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Surprise at Prairie Knolls assembly: Elgin teacher wins ‘Oscar of teaching’

From left: State Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Hinckley) Dr. Jane Foley Milken Family FoundatiMilken National Educator Award winner MelissLeisner Illinois State

From left: State Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Hinckley), Dr. Jane Foley of Milken Family Foundation, Milken National Educator Award winner Melissa Leisner, and Illinois State Superintendent Christopher Koch display Leisner's award check Tuesday. | Denise Moran~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 27, 2014 1:55PM

ELGIN — The students and teachers at Prairie Knolls Middle School thought they had been called to an assembly Tuesday afternoon to hear the state school superintendent talk about Illinois’ new “Common Core” learning objectives. But seventh-grade English and reading teacher Melissa Leisner found out the superintendent really was coming to surprise her with the prestigious Milken National Educator Award.

“This award is called ‘the Oscar of Teaching,’ ” said Dr. Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif., and a Milken Award winner herself.

“Over 25 years ago, Lowell Milken created the program to honor educators,” Foley said. “Greatness in education should be recognized. Only if we elevate the teaching profession will we inspire kids to become teachers.

“We don’t accept nominations for this award. Milken finds the winners. Melissa will join our all-star education team. She was the only teacher from Illinois to win the award this year.”

Leisner has been a lifelong Elgin resident. She earned her undergraduate degree at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. She earned her first master’s degree at Aurora University and her second master’s degree at Judson University in Elgin.

The Milken Award includes a check for $25,000. Leisner said she has been considering doctoral studies and may use the award money toward that goal.

“I’ve been teaching for 15 years,” Leisner said. “I’ve been teaching at Prairie Knolls Middle School since it opened seven years ago. I started a program called Young Adult Café five years ago to introduce students to great literature. We now call it the YA Café.”

The award presentation was held in the Prairie Knolls gym, filled with the school’s students, teachers and staff.

Other attendees included Illinois State Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch; Community Unit School District 301 Superintendent Todd Stirn; District 301 Assistant Superintendent Esther Martin; state Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Hinckley); Laura Helsper, District 301 teacher and president of the district teachers association; the District 301 school board; Elgin Community College President David Sam; and District 301 principals.

This year is Chris Testone’s first year as principal of Prairie Knolls.

“What a privilege it is to have Melissa Leisner teach here,” Testone said. “Her passion for education is second to none.”

Stirn introduced Koch to the audience.

“As superintendent of District 301, I have 3,500 students to care for,” Stirn said. “State Superintendent Christopher Koch cares for 2 million students. We have some of the best students here. In Illinois, we are focused on making our education second to none. The students are our future. We take pride in their accomplishments.”

“This is an exciting time in education,” Koch said. “The new learning standards, or Common Core, help us to know what to teach. Forty-six other states are using Common Core. I want to thank students for their hard work.”

Three from Judson

Steve Layne won the Milken Award in 2001 when he was teaching at Butler Junior High School in Oak Brook. He is now a Judson University professor who once taught Leisner in his class. Layne, Leisner and Tammy Range-Alexander, who taught in Alabama, are three Judson alumni who have all won the Milken Award.

In addition to Layne, other Milken Award winners from Illinois came to Prairie Knolls on Tuesday to celebrate Leisner’s award. They were:

2000 winner Gary Swick from Dundee-Crown High School, Carpentersville

2012 winner Stephanie Hawkins from Lynne Thigpen Elementary School, Joliet

1990 winner Janice Gehrmann from William H. Brown School, Chicago

2011 winner Bradley Abel from John Hersey High School, Arlington Heights

1989 winner Art Reisman from East Leyden High School, Franklin Park

Also present was Don Ring, who is 91 years old and once taught at Trinity International University in Deerfield.

Ring said his granddaughter is now a student at Prairie Knolls.

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