"We are not stuck where society says we are."
Tiffany Tynes Curry thought the Jan. 24 assembly at Weinland Park Elementary School was for its continued success on the Third Grade Reading Guarantee tests.
About 30 minutes later, she learned the truth: Curry was one of 35 teachers nationwide to have received the Milken Educator Award.
"I was truly surprised," said a tearful Curry, a third-grade math and science teacher at the University District-area school, part of Columbus City Schools. "I thought it was going to be a reading teacher."
Officials with the Milken Educator Awards, created by the Milken Family Foundation, worked behind the scenes to keep the secret from the public, including Curry.
She was the only Ohio teacher to have received the award this year.
The assembly was packed with students, staff, previous Milken winners and education officials, including district Superintendent Dan Good and Paolo DeMaria, Ohio superintendent for public instruction.
Curry, who accepted the honor to raucous applause, received a $25,000 check from the foundation to be used at her discretion. She said she plans to spend the money on tuition at the Columbus School for Girls, where her daughter, Khyan, is a student. Curry also won a trip to New Orleans.
Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards, said the organization works with state departments of education to help select award recipients. The group looks for role models who demonstrate leadership and innovation in the classroom, are "unsung heroes" and are in the midpoint of their careers, Foley said.
Nominations for the award are not accepted, she said.
"You don't find us -- we find you," Foley said.
Curry, 38, said she was raised in Columbus City Schools and graduated from Mifflin High School.
The northeast Columbus resident said schools in the district have been unfairly stigmatized as being of a lower standard. She said she teaches her students to have high expectations regardless of their background.
"We are not stuck where society says we are," she said.