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An A+ achievement: Webster Groves teacher wins Milken teaching award

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2009 - Eric Dunn's wife had a baby on Sunday, so he thought his excitement was over for the week.

Then he won a $25,000 teaching award Wednesday morning.

The Webster Groves High School math teacher was surprised by the honor from the Milken Family Foundation, which honors teachers nationwide.

Sitting in the front row of the school's gymnasium after directing the cappella group A-Men in "The Star-Spangled Banner," decked out in the school colors of orange and black, Dunn watched the big build-up to the presentation by Jane Foley, vice president of the California-based foundation and a former award winner herself.

Then, when his name was called and the students and staff showed their appreciation, Dunn took the microphone to declare:

"I love this place."

Dunn noted how much he appreciates it when he is out in the community, walking his dog or shopping at Schnucks, and runs into his students, and they don't hide like their math teacher is one of the last people they want to see.

Instead, he said, "you guys treat me like a human being and that's what I ask. I want to say thank you to the students at Webster Groves High School. You guys rock."

The Milken National Educator Award is given to teachers, administrators and others to promote excellence in public education. This is the 23rd year it has been given out; more than 50 educators from across the country will receive it this fall. It is always a surprise, and recipients cannot apply. As Foley put it, teachers don't come to the foundation -- the foundation finds them.


At Wednesday morning's all-school assembly, Foley showed a strong sense of show business savvy. After delivering a surefire applause line -- "I hear you have the best students in Missouri. Is that right?" -- she talked about the importance of teachers and of recognizing them the way entertainers are saluted on the red carpet or scientists are honored by the Nobel committee.

Then she talked about the Milken award -- from the foundation headed by Lowell Milken, brother of Michael Milken, who began concentrating on philanthropy after serving time in prison for securities violations -- and the big check that comes with it.

With a flair for the dramatic, she called students up to the front of the gym, then asked them to hold signs up over their heads -- first a $, then a 2, then a 5, then a 0. After each one, she asked the students if they thought that amount of money would be a fitting tribute for a master teacher. The answer at that point was overwhelmingly negative.

When she added another 0, to make it $2,500, the students began to accept the verdict a little more, particularly since there were no more students left to hold up signs. Then, with a flourish, Foley asked Chris Nicastro, the Missouri commissioner for elementary and secondary education, to bring up one more zero, to show the grand total of $25,000.

The crowd showed its appreciation, then doubled its cheers and gave a standing ovation when Dunn was announced as the recipient. Winners may use the money for anything they want.

After the excitement had died down, Foley said she had presented the award to new parents before, but not to anyone whose child had arrived so recently.

"This is not a lifetime achievement award," she said. "It goes to teachers in the middle of their careers, so we have a lot of people with young families. But this was a really close call."

Dunn said he wasn't sure why his administrators insisted that he come to the assembly to lead the rendition of the national anthem, but when duty calls, he responds. After the birth on Sunday, he said, "I taught on Tuesday. It was kind of surreal, to teach with zero sleep. I guess I'll do it again tomorrow."

As the assembly wound down, Dunn accepted a steady stream of congratulations from faculty, staff and students, his big grin never fading. But first, he had to place a call to explain why he might be a little late to pick up his wife and newborn daughter from the hospital.

"I just wanted to let you know that we have $25,000 to go to Phoebe's education fund," Dunn said.


"Yes, I am serious."

Milken Educator Award

* It began in 1987.

* More than 2,400 educators have been recipients.

* Since 1996, when Missouri began participating, 41 educators in the state have been honored.

* More than $60 million in prize money has been given out.

* Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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