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BOWLING GREEN - Between hugs and applause and photos, Ridge Elementary Teacher Stacia Timmons Higgins pulled out her cell phone and called her husband, Jeff.
"Call school," she said when she got his voice mail.
Mrs. Higgins, 37, had news that was too good to wait until she got home yesterday. At a school assembly in the gym, State Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman presented her with a National Educator Award from the Milken Family Foundation and a giant $25,000 check.
The money is hers to spend as she likes - no strings attached.
"This is amazing," an emotional Mrs. Higgins told the school's 160 students and staff after they congratulated her with a standing ovation. "This is going to make such a huge difference for my family, and that means a lot."
Jane Foley, senior vice president for the Milken Educator Awards, said Mrs. Higgins was the only teacher in Ohio selected for the award this year. In addition to the cash, she will receive an all-expense-paid trip to Los Angeles in April for a national education conference.
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Lois Zeh, who retired last year from teaching first grade at Ridge, fought back tears as the surprise award was announced.
"She's just marvelous," Ms. Zeh said. "She works so hard not only at school, but she also works with young educators as they're coming into the profession. She does wonderful things for the school like bringing in authors to school. We have a free book fair in the spring and she writes grants to get books for the kids."
Ridge Principal Dan Sheperd, who nominated her for the award a year ago, called Mrs. Higgins the engineer of the train at the small school.
"Since I have known her, and we have been colleagues 10 years now, she always seems to be willing to go above and beyond for her students as well as her colleagues," he said. "If truth be known, she makes me a better principal because I'm trying to get things in place for what she wants to do."
Since Mrs. Higgins arrived at Ridge from Washington Local Schools in 1999, the school has consistently improved in its reading scores. As the K-4 reading specialist from 1999 through the last school year, Mrs. Higgins helped increase the number of fourth-graders who passed their state achievement test in reading from 66.7 percent in 1999 to 95.5 percent by 2006.
Ms. Foley said that's the thing the Milken Family Foundation is looking for when it selects teachers from across the country for the educator awards.
"We try to reward educators who are innovative in their practices - with results," she said.
The foundation also chooses teachers considered leaders among their peers, those who are role models, and those who still have many years left to teach.
"This is not a lifetime achievement award," Ms. Foley said. "It predicts lifetime achievement."
The cash prize, she said, is intended to encourage teachers who are in the early or middle parts of their career to stay in teaching and let the public - and children - know the value of good educators.
Mrs. Higgins, a Bowling Green native, said she first decided to become a teacher in second grade but flirted with the idea of law school when she was a student at Baldwin Wallace College. She said she took a work-study job at a day care during college "and knew that's what I was meant to do."
She later earned a master's degree in education at Bowling Green State University, where she also teaches part-time.
Asked the magic question, "what will you do with the money?" the mother of two daughters - 4 and 11 months - said she didn't know yet.
"It's going to be very helpful for my family," she said.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: email@example.com or 419-353-5972.