When Jackie Roehl was admitted to the University of St. Thomas, she was almost 30 years old and more than eager to jump-start her career as a teacher.

Teaching had been a dream deferred, put on the back burner while she raised her children and helped put her husband through law school.

But a difficult calculus class derailed Roehl's plans to teach math, prompting her to change majors. She selected English, and it turned out to be a good fit. So good, that Roehl was recently named Minnesota's Teacher of the Year.

"I was one of those people that had such a great high school experience, I never thought about doing anything other than teaching," said Roehl, who's taught at Edina since 1998.

Roehl is the state's 48th Teacher of the Year and the first to hail from Edina, long-considered a Twin Cities academic powerhouse.

But the suburban city has also received a reputation of being a haven for mostly white, affluent students who are detached from their peers of different races and income levels.

Enter Jackie Roehl.

She sees closing the state's notorious achievement gap between white and non-white students as a moral imperative. One of the ways to do that, Roehl says, is for teachers to adopt strategies known as culturally responsive teaching.

At its core, culturally responsive teaching is recognizing that an individual student's culture shapes how they learn. Unlike some traditional teaching strategies, culturally responsive teaching puts an emphasis on priming students to learn.

"You have to give students reason to care," she said. "If you don't, that means your lesson isn't culturally relevant."

As co-chair of the school's staff development team, Roehl has been educating colleagues about those strategies for years.

"Her passion really fuels others," said Meggie Trenda, an Edina Spanish teacher who helps Roehl lead the staff development team. "She got me really passionate in equity for students, particularly students of color."

Another of Roehl's passionate projects is an innovative class that's going to launch next year at Edina High.

The class, Pre-Advanced Placement English, represents a significant departure from how English is currently taught to Edina underclassmen who are now offered the choice of either taking enriched English or basic English.

The class essentially combines students of all abilities -- from students that have been branded "gifted" to those who are learning English as a second language and special education students. It raises the bar for all -- while eliminating the baseline that commonly prevented students from rising beyond expectations.

"If we want our kids to be leaders in the 21st century, everyone needs to be successful," she said. "But we're not going to do that if we slow some kids down by putting them in a class that doesn't have a high academic tone."

Roehl and other members of the school's English Department have been seeking approval for the class for four years. As expected, they ran into some roadblocks along the way.

"It's not going to harm bright kids, but that's the concern we hear," she said. "Teachers who teach English-language learners are excited and want to work with us, special education students are excited and want to work with us, but there is a small but vocal group of parents who didn't."

Colleagues say the class represents the non-conventional way of teaching that Roehl embraces. Her enthusiasm is infectious, they say, and inspires them to also push the boundaries in education to help students.

"Jackie is the kind of teacher I want to be when I have the kind of experience that she does," said Rachel Hatten, a sophomore English teacher. "One of the challenges that teachers face is becoming complacent in their approach to students. Jackie has never done that."

Being an instrumental part of those classes is sure to consume much of Roehl's time next year as well her various commitments as Teacher of the Year.

One of those obligations is being a part of the National Teacher of the Year program. Each of the country's 53 state nominees will be invited to attend an event next spring at the White House where the new National Teacher of the Year will be announced.

While many states' nominees take a sabbatical from their regular teaching jobs, Roehl plans to stay put in Edina.

"Still, I can't wait for summer break so I can have one job instead of two," she said.

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469