Two L.A. Unified teachers surprised with Milken Family Foundation awards

The fourth-grade teacher with blond-streaked hair held her hand over her heart as she said the Pledge of Allegiance with her students Thursday on the blacktop outside Solano Avenue Elementary School.

She clapped after a student orchestra played a Mozart medley for the assembled crowd and then nodded to its rendition of "Jingle Bells."

And then she gasped when her name was announced as the winner of $25,000.

Shannon Garrison, 34, was one of two Los Angeles Unified School District educators surprised Thursday with a cash award from the Milken Family Foundation. Each year, the foundation selects up to 80 educators nationwide who have demonstrated exceptional work both inside and outside of the classroom, and rewards them with a gift that may be used for any purpose.

"We look for early- to mid-career educators who have distinguished themselves," said the foundation's chairman and co-founder, Lowell Milken. "It's a very elaborate process."

Milken said about 20 people connected to the Santa Monica-based foundation work with district officials and each state's department of education each year to choose award recipients from across the country. There is no formal nomination or application process, and winners are notified through surprise school ceremonies.

"I was just shocked," Garrison said. She had assumed the assembly and its guests, including State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, L.A. Unified Supt. David L. Brewer and football legend Rosey Grier, were celebrating the school's high marks on the state Academic Performance Index.

Garrison has taught at the elementary school near Chinatown for 12 years and holds master's degrees in education, psychology and administration. She is known among colleagues for coordinating the school's participation in a district 5K run and taking busloads of students and parents to college events to encourage interest in higher education.

"I work with so many absolutely incredible teachers who would deserve this award," Garrison said, her face flushed after having called her parents to tell them the news. "Never in a million years did I think I would win it."

Earlier Thursday, Dana Stephens of Colfax Elementary School also received a giant $25,000 check. The literacy coach and coordinator for the North Hollywood school had actually helped set up its morning assembly, even contributing a homemade artichoke-heart-and-egg casserole to the table of breakfast goodies.

When she learned that someone in the crowd would be recognized, she began silently listing possible recipients. "Next thing I know, he said my name and I couldn't move," said Stephens, 43. "I was standing behind the first-grade class and my legs were shaking."

A graduate of UC Santa Barbara, Stephens has been at Colfax for 21 years. During her time there, she turned an area full of weeds into a garden where grade-schoolers can plant vegetables and conduct science experiments, and coordinated a writer's club for students.

Since the awards were established in 1987, the Milken Family Foundation has honored more than 125 California educators, including four this year. Marissa Ochoa of Valley Elementary School in San Diego County and Mindy Yip of Visitacion Valley Elementary School in San Francisco were notified earlier this week.

And how will these educators spend their unexpected windfalls? Garrison and Stephens both said they hope to put some of it back into their schools.

Knoll is a Times staff writer.

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