Local teacher is tops in the state with Presidential award
By Ethan Smith
Leader Staff

You don't have to be very good at math to know that $10,000 is pretty good money, but that's how much Cherry Valley elementary teacher Julie Duford will receive after she was picked as one of the best math teachers in the state last week.

Duford returned from Washington, D.C. Saturday night after receiving the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, given to one teacher per state in both subject areas. The award, and the $10,000, are given by the National Science Foundation and administered by the White House.

As part of the application process, Duford submitted a videotape of herself teaching one lesson. Teachers had to pick a topic in math or science, and Duford chose a lesson on fractions.

"When you ask a student which fraction represents a larger amount - one eighth or one fourth -- most students pick one eighth because they know eight is more than four," Duford explained in an interview last fall after finding out she was nominated. "But if you take a pizza and cut it up into fourths and eighths, they can then see that one fourth is more than one eighth. I try to use real-world examples --in this case, food."

Duford teaches first and second grade, and has been in the Polson School District since 1996, and a teacher for 14 years overall.

She said earlier this week that her whirlwind tour of Washington, D.C. was a great experience, albeit a bit hectic.

"We left (for D.C.) last Monday, and we only had four days notice that we'd be gone all week," Duford said. "But the trip was amazing. It was well worth it."

Barb Andersen, a sixth-grade teacher in Kalispell, won the science award. Cherry Valley staff was also celebrating the news that Gail Gilchrist was selected as one of three finalists for the Mary Frances Shreeve award for Teaching Excellence, a prestigious honor, as well.

Duford and the other winners were asked to keep the news of their prize a secret until the awards ceremony. (She and her husband Dave were already in D.C. for a few days before notification of her prize was made public last Wednesday, after the Leader's deadline.)

While in D.C., they got an after-hours tour of the Smithsonian, and were able to watch a film in the museum's state-of-the-art I-MAX theater.

As part of the package, Duford and the 94 other winners got a tour of the White House, and met with the President's Chief Executive Advisor on Science and Technology.

President Bush's No Child Left Behind mandate has not been well-received by many teachers and school administrators, and Duford said many of the teachers weren't quite sure how appropriate it would be to use the meeting to voice any concerns.

She said the advisor was very direct and wanted their input, though.

"He asked for input on No Child Left Behind and the room erupted into laughter and some squirming around in their chairs," Duford said. "But he was very receptive and said he realized there were some problems with it (the NCLB legislation)."

The teachers then filed out to the White House lawn, where Duford got to shake Bush's hand because she happened to be on the outside of the group photo, standing near the President.

"I was lucky. I just happened to be standing in the right place," Duford said.

One of the highlights of the trip was the formal dinner at the State Department, complete with gold-plated cutlery and chairs and fine china.

Bill Nye, "The Science Guy," was the guest speaker, much to Duford's and other teachers' delight, she said.

"He was great. I was so happy to meet him," Duford said.

The teachers also sat in on a Congressional hearing about science and technology issues, which was informative. Four teachers whose senators were on Congress' Science and Technology committee were given the chance to ask questions.

The Dufords also got a floating tour of the Potomac River, and took a trip to the National Zoo and the Holocaust Museum..

Thursday was the teachers' "free day" but cramming so much sightseeing into an already hectic week was a bit of a challenge, she said. She and Dave returned home Saturday night.

As for the $10,000, Duford has been told it's "on its way." She and the other teachers were discreetly told to set a little of it aside because they would be taxed on it, but Duford said the balance will be put to good use.

"A little bit will be used for fun, and a little bit for obligations like bills. I'll probably use some of the money to take classes in a master's degree program, too," said Duford, who enjoys horseback riding. "Something might happen for my horses, too."

The winners will also got to Disney World next fall to take a look at the science and technology-related exhibits at the park and Epcot Center, as well.

Duford said she really wanted to thank local parents for their support and understanding, especially because she was gone all week.