Four Los Angeles-area educators received accolades and checks for $25,000 last week at a Westside luncheon complete with veal and valet parking.
"Thank you and welcome to the Academy Awards for educators," quipped honoree Gene McCallum, 52, principal of Audubon Junior High School in Los Angeles's Crenshaw district.
McCallum was one of 12 teachers and administrators statewide to receive the first California Educator Awards, sponsored by the state Department of Education and the Milken Family Foundation of Los Angeles.
But the awards were more like the Nobel Prize than the Oscar, since the surprised winners received substantial checks as well as praise.
Temple City Teacher
Other local winners were Neil Anstead, 53, a teacher-administrator at Grover Cleveland High School Humanities Magnet in Reseda; Margaret Leeds, 53, who teaches physical education at Beverly Hills High School, and Shirley Rosenkranz, 46, an English teacher at Temple City High School.
The 12 honorees were chosen by members of the California State Steering Committee, a panel of the California Assn. of County Superintendents of Schools. Candidates are judged on such criteria as their ability to motivate students and to implement innovative programs and curricula.
The Milken Family Foundation, a private charitable foundation, provided the money for the awards, which will be given annually, and for the luncheon. Representatives of the foundation at the ceremony included Michael Milken, an executive vice president with the investment firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert. One of the richest men in America, Milken has been called "the junk bond king."
State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig presented the checks and said the honor is intended to enhance the prestige of educators.
"Our society still does not accord educators the status and financial compensation it affords to other professions," Honig said. "Bright and talented people are discouraged from entering the profession because of its inadequate resources and lack of public support."
The honorees did not know they were under consideration for the award until Honig called them earlier this month. Their universal first response was that someone was playing a joke.
'You Don't Believe It'
"At first you don't believe it," said Anstead, who was cited for developing a widely imitated art history and humanities curriculum.
Anstead, who has taught at Grover Cleveland for 28 years, said he assumed that it was a waggish student who called to say, "Guess what. You've just won $25,000 for being one of the best educators in the state of California."
The award left Anstead "feeling like a snake that had swallowed a rabbit," he told an audience of about 250 teachers, administrators and beaming family members. "It's so big I'm having trouble digesting it."
Gene McCallum, whose school is often cited as an urban school that works, described his initial response to the news that Honig was on the phone: "I wondered what I did wrong."
The misapprehension was understandable, since recognition of educators' excellence typically comes in such modest forms as a personalized coffee mug presented in a school auditorium. Rosenkranz, who has helped her students write and publish three books and was California's 1987 Teacher of the Year, was asked if she ever expected such an award. "Never," she replied, "not in education."
As Rosenkranz received congratulations from attendees who included Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, she carried a silver-foil balloon from her school's Parent Teacher Student Assn. that read: "My PTA loves me."
Several winners described themselves as ecstatic. Leeds, who wore a wrist corsage of red roses given to her by a friend, commented, "This is 10 proms rolled into one."
Like fellow honorees, Leeds said she had not yet decided what she would do with the money. But she noted that she had already "pulled all my fantasies out of the air and played with each one for a while."
After receiving their citations and checks, the winners spoke briefly. Anstead revealed why he had become a teacher. "When I left college," he said, "I wanted above all things to remain in the world of ideas. Education has let me do that."
Thanks to Others
The winners thanked their families and their own teachers. Honoree Simon C. Lopez, principal at Rockwood Elementary School in Calexico, Calif., had tears in his eyes as he thanked his parents, uneducated themselves, "who gave everything they had so I could make it through school and not do the kind of back-breaking labor they were doing."
Leeds, whose physical education program has been cited as the best in the state, thanked the unknown member of the selection committee "who first said, 'Do you think we should have a physical educator in this group?' "
"We're honored to bring you the recognition you've deserved," Milken told the winners.