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Foundation names Gateway teacher among best in country

| Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, 11:08 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Jennifer Hoffner-Turkowski, a teacher at University Park Elementary School, reacts after being awarded a 2012 Milken Educator Award and $25,000 Tuesday morning by Dr. Jane Foley (right), senior vice-president of the Milken Educator Awards, Milken Family Foundation. The presentation took place at the school during a surpass assembly. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Jennifer Hoffner, a first-grade teacher at University Park Elementary School, is surprised by her mother and father, Jim and Marla Hoffner of Bluffton, SC., after being awarded a 2012 Milken Educator Award and $25,000 Tuesday from the Milken Family Foundation. The presentation took place at the school during an assembly. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review

At age 8, Jennifer Hoffner would play teacher, arranging her Cabbage Patch dolls and her little brother Jim in school desks around a chalkboard in her bedroom or on the back porch of the family's home near Harrison City.

“She would tell the dolls to pay attention,” recalls her father, Jim Hoffner, 61, of Hilton Head, S.C. “She would talk to them about how they were learning, ask them if they liked the class.”

Thirty years later, the now married Jennifer Hoffner-Turkowski is an elementary school teacher in the Gateway School District in Monroeville. And a very good one, according to the Milken Family Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif.

On Tuesday, the foundation gave her a $25,000 check and a 2012 Milken Educator Award — the teaching equivalent of an Oscar — for being one of the best teachers in the country. The presentation took place during a surprise ceremony at University Park Elementary School, where she teaches first grade.

“You walk into my room, there's a lot of energy — not just from me, but my students,” a shocked Hoffner-Turkowski, 38, of North Huntingdon in Westmoreland County, said afterward. “I have high expectations.”

She is one of up to 40 teachers in the country getting a Milken award this year. Since the foundation first began presenting the awards in 1987, it has given more than $63 million to more than 2,500 teachers throughout the country. She is the 51st winner from Pennsylvania.

Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards, said the prize is given to unsung teachers in early or mid-career who have achieved results from innovative practices.

“You can't apply. We don't accept nominations,” Foley said. “You don't find us. We find you.”

The foundation consults with state departments of education for potential winners. The departments get suggestions for recipients from educators around their state.

“We are truly blessed with tens of thousands of great teachers, and Miss H is truly an outstanding example of what we do,” said Ron Tomalis, Pennsylvania secretary of education.

Hoffner-Turkowski said she doesn't know exactly how she'll spend the prize money, but she expects to give some to the school district and use some for her children. She has two sons, Zacary, 12, and Ty James, 7, and a daughter, Makenzie, 9.

Hoffner-Turkowski's path to being a teacher took a U-turn while she was at Penn State. Lured by higher salaries, she switched her major from education to health policy administration. She worked at nursing homes for several years but told her parents she regretted not being a teacher.

They encouraged her to switch back to education and gave her some money to help get her teaching certificate. She has taught in the Gateway district for eight years.

“We're happy she's doing what she loves. She's a teacher,” said her father.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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