WASHINGTON – Vincent Oliver still can’t forget the sight of his daughter teaching her first kindergarten class at Broad Acres Elementary School.
“I saw a woman, I didn’t see my daughter. I saw a woman who was a consummate professional who had the complete attention of her students,” he said. “I knew then that she was something.”
The selection committee for the National Teacher of the Year award has seen something in Kimberly Oliver, too. The Montgomery County teacher was officially named Thursday as one of four finalists competing for the award.
While a love of education has been a part of Oliver’s life for as long as her family can remember — she has never received any grade lower than an “A” –her mother, Veronica, remembers a time when her academic career hinged on equality.
Oliver came home from kindergarten in tears one day because she thought she was “flunking,” her mother said. After a meeting with the teacher, she learned her daughter was, in fact, getting top marks.
Even after Veronica Oliver explained the situation, her daughter still couldn’t understand how she could pass the class because she was never given a gold star.
“At a very young age she was very conscious of not receiving what everyone else was receiving,” Veronica said. “Now, in her class, she makes sure that everyone is treated equally.”
Kimberly Oliver’s ability to get her students to take responsibility for their education, even at such an early age, made Oliver’s application stand out, according to representatives of selection committees at the county, state and national level.
“Students have a major role in education,” Oliver explained. “It’s a teacher’s job to open the door and provide access but it really is a student’s job to walk through it.”
Her nomination marks the first time a Maryland teacher has been selected as a finalist since 1993 and, if she wins, she will be the first Maryland teacher to take home the crystal apple in the award’s 53-year history. She is also the Montgomery County and Maryland teacher of the year.
Oliver admits that her early experiences have influenced how she teaches today in other ways, too. Remembering how important it was for her to be recognized by teachers, she has tried to model herself after her favorite day care instructor.
“She had this knack of making me feel so special because she was so attentive,” she said. “I remember feeling like I was the only kid in the class.”
Oliver said she hopes that is how she will be remembered by her own students.
Cultivating strong personal relationships with her students, their parents and other teachers made Oliver’s application one of the ones to “jump off the page,” said Andy Drewlinger, a project assistant for the National Teacher of the Year Program.
But it’s less of a personal victory, Oliver said, and more of a testament to her school’s success as a whole.
With about 98 percent of the students on free or reduced lunch programs, a more than 30 percent mobility rate and about three-quarters of the student population not speaking English as their first language, Broad Acres Elementary poses unique teaching challenges, according to some education professionals.
At the time, Oliver first started working at Broad Acres Elementary in August 2000, it was the worst-performing school in the county and one of the state’s worst.
Faced with low test scores and pending action from the county, Broad Acres Elementary began a restructuring process that required teachers to commit to the school for three years, take an intensive teacher training course and devote 50 days beyond the school session to planning.
Oliver was one of the teachers willing to stay on under the new conditions. “I wanted to learn from the best. I wanted to be here and be a part of the change,” she said.
Broad Acres Elementary has seen a dramatic increase in test scores since the restructuring. The second-grade median, reading, average score shot up 18 percent between 2001 and 2005, while language skills shot up 41 percent during the same period.
Suzette Chagnon, principal of Broad Acres Elementary, attributes the school’s improvement in part to Oliver’s ability to create a strong education foundation for students as they move through the grade ranks and her ability to challenge other teachers to achieve more.
Oliver will be interviewed by the national selection committee in March and, based on her performance, could be announced as the winner at a White House ceremony tentatively scheduled for the last week of April.
Even if she does not win, Oliver said that working with her students is reward enough. This new recognition just serves as another reminder of how important her job is.
Oliver explained that during the Marian Greenblatt Education Fund award ceremony, which set off a chain of award events that got her to the national level, a few of her former students spoke about how she influenced their lives.
In particular, Oliver remembers one student’s description: “She said I was her first best teacher, so I thought that summed it up pretty well. She has had some other best teachers but I was her first.”