UNION, NJ – Filipino American science teacher Tracy Espiritu got the surprise of her life Monday, December 8 when she was presented a $25,000 Milken Educator Award before students, fellow colleagues and dignitaries at Dr. Albert Einstein Academy School No. 29 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She thought she was attending a presentation on college and career readiness.
Espiritu is the sole recipient in New Jersey from among 40 recipients across the U.S. who will be receiving the honor during the 2014-15 season. The Milken Award recognizes exemplary elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists who are furthering excellence in education. Milken Family Foundation Co-Founder Mike Milken, together with First Lady of New Jersey Mary Pat Christie and New Jersey Acting Education Commissioner David C. Hespe, made the announcement of the award at a special ceremony.
“Winning the Milken Educators Award validate years of hard work and dedication. I had put into teaching,” Espiritu told the Philippine Daily Mirror. “It signifies that my passion as teacher made a positive impact in many people’s lives, not just my students’ but families and colleagues, as well.”
She attributes her winning the prestigious award to the support from her family, friends and colleagues. “These are my support system. Also, I come from a family of great role models. My Kuya (elder brother) is an award winning Rutgers professor in Graphic Design,” she remarked.
“Tracy Espiritu is the embodiment of what we want our educators to be at the Elizabeth Public Schools,” said Superintendent of Schools Olga Hugelmeyer. “She has tremendous passion for the work she does, delivers instruction in a way that allows her students to achieve excellence in the classroom and on state assessments, and brings an extensive background to her instruction that helps prepare students for college, career, and our technological society.”
Although she did not know how she was nominated, Tracy said she was told that she was nominated by “her district in which they sent letters of recommendations from her administrator, peer and supervisor. The submission included her resume and list of accomplishments.”
Espiritu, who was born in Jersey City where she grew up until the age of 15, has a bachelor’s degree in aerospace and mechanical engineering from Rutgers University, College of Engineering and a master’s degree in Management in Science and Technology from New Jersey Institute of Technology. Her family moved to Marlboro and remained there until her brothers and she moved out. Her parents now live in Atlantic County and she, in Union County. Her mother hails from Bustos, Bulacan and her father is from Cavite. The two met in the U.S. and after a long courtship, they got married and had children who were all born here.
Espiritu received her teaching certification through Kean University. Teaching is her second career after seven years as a product engineer of jet engine parts in the aerospace industry.
“After a downturn in the aerospace industry in the 90’s, I was laid off and had just started a family. I thought to try teaching to help me balance family and career. Little did I know, teaching became the hardest job I ended up loving,” Espiritu explained.
The school said in a statement that Tracy has been instrumental in the implementation of the STEAM curriculum at School No. 29, which consists of science, technology, engineering, architecture, and mathematics. It added that “the school’s curriculum aligns well with the U.S. Department of Education’s goals of increasing student proficiency and interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, as well as the “Educate to Innovate” federal initiative designed to attract, develop, reward and retain outstanding educators in STEM education fields.”
According to Espiritu, Dr. Albert Einstein Academy is a STEM-themed magnet school in the Elizabeth Public School District. Students are accepted through lottery and not through any type of academic requirement. The demographics of this school mirrors the demographics of the city of Elizabeth. She has been with the school since it opened in January of 2006 when she started as a middle-school science teacher. She was teaching grades 6 to 8 and expanded to teaching science to kindergarten to 8th grade and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, architecture and math) for Kindergarten to 8th grades.
She described her students as much like any student, with a natural curiosity and willing to learn, “although they do not realize it most of the time.” Being in an urban district, she said there are some students who come to school with emotional baggage due to negative home life situations. “It is my job, as a teacher, to provide them with comfortable learning environment in which they can feel safe.” She also said that there are some students who first come to school with very limited exposure in education or outside the urban community. “Again, it is my job as a teacher to bring them up academically with their peers and to expand their perspective of the world through unique educational experiences, like video chatting with NASA and seeing the world live from outer space.”
Through Espiritu’s guidance, students at Dr. Albert Einstein Academy were afforded day-to-day contact and experiences such as live video conferences with NASA engineers and astronauts via the International Space Station through HAM radio downlinks, student symposiums, information gathering from the NASA Digital Learning Network (DLN), visits from NASA personnel and hands-on learning through microgravity investigations and Earth imagery.
The school was among 25 selected from throughout the U.S. to become a NASA Explorer School in 2007. During its partnership with NASA, Espiritu has served as the NASA Explorer School Team Leader.
When she was asked to describe herself, Tracy said: “I am a fast learner and good at problem solving which allows me to quickly adapt to any situation.” She continued, “As teacher I think that is part of my success. You have to be adaptive to whatever comes your way. I am optimistic to a fault and I am told, endearingly (I hope) by many people that I’m an overachiever.”
Espiritu’s family was as surprised as she was on winning the $25,000 cash award. “I thought the cash prize was to be used towards classroom/school equipment, but when I was told I can use it for personal use, I was speechless, ” she said. Although her family has not given much thought on how to use it yet, she said her children “are quick to remind me that the prize came conveniently before Christmas.”