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Wyoming teacher wins $25,000 Milken Educator Award; first for Johnson County School District #1

Jessica Kavitz was presented with a Milken Educator Award on Tuesday. (Milken Educator Awards, Facebook)

CASPER, Wyo. — On Tuesday, a kindergarten teacher at Meadowlark Elementary School in Buffalo was presented with a Milken Educator Award and a $25,000 prize.

Jessica Kavitz is the first teacher in Johnson County School District #1’s history to win a Milken Educator Award, a press release announcing her selection said. Kavitz, whose mother worked as an educator in Gillette for about three decades, was presented with the award during a school assembly on Tuesday morning.

She is one of 40 teachers across the country who will receive a Milken Educator Award during the 2022–23 school year, the release noted.

“Jessica Kavitz is the kind of teacher you hope your children have for their first year of school — compassionate, thoughtful and engaging,” Greg Gallagher, Milken Educator Awards senior program director, said. “Jessica’s classroom is a nonstop learning hub that prepares students well for their academic journeys.

“Outstanding educators have the potential to positively influence generations of students, and it is especially meaningful when parents inspire their children to pursue the adventure of teaching. We are thrilled to honor Jessica as a second-generation educator making an impact on the lives of so many young students in the Buffalo community.”

The press release shared more about Kavitz and why she was selected for the award:

Movement “Wakes Up” Young Brains: Kavitz’s students rarely sit still — and that’s by design. Kavitz knows that movement engages students’ brains and helps them process and retain information. She borrows basketballs and other sports equipment from the school gym to coordinate with books the class is reading and encourages students to hop, leap, crawl and do push-ups as they move through learning stations. Interspersing physical activities like cup-stacking and agility ladders with reading, writing and math tasks helps Kavitz “wake up” her young learners’ brains as they absorb and master new skills. Kavitz takes a project-based approach that includes trips to the park and other local attractions, often on foot. On the day students learn about red during a unit on colors, everyone wears red clothing, they cut apple shapes out of red construction paper with scissors, and parents bring in red snacks for the class to enjoy. Kavitz follows the standards and knows which skills students need to advance to the next stage of learning. Her methods deliver. Last year, her students’ reading proficiency grew from 62 % to 92%, and from 94% to 100% in math.

Community Leader and Mentor: Kavitz runs Meadowlark’s weekly professional learning community for kindergarten and sits on the school’s Guiding Coalition, which tackles issues like data, curriculum, student and staff safety, and parental involvement. She helped evaluate a new science curriculum, mentors student teachers, and takes teachers who move to kindergarten from other grade levels under her wing as they adjust to their new classroom. Kavitz had already begun integrating technology into her classroom before buildings closed for COVID in 2020, so her students easily transitioned to using Chromebooks at home for independent activities and weekly classroom meetings online. When Meadowlark reopened, Kavitz was among the first to welcome parent volunteers, moving learning stations outside so they could safely join the class.

Builds Confidence, Social Skills Through Learning: Social-emotional learning plays a large role in kindergarten, and Kavitz turns many activities into exercises in self-reflection. She offers writing prompts like “What can you do independently?” and “What makes you awesome?” teaching vocabulary and language skills while reinforcing feelings of pride and self-worth. A well-known leader and hometown hero in Buffalo, Kavitz developed her love for teaching at home — her mother was an educator for three decades in Gillette.

Education: Kavitz earned a bachelor’s in elementary education and reading education in 2009 from Eastern Washington University and received National Board Certification in 2020.

“Jessica is a shining star among Wyoming’s excellent teachers. She is creative, dedicated and genuinely believes in her students. Congratulations to Jessica – Wyoming is very proud of you,” Chad Auer, Wyoming’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, said.