Teacher gets a rich reward

Honor: A Carroll County educator is taken by surprise, winning a national award worth thousands.

October 17, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

With the ceremony and secrecy typical of Hollywood's flashy red-carpet awards programs, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick surprised a veteran Carroll County science teacher yesterday with a prestigious national education award and a $25,000 check that she can use for whatever she likes.

Students erupted into cheers and Century High School's band struck up a celebratory song as a stunned Karen Luniewski, 38, made her way down from the bleachers where she had been sitting with her class to the podium in Century's gymnasium.

"This is an honor. I never expected this," said Luniewski, who quickly and shakily thanked the middle school principal who first hired her 15 years ago, the school system's science supervisor, her principal at Century High and her students. "This is a great honor. I am very shocked."

Luniewski, known for bringing abstract scientific concepts to life through hands-on projects, is one of only two educators in Maryland and 100 nationwide to receive this year's National Educator Awards from the California-based Milken Family Foundation. Maryland's other recipient, Calvert Middle School Principal Deborah Grinnage-Pulley in Prince Frederick, received her award at a surprise assembly Tuesday in Calvert County.

In addition to the no-strings-attached cash prize, both educators will receive a trophy, an 18-karat-gold pin and an invitation to a four-day conference and gala dinner in Washington, where state education officials said they will be "wined and dined" by diplomats, dignitaries, business executives, Hollywood stars and perhaps even President Bush.

"Sometimes we forget that outstanding teachers and administrators make every other profession possible in our society," Grasmick said. "Usually there is no big reward for being an outstanding teacher other than the satisfaction that you made a difference in the lives of your students."

Few knew the true reason for yesterday's midmorning assembly at Eldersburg's Century High.

Principal Andrew Cockley told his staff only that Grasmick was visiting the 3-year-old school to highlight the great things happening there.

Students in the crowd wondered aloud whether the state schools chief was singling them out or would also visit Westminster's Winters Mill High, which opened a year after Century.

With a schoolwide pep rally scheduled for Monday and 10th- and 11th-graders slated to take the PSATs a day later, some teachers even grumbled at the additional interruption.

Grasmick played up the element of surprise.

After listing some of Century's achievements - the highest attendance rate among Carroll's seven high schools, the lowest drop-out rate and students' exemplary success by state and national standards - Grasmick revealed that she had traveled to Century for another reason.

"Sometimes in other professions people make a lot more money than teachers make," Grasmick said, telling students about the Milken awards. "I thought it appropriate that this person should get a cash award and I'd like you to help me with this. I'll ask you, as I write some numbers on this board, if you think this is enough money for this outstanding teacher."

By the time Grasmick had added three zeros to the $25 figure that she initially drew on the dry-erase board, students were hooting and hollering as if the clock was running out on their team's bid for a state championship title.

"And now for the moment we've all been waiting for," the state superintendent concluded. "The envelope, please."

Luniewski said she had no idea the award was hers. She had not even known that she had been nominated by the men who in 1988 ended her job search - Bradley Yohe, the school system's science supervisor, and middle schools director Donald Pyles, who was principal of Sykesville Middle when he hired Luniewski to teach eighth-grade earth science.

Since then, she has taught seven science courses at Sykesville Middle, Hampstead's North Carroll High and Century High.

Her students studied global warming by downloading the latest data from the field's leading researchers at the Goddard Space Center.

They measured ground-level aerosol levels during a joint research project with Drexel University.

And they tested their theories and pursued their scientific interests in a science research class that Luniewski developed at North Carroll.

"When you take her courses, you are doing those kinds of cutting-edge science things," Yohe said. "That's why she is so deserving. She is able to show that scientific concepts have a practical application in everyday life."

Luniewski spent most of the morning in a haze, accepting congratulations, stashing her bouquet of roses and trailing Grasmick and an entourage of local and state officials who toured Century High.

By noon, she had not found time to call her husband, Timothy, and she had not concocted any plans for her windfall, other than to invest it.

"I'm still in shock," Luniewski said. "I guess I really won that. It's overwhelming. It's fantastic."

Told that other teachers had offered to cover her classes for the rest of the day, she again appeared taken aback. "But I can teach, right?" Luniewski inquired. "I mean, I want to teach."

Unfazed by her new fame or fortune, the award-winning teacher dashed off for a quick lunch so she could get out of the limelight and back into the science classroom, where she is most comfortable.

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