Las Vegas, N.M. – A Highlands University education alumna received the New Mexico Milken Educator of the Year Award for her innovative teaching practices and excellence in the classroom.
Second-grade teacher Melissa Kovac, who sometimes dresses up as a bumble bee to engage her students in the importance of working hard together, earned a $25,000 Milken Award. She is among only 35 teachers nationwide to be named for the personal cash award in 2016.
“Outstanding educators create firm foundations for our future leaders and also ignite a passion in them to reach their highest potential,” said Jane Foley, senior vice president for the Milken Educator Awards. “Melissa Kovac is a breath of fresh air for her students as she inspires them to explore science, improve their reading and discover the world head-on with spirit and determination.”
Kovac, who earned a bachelor’s degree in education from Highlands University in 2005, has taught second grade at Amy Biehl Community School in Santa Fe ever since it opened in 2010. Previously, she taught at Sweeney Elementary in Santa Fe.
Kovac said what’s most most rewarding about teaching is seeing her students succeed, whether it’s in the moment of learning math like double-digit subtraction or graduating from high school and advancing to college.
“What motivates me is knowing I can influence my students to achieve success, and also be good citizens who think less about themselves and more about what they can do for one another,” Kovak said. “I love what I do every single day and especially enjoy the creative side of teaching.”
Deanna Ocampo-Moore, Amy Biehl Community School principal, said Kovac is constantly researching new teaching strategies to reach her students and is masterful at crafting lessons.
“While she has a playful side that resonates with her students, Melissa takes the instruction very seriously,” Ocampo-Moore said “She does a remarkable job of creating innovative academic centers for each subject.”
Kovak said she always looks for hands-on methods to teach concepts.
“For instance, rather than just reading about soil, my class planted sunflower seeds in different soils and then recorded the growth data,” Kovak said.
Ocampo-Moore said another strength Kovac possesses is her immense wisdom and compassion for each of her students, which her principal said is especially important because Amy Biehl is a high-need school.
“Many of our children come from challenging backgrounds,” Ocampo-Moore said. “Amy Biehl is a place of empowerment, and Melissa is enormously committed to ensuring that every child is celebrated and succeeds,” Ocampo-Moore said.
According to Santa Fe Public Schools, in the 2015-2016 school year, the proficiency rates for Kovac’s students rose more than 45 percent in math and nearly 35 percent in reading.
Ocampo-Moore said that Kovac is a teacher-leader who is highly respected among her colleagues.
“Melissa also does a great job with building rapport with families,” Ocampo-Moore said.
Kovac said her professors in the Highlands University School of Education guided her to become the teacher she is today.
“I had great education professors at Highlands who not only prepared me for the classroom, but also taught me how to use my own ideas to be dynamic and engaging for my students,” Kovac said.
She said she works with exceptional colleagues at Amy Biehl Community School.
“I’m truly honored to be accepting the Milken Teaching Award on behalf of Santa Fe Public Schools,” Kovac said.
The Milken Family Foundation created the Milken Educator Awards 30 years ago to provide public recognition and individual financial rewards to elementary and secondary teachers and administrators across the nation who are furthering excellence in education.
Teacher magazine calls the Milken Awards the Oscars of teaching.