Laurie Espenel of Sandy Grade School receives $25,000 honors
by: Garth Guibord, Laurie Espenel receives a $25,000 check from Oregon Superintendent of Schools Susan Castillo at a surprise assembly Thursday, Sept. 28. From right, Milken Foundation Chairman Lowell Milken, Espenel, Oregon Trail Superintendent Clementina Salinas, Castillo, ex-football player and Milken Foundation trustee Rosey Grier.

Sandy Grade School teacher Laurie Espenel came to school Thursday, Sept. 28, expecting a special assembly and a visit from Oregon Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo.

But what she didn't expect was that the entire assembly was in her honor.

Espenel left school that day $25,000 richer and honored as one of two educators in the state to receive the Milken National Education Award during a noon-time assembly.

The Milken Family Foundation sponsored the award, which recognizes outstanding teachers who have gone above and beyond in the development of their students' education.

Espenel came to Sandy Grade School in 1998 and currently teaches a blended fourth and fifth grade class with a large number of English Language Learners and Spanish-speaking students.

She creates project-based lessons that incorporate hands-on and student-centered participation. Students have learned geometry by making gingerbread and have experienced the life cycle of salmon and trout first-hand with fish in a classroom aquarium.

'She stands out because she's such a strong instructional leader," Milken said. "She's a powerful mentor to other teachers and while she's already achieved so much in her career, she still has the potential to do a lot more,' Milken said. 'It wasn't a difficult choice.'

District administrators say Espenel had a hand in the school's progression from a failing state report card in 2000 to its current 'exceptional' ranking with over 90 percent of fifth graders meeting math and English benchmarks.

'I've seen her for many years now and I see her quality of teaching and her passionate commitment to children,' said Oregon Trail School District superintendent Clementina Salinas. 'She is a very refined teacher with high values and makes sure that children are learning and enjoying what they learn. In my book, that puts her up there with the greatest teachers on Earth.'

Espenel is no stranger to honor, either; she received the 2002 Oregon Trail School District Excellence in Education Award.

'For years children and their parents have known what we've known,' Sandy Grade School principal Rayburn Mitchell said during the assembly. Speaking to Espenel, he said, 'That is, you're extraordinary. You have earned this award today.'

Because the Milken Family Foundation closely guards the secrecy of its award recipients, Espenel was taken completely by surprise.

'It's amazing; I had no clue,' Espenel said after the swarms of congratulatory students dissipated. Reaching for her cell phone to talk to her husband, she said, "I think he's going to be amazed as I am.'

Espenel was quick to come up with some ideas about how she will use the money, despite only winning it minutes before. While the prize money comes with no strings attached and she can spend it however she likes, it's only fitting that her first thoughts were about her students.

'I'll possibly use it for some field trips for my class and some supplies for the classroom. Snacks and some of the things that I always buy that would be nice to have a little help paying for,' said Espenel. 'Some fun things for the kids in the class and the school, put it back where it needs to be.'

The Milken Foundation plans to give out about 100 more awards nationwide, but it chose to give out the Oregon awards -- Espenel and Woodburn Hertiage Elementary School teacher Lawrence Conley -- first.

'There are obviously challenges in Oregon today, but there are a number of schools that have made enormous progress,' said Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation. 'I think it's fitting to come to Oregon and celebrate this.'

In the award's 20-year history, more than 2,200 educators have been honored with more than $56 million. To learn more about the award, visit


Age: 52

Husband: Bob Espenel, Principal at Molalla River Middle School

Children: Son, 31: financial planner; son, 28: buyer for skateboard/snowboard shop; daughter, 27: 6th grade teacher in Anchorage, Alaska; daughter, 24: teacher at Warm Springs Indian reservation

Resident: Sandy, on and off for 12 years. Currently building home in Troutdale.

Hobbies: Anything outdoors: skiing, hiking, walking.

Teaching roots: Started as a teacher's aide in New York City and filled in for substitutes who didn't show up.

Best thing about Sandy Grade: 'The interaction with the kids and the small community feeling.'

Other teaching tools: Uses M and M candies to teach probability, raises chickens, grows plants, and builds graham cracker houses at Christmas with building permits, house plans, and construction lists.

Favorite teacher: Her mother.

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