When Stephanie Strow tells people she teaches seventh grade, she usually can predict the response.
They either tell the Fairhaven Middle School teacher that she's brave for tackling such a notoriously tricky age or wonder aloud why, of all the grades, she chose seventh.
She always imagined herself teaching fifth grade, she said, but after her first day teaching seventh, she fell in love.
"The amount of laughter we have here, the things they teach me and the things they teach each other, they're pretty darn amazing," she said of her students.
After 13 years of teaching, Strow is being honored with the Golden Apple Award Friday, Feb. 1. The awards, put on by KCTS 9 since 1992, honor teachers and schools throughout the state that are making a positive impact on learning. Strow is one of seven teachers getting an award this year. Nooksack Valley High School also is getting a Golden Apple Pathways to Excellence award.
"When I first found out, it just felt really good to be acknowledged at that level," Strow said. "And I was just kind of in disbelief that of all the teachers in Washington state, they chose me."
Fairhaven Principal Michelle Kuss-Cybula wasn't nearly as surprised that the social studies teacher was being honored.
"She just brings history to life, like you're actually living in the medieval era or whatever the topic is. Her room just transforms," Kuss-Cybula said. "She's a powerful teacher. She hooks kids as soon as they walk in the door. It's just so energetic. You walk in there and you can feel the pulse."
Each year since 2004, Strow's students have completed a social action project, in which students choose a broad issue that interests them - from poverty to bullying - then narrow their focus and share what they learn with classmates, friends and family. Some go beyond that. One student started a baby formula bank at her church for mothers in need. Instead of asking for gifts for their birthdays, many of the students will ask for donations to charities connected to their issues. The project has spread to all seventh-grade classes at the school.
"They don't have to wait until they're older to make the world a better place" she said. "They can do it now."
She's both nervous and excited, she said, to accept the award Friday in Seattle and get to talk about the good things middle-schoolers are capable of. But she's a little worried that she'll freeze up or say the wrong thing or trip on her way to the podium.
She's talked to her students about the award and her nerves. They've asked her to bring in the video of her acceptance speech. She's agreed, no matter how it goes.
"If I fly flat on my face, I will show it to them," she said, "because they need to see that Strow fell down and she got back up and kept going."
NOOKSACK CLOSING THE GAP
For Nooksack Valley High School Principal Matt Galley, winning the Pathways to Excellence award helps confirm that the work the district started 10 years ago to improve teaching and learning is paying off.
"We look at it as a high school award, but it really does speak to our entire system's shift in terms of focus on teacher practice and leadership practice that needed to change in order for us to get to this level," Galley said. "High school really is the culmination of the entire system."
The Pathways to Excellence award is new this year and focuses on schools that are making significant strides to close achievement and opportunity gaps. Over the past 10 years at Nooksack Valley High, the number of Hispanic students at proficiency in 10th-grade reading has increased from 15 percent to 75 percent, while the number demonstrating proficiency in 10th-grade writing has risen from 39 percent to 81 percent, according to KCTS.
"It's a nice confirmation that we're on the right track, but every year we have new kids coming in with different abilities," Galley said. "But we still need to be as passionate about what we do whether or not we're getting an award for it. There are still some kids we could look at and say they're not where they need to be. We're not at 100 percent yet."
If anything, he said, the award is going to make staff at the school work even harder.