Downtown Elementary Magnet Academy teacher named Milken Educator of the Year, wins $25,000

Mary Mitchell threw her arms around a crying Lisa Bell and hugged her tightly.

“See, I told you that you are special,” Mitchell said.

Bell, 35, is a third grade teacher at Downtown Elementary Magnet Academy in Columbus, and Mitchell’s grandchild is in her class. Mitchell was among those present at the school Tuesday morning to see Bell named as the 2012 Milken Educator of the Year for Georgia.

With the honor came a check for $25,000.

“She is special as a teacher because she sees each student as special and treats them that way,” Mitchell said.

“I am completely blown away,” said Bell, a Columbus State University graduate, moments after hearing her name called out.

Some students yelled “we love you” as Bell accepted her honor.

The award was presented at an assembly in the school gym on career day. State School Superintendent John D. Barge was on hand for the festivities, but up to that point it was a secret why he was actually in town.

The Milken Educator Awards, called the “Oscars of teaching” by Teacher Magazine, have been given by the Milken Family Foundation since 1987 to recognize the importance of outstanding educators and to encourage talented young people to enter the teaching profession.

Unlike most awards, there is no formal nomination or application process. Teachers and principals and specialists are nominated to Milken by the state’s department of education. Georgia principals thought they were nominating teachers to serve on state advisory boards.

The Milken announcement was made by Gary Stark, president and chief executive officer of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, who told the students “we need to celebrate the work of our teachers when we can.”

“Today, an exceptional teacher was given a well-deserved honor,” Barge said.

Barge was introduced by Muscogee County School District Interim Superintendent John Phillips Jr., who called Barge a “passionate, visionary leader bringing great things to our state.”

Barge told the students how he came from a poor family and began planning his future as a child. He told them he knew he would have to get a good education so that as an adult he would be able to provide for his family.

“It is never too early to think about, to dream about what you want to do,” Barge said.

Downtown Principal Tonya Douglass called Bell “amazing.“

“Every nook and cranny in her room promotes critical thinking,” Douglass said. “She starts at the beginning of the year establishing a family atmosphere in her class, demanding that each student respect each other.”

She has also served as the director of Bloom Central, an outdoor literacy center focused on science literacy. Bell has worked with approximately 30-40 students twice a week for 45 minutes to help them develop a love and interest in nature, ecology and life science.

Bell, who said some students call her “mom,” has been a teacher for 11 years, all at Downtown. She said she works hard to “make learning fun.”

“I am in total shock,” Bell said.

Asked what she was going to do with the money, she said, “Pay off my car and some student loans.”