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Robot Parades & Skype History earn Heather Hurt a $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Alabama teacher brings high tech science, math and social studies to Vestavia Hills Elementary School Central

October 24, 2018

SANTA MONICA, Calif., — Every day is an adventure in Heather Hurt's creative and tech-savvy fifth grade class at Vestavia Hills Elementary School Central in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. Reading lessons morph into model building that leads to creating a Lego robot version of the Macy's Day parade. And, for example, as part of developing a Colonial Days program for the school, Hurt's social studies class did historical role-playing via Skype with historian "actors" from the Boston Museum. Thinking outside the box is par for the course in her freewheeling yet fully structured classroom that motivates students to advance their academic achievements and personal growth with project-oriented learning and a STEM focused interdisciplinary approach.

But it was Hurt who experienced a big educational growth moment today at a surprise school assembly where she was presented with a Milken Educator Award by Milken Family Foundation Co-Founder Lowell Milken and Alabama Superintendent of Education Dr. Eric Mackey. An appreciative Hurt was named a 2018-19 recipient of the national recognition, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. She is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Alabama this year, and is among the up to 40 honorees for 2018-19.

The Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching" has been opening minds and shaping futures for over 30 years. Research shows teacher quality is the driving in-school factor behind student growth and achievement. The initiative not only aims to reward great teachers, but to celebrate, elevate and activate those innovators in the classroom who are guiding America's next generation of leaders. Milken Educators believe, "The future belongs to the educated."

Hurt brings that future to her young learners right in the present, creating immersive, multi-dimensional learning experiences in science, reading, geography and math that keep her students fully involved. Seamlessly integrating technology in an approachable way, Hurt engages with students, parents, colleagues and the wider community. Because she's part of wider the community. A graduate of Vestavia Hills High School, Hurt spent more than a decade working locally as a realtor before entering the classroom.

"Heather Hurt's classroom is a creative laboratory that keeps students riveted via a project-oriented approach that employs smart data, appropriate technology and proven pedagogy," said Milken. "Addressing all of her students' needs from the academic to the social and personal, Hurt's child-centered approach assures the best outcomes for all of her students."

"There's a reason people call this the Oscar's of education. The Milken Award is an honor that has been bestowed upon some of the most incredible educators in America. To have another Milken educator in Alabama is simply a testament to the kind of quality education that is available in Alabama public schools," Mackey said. "And although this particular award is given to an individual, she represents all of her colleagues statewide as part of a distinguished group of professionals simply known to most as 'teachers'. The Milken Family Foundation's acknowledgement and generosity are greatly appreciated." 

"We are so proud to have one of our own as a Milken Award winner," said Dr. Todd Freeman, superintendent of Vestavia Hills City Schools. "Heather Hurt is very deserving. This honor certainly echoes how we feel about her in the teaching community. While we take this moment to celebrate one of the best educators in America, we also pause to pay homage to all of our educators. We are fortunate to be a school system full of education professionals who dedicate their lives to the betterment of children." 

About Milken Educator Heather Hurt
In Heather Hurt's fifth-grade class at Vestavia Hills Elementary School Central in Alabama, reading lessons don't stop when the last page is turned. After students read Balloons Over Broadway, a book about the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, they studied the history of the parade and its decorative floats, described their own float concepts in an essay, turned their designs into miniature floats, and created a small-scale three-dimensional model of New York City. Students then programmed LEGO MINDSTORMS robots to pull their floats through their model city.

Hurt is dedicated to making science, history and geography come alive in her classroom. Students use everything from Google Presentations to green screens to teach their peers about national parks. To learn about colonial history, Hurt's students role-play the events of the Boston Tea Party via Skype with "actors" from the Boston Museum. Hurt created the first Colonial Days program for the school's 17 fifth-grade classes, involving her peers, administrators, special educators, parents and community members. During the popular event, students experience a colonial "house" via virtual reality and travel from class to class learning about everything from ironworks to making candles. Hurt encourages students to pursue STEM "passion projects": One group created a website to raise awareness about multiple sclerosis, while another built a robot to help people with disabilities pick things up. When the projects were complete, parents and community members came to Hurt's class to see them.

Skilled at differentiating curriculum, Hurt uses summative and formative assessments to identify what students already know and tailors her instruction to move them forward in their learning. She serves on the school leadership team, participates in the district's Teacher Leader Cohort and has led professional development in the building and across the district. Hurt takes a child-centered approach and is committed to meeting all her students' needs: educational, social and emotional. During her class award ceremony, Hurt tells parents and visitors not only about students' achievements, but also about their positive character traits. A graduate of Vestavia Hills High School, Hurt spent more than a decade working locally as a realtor before entering the classroom.

Hurt earned a bachelor's in business management from the University of Alabama in 2001 and a master's in education from Samford University in 2016.

More information about Hurt, plus links to photos and a video from today's assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at

Milken Educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. In addition to the $25,000 prize and public recognition, the honor includes membership in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top teachers, principals and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2018-19 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in New Orleans from March 21-24, 2019. Educators will have the opportunity to network with their new colleagues and hear from state and federal officials about maximizing their leadership roles to advance educator effectiveness.

More than $138 million in funding, including $68 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional learning opportunities throughout recipients' careers. Many have gone on to earn advanced degrees and be placed in prominent posts and on state and national education committees.

The Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators. Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Award is completely unique: Educators cannot apply for this recognition and do not even know they are under consideration. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then are reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the Award, with final approval by the Milken Family Foundation.

Past recipients have used their Awards to fund their children's education or their own continuing education. Others have financed dream field trips, established scholarships and even funded the adoption of children.

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Milken Educator Awards tour is on social media at, and

For more information, visit or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.

About the Milken Educator Awards
The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation 31 years ago in 1987. The Awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish.

Lynne Russo 
(818) 903-6079 cell;