It could have been a typical Monday morning for Becky Streff.
Surrounded by students, Streff sat quietly in the bleachers at North Bend Elementary School — unaware of the honor that was coming her way.
Then her name was announced.
She’d been selected to receive a $25,000 Milken Educator Award.
“I was sure they were talking about someone else,” she said, later. “It couldn’t have been me.”
But it was.
And amid applause from a host of school, city and other dignitaries, Streff left the bleachers to receive one of the awards described by Teacher magazine as the “Oscars of Teaching.”
Streff is the only teacher from Nebraska to receive the 2018-19 award and one of only 33 nationwide. Precious few people knew ahead of time that she’d receive the honor during the assembly and Streff was very surprised.
“I’m in shock, very humbled and speechless — honored to receive this award,” the fifth-grade teacher said. “I look forward to the adventure and the learning that will transpire.”
Streff was quick to commend her colleagues — saying the award easily could have gone to one of her fellow teachers.
“We have an awesome staff where we’re always pushing each other,” she said. “We have a book club going that meets once or twice a month. We talk about students’ learning and what we can do to help them be successful in regard to reading or to math.”
Greg Gallagher, Milken Family Foundation program director, and Matthew L. Blomstedt, Nebraska Commissioner of Education, presented the award.
Milken educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and the promise of what they will accomplish, the foundation said in a prepared statement.
Besides the $25,000 unrestricted cash prize, the honor includes membership in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top teachers, principals and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.
The 2018-19 recipients also will attend a Milken Educator Forum in New Orleans from March 21-24.
Former recipients have used their awards to fund their children’s education or their own continuing education. Others have financed dream field trips, established scholarships and even funded the adoption of children.
A few past award recipients attended the surprise presentation.
“It completely changed my life. Get ready for the ride,” said Jon Pickinpaugh, who earned the honor in 2017-18 and now teaches at Omaha Nation High School in Macy.
Kenton Mann, a 1996 recipient, now a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, also expressed encouragement.
“You’ve got a lot to be proud of,” Mann told Streff before the crowd.
Streff’s students consistently exceed average math, reading and science scores on state assessments, and a majority exceed grade-level standards in all areas, a foundation press release stated.
The foundation cited her creative thinking and educational innovation as a major reason why students exceed the standards.
In comments about Streff’s strengths as a teacher, the foundation highlighted a persuasive writing unit in which she asked students to craft arguments for or against offering chocolate milk in schools.
Nutritionists visited her classroom to talk about added sugar in common beverages and students did their own research as well. They presented their arguments to multiple panels, including parents, community members and media.
Streff planned the unit collaboratively with the school’s fourth- and sixth-grade teachers and the writing unit crossed over to enhance the students’ reading, science, math and speaking skills.
“Becky is a great example of what it means to be an outstanding teacher,” Blomstedt said. “She always engages her students and her fellow teachers to be the best they can be both inside and outside of the classroom.”
North Bend Central Superintendent Dan Endorf commended Streff as well.
“Mrs. Streff is confident in her abilities,” Endorf said. “An example of her self-confidence is the development of a classroom project for the district titled Writer’s Café, in which adults visited school to hear the personal writings of her students. Mrs. Streff continually develops grant proposals, introduced a fifth-grade graduation ceremony, and presents student achievement data to her colleagues on her own volition.”
In other comments, the foundation highlighted Streff’s strengths and activities, which include:
Streff earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 2004 and a master’s of teaching, learning and teacher education 2008 from the University of Nebraska, plus a master’s in educational leadership in 2013 from Doane University.
Among officials attending the surprise assembly was Lt. Gov. Mike Foley and Streff’s husband, Ken, who serves on the North Bend City Council and is a teacher and coach at North Bend Central Junior-Senior High School.
The Streffs have four children: Philip, 9; Isabella, 7; Julia, 5; and Kevin, 2 months.
“None of us woke up this morning having any clue what was happening,” Ken Streff said. “I was invited down here as a city councilman and I thought I’d be sitting there as a bump on a log—and I almost fell over.”
Streff complimented his spouse.
“She’s an amazing teacher,” he said, smiling. “She’s a heck of a mother and she puts up with me. I’m busy doing coaching and teaching.”
While still absorbing what had just happened Monday morning, Becky Streff talked about her students.
“I love learning with the students and working with them,” she said. “I don’t have all the answers. They give me answers. We talk. I truly believe that teaching them is a teamwork process. We’re learning together.
“They have so much energy,” she added. “They have such smart brains and I love listening everything they share and say.”
Most people don’t get to have supper with a first responder.
But from 6-7 tonight, elementary schoolchildren will have that opportunity during Grant Family Night Stories and Supper.
“We have invited our first responders — our fire, police and sheriff’s departments to come and join us for dinner,” said Diane Brown, chairperson. “We’re wanting to give back to the community and those who help keep us safe and sound.”
The first responders family members are invited as well.
During the dinner, Grant students and parents will read stories to the diners.
People at some tables will create their own stories. For instance, one person will contribute a phrase such as: “My dog’s name is ….” on a piece of paper, before passing it to the next person who will add something. The paper will continue to be passed to create the story at the table.
Brown said the hope is that 100 kids, families and first responders will attend.
The Grant PTA is sponsoring the event.
“We’ll have teachers there as well,” she said. “We’re trying to tell everyone to get out and visit your schools and see what’s happening in Fremont with public education.”
This is one of various activities at the school.
Recently, schoolchildren participated in a movie night with pizza for Grant families and watched “Finding Dory” at Midland University. Free books were given to the children.
“We will be teaming up again with Midland on March 8 where the kids will go to the Midland Planetarium,” she said.
There, students will read under the stars with the Midland students. Each Grant student will receive a glow bracelet.
“Our whole goal is to try and reach out to the community and to give back to show our appreciation for supporting us and our school,” Brown said.
Brown added that most events at Grant are free or have a low cost for attendees.
Two Fremont rail crossings are still closed due to ongoing repairs of damage caused by train derailments, though work has been delayed by weather, Union Pacific confirmed with the Tribune on Monday.
The crossings are located on Union Street, just south of Dodge Street, and on Johnson Road, just south of the Johnson Crossing Academic Center.
Raquel Espinoza, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific, confirmed with the Tribune that the closures were due to work on repairs resulting from derailments at the sites.
“Crews began making repairs at the crossings, but weather has affected their ability to complete the work,” she said in an email. “We hope to complete the project and open the project in the next week.”
Espinoza did not respond to multiple inquiries about the timeline of when the intersections first closed down.
“Union Pacific investigates all accidents and continues working to safely operate trains through our communities,” she added.
Union Pacific saw another, larger derailment in the Fremont area earlier this year after a train carrying coal near Fremont derailed in January.
That derailment led to a temporary shutdown of Old Highway 275, after 23 cars on a train bound for Sioux City, Iowa from Wright, Wyoming, derailed at 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 8, leaving a trail of mangled rail cars and spilling coal out onto the ground.
That incident occurred just north of the U.S. Highway 275 and Nebraska Highway 36 intersection.
The exact cause of the January derailment is still unclear. No one was injured.