proof is in the results her students have shown. Her students’ Louisiana Educational Assessment Program test scores rose from 75.3 to 94.8 in math and from 77.3 to 87.9 in science. Her students recognize that math is not a chore. “Math is really fun, and I love it very much,” said Ava Branston.” She’s amazing teacher and I am really lucky that I got her in fifth grade, and I’m going to miss her when I go to the middle school.”
Whetstone said her methods are successful because each year, the school raises the bar as far as standards. “I think every year we look at our performance and try to beat it," she said. “We try to set higher goals for ourselves, and every year we look at what we can change.”
Bains is a Eureka curriculum school under Common Core standards and initiatives, but Whetstone said every new school year brings new ideas, and they look for things that they can change to fill in gaps and make adjustments in areas that students might have performance in need of improvement. “Even this year, we’ve made a few changes, and I plan with the fifth-grade team and we are always trying to think of new ways to raise the scores and raise their goals."
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 monetary award will be a blessing for her family because her baby spent time in the neonatal intensive care unit after his birth, she’s “excited about paying off those NICU bills.”
She also said she hopes she and her husband can go someplace fun. “Parents need a little break sometimes,” she added.
The Rev. Milton Coats, vice president of the West Feliciana Parish School Board, was thrilled to see the community leaders come together with the educators and celebrate this accomplishment. “It’s certainly exciting to see how everything is coming together,” he said. “You do all of the things that we do in the trenches and we are there to lend support ... and just to see them push our district over the top, it’s tremendous.”
School Board President Kevin Beauchamp, while happy to see the accolades that fall under the board’s leadership, gave full credit to the district’s hardworking team. “We try to make the right decisions, but it starts with good leadership at the top and that’s Superintendent Milton,” he said. “His team works to put all this together, and with the information they give to us, we try to act on it.”
“The decisions we make are made with the intention of making our schools better, but it takes everyone from the top to the bottom to make it happen,” Beauchamp said.
Whetstone’s class was given a pass on calm and quiet school rules. In a scene reminiscent of a pep rally, they cheered and bounced like each fifth-grader was headed to Disney World. Madison Bellue said she and her classmates were proud of Whetstone for being such a great teacher.
“We are so, so excited for her and grateful to have her as a teacher,” Aubree Croken said. “I hope she spends it well.”