Minnesota's latest entrant into an exclusive club of elite educators is a St. Paul fourth-grade teacher skilled in the use of technology and attuned to the rhythms of Southern rock music.
Steve Abenth, 37, was honored Friday as the state's lone recipient of a 2012 Milken Educator Award for excellence in teaching.
As is custom, Abenth received the $25,000 award in an air of secrecy and surprise, the announcement coming after he had been asked to lead a choir in a short performance in the gymnasium at Highland Park Elementary School.
Abenth had been told, he said later, that students and teachers would be gathering to celebrate "student achievement."
Instead, after accompanying the 50-member choir with strummed guitar on one song and a pounded drum and vocals on the other, Abenth was stunned to find himself ambling through the crowd to collect a prize he says will make possible the delayed pursuit of a master's degree in education technology.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, Mayor Chris Coleman and state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius were on hand, as were Abenth's two children: Nora, a kindergarten student at Highland Park Elementary, and Charlie, a fourth-grader who reports to one of his dad's colleagues.
Charlie was part of the surprise, although he too had no inkling of it. Just before the announcement by Jane Foley of the Milken Family Foundation, Charlie joined five other students holding signs that together read: $25000.
Later, as Abenth spoke with reporters, his son exclaimed: "He's the best teacher in the world!"
Principal Teresa Vibar said that Abenth embodied the sort of teacher that district administrators had in mind when they pushed a $9 million per year investment in technology-enhanced learning, as part of a $39 million per year levy approved by voters Tuesday.
The Milken awards are often referred to as "the Oscars of teaching." They recognize outstanding early- to mid-career educators who organizers hope continue to contribute to the profession in the future. Recipients are free to use the money as they please.
Abenth uses an interactive whiteboard -- "a blackboard on steroids," he said -- that enables him to ask questions of his students and get immediate answers that the class can discuss.
Vibar said Abenth is quick to share ideas, too, with her and his peers.
His colleagues help make it possible for him to teach choir by filling in for him in the classroom. But the benefits go both ways, Vibar said. By directing the choirs, Abenth gives Highland Park Elementary students an opportunity they might not otherwise have, she said.
Outside of school, Abenth drums in a classic-rock cover band, Crazy Chester, that he says offers him an outlet to express himself -- and is "good therapy" besides.
Southern rock is a big part of the mix.
Skynyrd? he was asked. Yes, Abenth replied, and the Allman Brothers Band, too.
While Abenth plans to head to school for his advanced degree, he said he has no designs on a move into school administration -- a path taken by many previous recipients, including a few in attendance Friday.
The classroom, he said, is too much fun.
Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036