Katy Smith of Winona won Minnesota Teacher of the Year honors Sunday, the first time the 47-year-old award has been bestowed on a teacher who specializes in Early Childhood Family Education.

Smith, 51, a native of the Twin Cities' western suburbs, has taught in the Winona school district since 1993 and works out of Goodview School. She has long specialized in Early Childhood Family Education, a program available in almost all Minnesota public school districts. The state is a leader nationally in the field, authorities say.

The program is based on the idea that the family provides a child's first and most significant learning environment and parents are a child's first and most important teachers, according to the Minnesota Department of Education's website.

Parents and children from infancy to pre-kindergarten together attend childhood-family education classes.

"You learn so much that really covers you through your parenting life," Smith said after the award was announced at a banquet for the 10 finalists at Brooklyn Park's Northland Inn. Finalists were winnowed down from 108 candidates in the original field.

For Smith, a typical morning would include a session in which children and parents together help build relationships through play. Then, children older than infants are separated from parents to attend pre-kindergarten early-childhood classes. The parents, meanwhile, are educated on milestones in children's cognitive development and educational methods that will allow their kids to best be prepared for school, among other things.

"Everyone leaves her class feeling like a better parent -- one reason why her ECFE classes are so popular and are often filled to capacity," Tina White Smeby, a Winona parent who's enrolled in Smith's classes, said in a news release.

Smith, 51, got a bachelor's degree in social work from Winona State University and a master's in education from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. She started as a chemical dependency counselor, then moved to her current field, with which she's had a long association. Smith went through Early Childhood Family Education with her three children, who are now ages 21 through 26.

Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, organizes and underwrites the Teacher of the Year program, which also receives support from several other nonprofit organizations and companies. Teachers can be nominated by parents, colleagues, students or their local teachers unions. A panel that includes education experts and community representatives makes the selection.

As Minnesota's Teacher of the Year, Smith will be the state's nominee for National Teacher of the Year for 2012.

Other finalists for 2011 Minnesota Teacher of the Year were Joyce Baumann, kindergarten, Cold Spring Elementary; Scot Hovan, physics, Mahtomedi High School; Mark Nechanicky, fourth grade, Lakeview Elementary in Albert Lea; Mary Perrine, history, Chaska Middle School East; Peter Redmond, language arts, St. Louis Park High School; Christi Schmitt, English Language Learning at St. Paul's L'Etoile du Nord French Immersion School; Laura Sharp, vocal music, Little Canada Elementary; Megan Speers, history, Wayzata West Middle School, and J. Scott Urban, advanced-placement government, Mankato West High School.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003