A pair of unsuspecting Twin Cities educators each won a prestigious national honor: a $25,000 Milken Award.
When they handed teacher Carolyn Ruhnow the big check on Tuesday, her first thought was of her father, Harvey, who died in August. "He's up there looking down, smiling big-time," she said, her voice cracking as she spoke to students and colleagues at Rice Lake Elementary School in Lino Lakes.
Over at Sojourner Truth Academy in north Minneapolis, Jennifer Mitchell was lured back from maternity leave to the school assembly, where students held up signs with the imposing number: $25,000.
Both had just won Milken Awards, the teacher equivalent of an Oscar. The no-strings attached honors will go to only 55 teachers nationwide this year. The awards were bestowed under a cloak of secrecy, with neither Ruhnow nor Mitchell knowing she was being honored until the announcement was made at a school assembly.
The award was developed 23 years ago by the Milken Family Foundation to recognize outstanding teachers and encourage young people to enter the profession.
A window into her life
At Rice Lake Elementary, Ruhnow, 42, accepted her award with stifled sobs and the tribute to her father.
Aside from the shock and emotion of the moment, Ruhnow's words were in keeping with her approach to teaching: She treats her fifth-graders as confidants and lets them in on the workings of her home life. In fact, she peppers her lessons with stories of her dogs, Gabby and Archie.
"I'm a dog nut," Ruhnow said later. "So one of the kids came up to me and said, 'Now, you can buy another dog.' "
A glance around her classroom offers strong clues to that effect: posters and pictures of dogs and stuffed dog animals ring the room. Ruhnow weaves dogs into her lessons, and at the end of the year, her students embark on a dog research project, each one choosing a breed on which to focus.
By offering the kids a window into her life, Ruhnow figures she becomes more of a person and less of an authority figure. The result? Better student performance.
After her dad died, she took some time off and didn't return to the school until October. Instead of trying to gloss over her absence, she shared stories about the Alzheimer's disease that ravaged him. Still, Ruhnow knows not to get too chummy.
"My job is to teach, not to be their best friend," said Ruhnow, who has taught for 20 years, including nine at Rice Lake.
As for the $25,000 prize, Ruhnow has a couple of ideas: She wants to donate to the Edina hospice that cared for her dad during his last days and "put up a fence around the back yard to keep the dogs in."
Working hard to achieve
At Sojourner Truth, Principal Julie Guy asked Mitchell to come to school under the ruse of having her answer questions from state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren.
Seagren was indeed there, but Guy conveniently forgot to mention the check and the assembly.
"I knew the surprise would be worth it," Guy said.
Forty Minnesota teachers have won Milken Awards; Mitchell may be the first from a charter school, state education officials said.
A former third-grade teacher, Mitchell now works as a director of curriculum and instruction at Sojourner Truth, helping her colleagues become better instructors and forge deeper connections with students and families.
"It's teachers like Jennifer that are helping you grow up and be the best you can be," Seagren told the crowd in the school's gymnasium.
Mitchell, a University of Minnesota graduate, returned to Minneapolis six years ago in search of a charter academy, having grown frustrated with traditional public schools.
Her family supports her dedication to education: Her mother drove five hours from Beloit, Wis., to baby-sit Mitchell's 7-week-old daughter, Jada, allowing Mitchell's triumphant return to Sojourner Truth on Tuesday.
"I wanted to be a teacher my whole life," Mitchell said as she wiped away tears. "I didn't have the passion for it until I came here."
Mitchell plans to spend her money on tuition. She wants to earn her principal's license and an educational leadership degree plus help her husband finish course work for his bachelor's degree.
She hopes that Tuesday's presentation sends a message to her students.
"If you work hard, you can achieve big things," she said.
Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491 Norman Draper 612-673-4547