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First-grade teacher utilizes high-energy approach

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 8:53 p.m.
(c) 2012 Lillian DeDomenic
Jennifer Hoffner, a first-grade teacher at University Park Elementary in Monroeville, interacts with her students during a reading exercise. Hoffner was named a 2012 Milken Educator Award winner last month and given $25,000 in honor of her being one of the top young or midcareer teachers. Lillian DeDomenic | For The Times Express

Colleagues of Jennifer Hoffner say it's her energy in the classroom that sets her apart.

“She is probably the most energetic teacher I have ever seen or worked with,” said Karen Doman, a fellow first-grade teacher at University Park Elementary.

Hoffner, 38, of North Huntingdon was named a 2012 Milken Educator Award winner last month by the Milken Foundation and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The award is from one of the nation's top teacher recognition programs that honors kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers and principals. Hoffner is one of 40 teachers in the country getting a Milken award this year.

She was presented with the award — which the Milken Foundation describes as the equivalent of an Oscar Award for teachers — at a surprise assembly Nov. 27 at University Park Elementary. She also received a $25,000 check from the Milken Foundation, which uses the award to honor educators who are in the early or middle stages of their careers.

In the classroom, Hoffner never stops moving.

“I move around the room so that every student is engaged, so that I can monitor what's going on,” Hoffner said. “I think it's important to have a lot of energy for first grade. The energy you have, the students want to model.”

Though Hoffner earned the award based on her individual efforts over the past eight years, building principal Brian Werner said she is just as concerned with the elementary school as a whole.

“She wants to see this building succeed,” said Werner, who sought advice from Hoffner when he accepted the principal job at University Park last year. “She was a go-to person for me, to learn the culture of the building and the culture of the stakeholders here.”

Hoffner has developed remedial and advanced lessons in reading and math, and she serves on the Pennsylvania LEADS core team, which focuses on increasing student academic achievement and educational growth.

She has developed activities that group students of varying levels, so that all the students are working toward a common goal while learning from each other. She developed an exercise in counting money that pairs a student who is able to count up to 50 cents with a student who is able to count up to $2.

“It's amazing what two peers working together can do,” Hoffner said.

Hoffner has garnered the respect of parents, said Niki Priester, vice president of the Parent Teacher Organization at University Park.

“If she feels there is a roadblock, or if a parent makes her aware of a situation, she jumps in feet first and doesn't stop until everything is as it should be,” Priester said.

Hoffner said she will use a portion of her prize money for an undetermined project at the University Park building and will put the rest in to a college fund for her three children, Zacary, 12; Ty, 7; and Makenzie, 9.

Hoffner is a single mom who finds the energy to bring her award-winning technique to the classroom. Sometimes, by design, the two worlds overlap, said Hoffner, who speaks about her own children with her students “so that my (students) know I'm a person, too,” she said. “They don't think I ever leave this building.”

Though her students might have a difficult time believing it, she does have time to tackle projects outside of her classroom. She is involved with Gateway's “Outside-the-Box” initiative to balance art and science, and she presents an interdisciplinary unit on camping that draws on her experience as a Girl Scout leader.

Hoffner said she takes pride in providing her first-graders with an educational foundation they can build upon moving forward.

“First grade is so important,” Hoffner said. “You see the most change developmentally.”

According to the Milken Foundation, at least 90 percent of her 2011-12 students met or exceeded their end-of-year benchmark goals on the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills test. Her class average for oral reading fluency was 95 words, which was double the class goal.

Hoffner often is visited by former students, Priester said.

“She is a safety net for many,” she said.

The last few weeks have kept Hoffner busy outside of the classroom, with an award ceremony in Hershey, where she was recognized by Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis, and a ceremony at the Gateway administration building. But maybe the best compliment a teacher can receive is one from another teacher.

“I would be happy if one of my own children had her as a teacher,” Doman said.

Kyle Lawson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8755, or klawson@tribweb.com.

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