Special photo: Mt. Zion High School Language Arts Teacher Shekema Silveri is swarmed by her students after she was surprised with a $25,000 award presented to her by the Milken Family Foundation. Silveri is the only teacher in the state of Georgia to receive the elite award this year.
Many successful people will often point to a school teacher as one who inspired them to achieve or believe in themselves when they were young.
For several students at Clayton County’s Mt. Zion High School, that teacher is Language Arts instructor, Shekema Silveri.
Apparently, those students aren’t the only ones who consider Silveri a terrific teacher. In the school’s packed gymnasium, on Friday, as students, staff members, local and state school officials looked on, Silveri got the surprise of her life.
Dr. Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation, took the podium to unleash the secret that would leave Silveri $25,000 richer. But before doing that, however, Foley acknowledged the packed house of students and faculty members, all dressed in the school’s colors –– red, black and white –– and wearing jeans, in preparation for the school’s pep rally to celebrate homecoming.
“Hello, Bull Dogs!” said Foley, “It is a pleasure to travel all the way from California to share this assembly with you.”
Foley then asked six students from the audience to help her reveal a secret. In her hand, she had 5 cards, with numbers on them, and one-by-one, she gave the cards to students to hold up high in the air, until the amount –– $25,000 –– was revealed. Then, it was time to reveal the teacher who would be receiving this award, out of the thousands of teachers in the state of Georgia, she said.
Foley asked the students to give her a drum roll. Foley yelled: “And the winner is Shekema Silveri!” The packed gymnasium erupted with applause, students yelled and swarmed around Silveri like a pack of bees.
Silveri’s eyes filled with tears. She was clearly overcome with emotions. Unable to speak, she lowered her head, and covered her face to hide the tears. When Silveri was able to regain her composure, she said: “You [students] are my reward. I thank every last one of you for being born.”
At that point, emotions were so high, students around the room were crying.
When asked why Silveri was deserving of the Milken award, an elite honor that is considered by many in education circles as the “Oscars of Teaching,” State Department of Education Spokesperson Matt Cardoza, said: “Ms. Shekema Silveri is an incredibly gifted teacher, who truly exemplifies what a new millennium educator should be. She engages her students in highly rigorous and intellectually stimulating performance tasks and pushes them to embrace their own learning experiences.”
He added that she is an “out-of-the-box thinker,” and encourages her students to be visionaries and change agents for themselves and their environment. In Ms. Silveri’s class, 100 percent of her students passed the End of Course Test for American Literature, he said. Six of the eleven students at Mt. Zion, who passed Advanced Placement Exams, he added, were from Ms. Silveri’s class.
Foley said the $25,000 is unrestricted and Silveri can use the money how she pleases. However, Silveri said she will use the money to start a scholarship fund. “I have always wanted to do a scholarship [fund] for my students, because I come from similar a [modest-income] background, so I always wanted to single out students who grew up in circumstances similar to mine.”
During her presentation, Foley gave a bit of background on the Milken Foundation. The Milken Family Foundation, she explained, was conceived by Chairman and Cofounder Lowell Milken to attract, retain and motivate outstanding talent to the teaching profession. It is the nation’s preeminent teacher-recognition program, she said.
“Including this year’s selections,” Foley said, “since 1987, over $63 million has been awarded to more than 2,500 educators. New recipients will join the Milken Educator Network, a group whose expertise serves as a valuable resource to fellow educators, legislators, school boards and others shaping the future of education.”
Before letting the cat out of the bag about Silveri’s surprise, Clayton County Superintendent Edmond Heatley, and State Superintendent of Schools John Barge, gave a few words of encouragement to the students, teachers and school officials. Barge congratulated the audience and the school district on regaining its accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
“There was a lot of work that took place over the last several months,” said Barge, “because Superintendent Heatley and your local school board and other members of this community worked really hard to turn this system around [and got it] focussed, and on the right track, so we can make education work.”
Barge then instructed Heatley, school board members and teachers to stand for recognition. The students cheered loudly and clapped their hands in appreciation.