Wednesday was a time of surprise and celebration at Glen Cove High School, with hundreds of students and staff packing the gym for a mystery announcement that included one teacher's name in a sealed envelope and a $25,000 prize.
English teacher Lauren Jensen received a rousing standing ovation when she was announced as the recipient of the Milken Educator Award -- the only person in New York to receive the honor this year. After her name was called, she placed her right hand over her heart as she stepped forward.
"I'm the teacher I am because of you guys," said Jensen, who teaches the 10th and 12th grades. "There isn't anything I could imagine myself doing other than teaching. I live and breathe it, sometimes to a fault. You guys give my life meaning."
The award, issued by the California-based Milken Family Foundation, is considered "the Oscars of teaching," school officials said. It recognizes outstanding middle school and high school educators in their early to mid-careers for their achievements, the foundation said.
Co-founder Michael Milken, the philanthropist and former Wall Street financier, unveiled the prize's dollar amount in dramatic fashion by calling up six students and handing them individual signs to hold up one at a time, until the figure of $25,000 was on display.
"The most important job in this country is educating the future leaders of our country," Milken said. "Her commitment to excellence in everything she does and her ability to get students comfortable and expressing themselves in words has impacted so many."
Jensen, 35, graduated from Glen Cove High School in 1998 and has been a teacher there for the past three years. She is a member of the National Writing Project's Long Island branch and the National Council of Teachers of English, she said. She also helps coach the school's varsity cross-country team.
"My greatest strength as a teacher is that I put my heart and soul into the job," said Jensen. She said it's too early to know what she will do with the money.
Educators in up to 40 schools nationwide will receive the $25,000 unrestricted awards between now and the spring. The foundation launched the Milken Educator Award in 1987; since then, more than 2,600 individual prizes totaling about $65 million have been issued.
Superintendent Maria Rianna praised Jensen's efforts.
"Lauren signifies the best and the heart of every teacher in this room," Rianna said. "She is creative. She is caring. She wants every child to succeed."
Sophomore William Casale, 15, added, "I think she's an absolutely fantastic teacher. You can tell this school is her life."
The schoolwide assembly was organized under the ruse that students were to hear from John D'Agati, the State Education Department's deputy commissioner for higher education.Others in attendance included members of the district's board of education; D'Agati; Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Long Island on the state Board of Regents; Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset); and Glen Cove Mayor Reginald Spinello.