Milken award winner: ‘I feel lucky every morning’

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Allyson Vitato, principal at Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary School (Jefferson County), is surprised when her name is called as the winner of the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award during an assembly at her school. Photo by Amy Wallot, Jan. 15,2015
Allyson Vitato reacts as her name is called as the winner of the Milken Educator Award during an assembly at Breckinridge-Franklin elementary.
Photo by Amy Wallot, Jan. 15, 2015

By Brenna R. Kelly
Brenna.kelly@education.ky.gov

Allyson Vitato thought she was bringing her school together to hear from state education officials about the rise in student achievement at Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary.

She planned a schoolwide assembly, bought fruit, doughnuts and punch for a reception and, just moments before Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday arrived, sang along with 5th-graders practicing a song for the event.

But as she sat in front of her 425 students at the Jefferson County school, it became clear that she had been duped. The assembly, Holliday told the students, was like a surprise birthday party.

The surprise, they soon learned, was that Vitato had won the Milken Educator Award and the $25,000 that goes along with it.

“It’s kind of uncomfortable for me to accept this award, because I wouldn’t be able to do anything I do without my teachers, and without my kids,” Vitato said. “And I feel lucky every morning when I wake up to be able to come to this school, with these people.”

Though the selection process is secret, Jane Foley, Milken Educator Awards senior vice president, said no one can be nominated for the award, which is designed to put a spotlight on exceptional educators. Vitato is one of just 40 educators in the country to receive the award this year and the only one in the state. She is the 54th Kentucky educator to receive the award since 1993.

“This award brings attention to our most valuable educational resource – our hard-working, dedicated educators,” Holliday said. “The work is not always easy. There are challenges every day. But we value and appreciate Kentucky educators who are focused on ensuring all of our students meet high expectations.”

Though the award was a surprise to the school’s teachers, none of them were likely surprised by what Vitato pledged to do with the cash.

“Every classroom is going to get a portion of this,” she said. “I’ll probably keep a little, but I’m going to give a lot of it back to the school. We have needs to fill, so instead of asking someone else for money I can give it to them.”

That’s the kind of educator Vitato is, said teacher Angela Magnuson.

“She’s fantastic, she inspires greatness,” said Magnuson, who has taught at the school for two years and recently decided to send her son to the school.

When Vitato greets the students each morning, she knows their names, what’s going on at home and how they are doing academically, she said.

“I’ve never seen anything like it and she makes it look easy,” Magnuson said. “She’s full of energy and drive.”

Vitato shows the same interest in her teachers and staff, she said. She continually gives teachers feedback to improve instruction and leads the professional learning community meetings.

“She offers us our strengths and our weaknesses,” Magnuson said, “but in a way that just makes us want to strive to be the best.”

That’s just part of what makes Breckinridge-Franklin more like a family than a school, Vitato said.

“Every day coming here my staff works tirelessly to ensure we are meeting the needs of all our students,” she said. “It drives me to know that we are doing the right things for students.”

Vitato is credited with increasing student achievement in every subject and grade level during her five years at the school.

Just four years ago, 32 percent of the school’s students scored proficient or higher in reading and math. Last year that number was 48 percent.

All Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary students have intervention plans that identify their strengths and weaknesses. Vitato knows the plans, and the school’s staff mines the data in hopes of helping students succeed.

“Vitato works tirelessly so that every student gets the time and support that they need to grow academically,” said Donna Hargens, Jefferson County superintendent. “Students thrive here in an atmosphere of engagement and enrichment.”

Vitato credited her success to her teachers, students and their parents. Teachers at the school continually analyze data, are innovative in their teaching and support one another, she said.

Breckinridge-Franklin is succeeding because the entire school community is striving for the same thing, she said.

“We want every student to be proficient by the time they leave here,” she said.

MORE INFO …

Allyson Vitato Allyson.Vitato@Jefferson.kyschools.us

Click here for more photos of the ceremony and here for a video.

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