PASCAGOULA, MS (WLOX) – Students and teachers at Jackson Elementary School in Pascagoula thought it was just another assembly Thursday morning. But they soon learned that the ceremony was to honor someone very special.
"One of the best teachers in the entire country, out of three million teachers, is here in your school. In fact, she's right here in this room," said Dr. Jane Foley, an executive with the Milken Family Foundation.
The foundation, along with state and local school leaders, came to the school to give out what they call the "Oscar" for teaching excellence. The award also came with a very large check -- $25,000. After so much secrecy and suspense, Foley finally made the big announcement.
"The Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award goes to Latoya Fortenberry!" she shouted.
As the room erupted in cheers, a stunned Latoya Fortenberry covered her face in disbelief. And her voice shook with emotion.
"And I want to say thank you to my Jackson family and the whole school district. I realize this award is not about me. I'm just a vessel. The dedication and the commitment that we give to our students every day, it's what we do," she said with tears in her eyes.
"It's awesome and not a more deserving person when it comes to enthusiasm and always looking to find the best way to help her children," said Pascagoula Schools Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich.
"We all cheered. We were clapping hard because she's a really good teacher," said second grader Nayeli Martinez.
"She teaches everything we can get and our brain," said second grader Elijah Scarborough.
"She gives her best. She puts forth her effort," said second grader Tori Rex.
Ms. Fortenberry has been teaching at Jackson Elementary for only six years, but during that time, she has emerged as a teacher leader and curriculum specialist.
"I was very nervous and excited at the same time and very emotional. It's an honor," said Fortenberry. "I try hard and I know that hard work pays off. And the children, they inspire me."
Ms. Fortenberry doesn't know yet what she'll do with all that money. She will also receive an all-expense paid trip to Los Angeles, California in the spring to attend the Milken Educator Forum.