When Desert Vista High School teacher Katrina Lacey got into work after the long Thanksgiving weekend and opened an email that said she won $10,000, she did what most people probably would do.
She spiked it.
Only after Principal Christine Barela told her that she got an email as well about Lacey’s award, did reality hit her.
“I was shocked,” said Lacey, who teaches English Literature and remedial reading to freshmen and English as a Second Language to all four grade levels at Desert Vista.
And she teaches it so well that the National University System gave her a Sanford Teacher Award, which comes with the no-strings $10,000 award and puts her in the running for another $50,000 early next year.
This is the first year for the awards, which are based on an evaluation by a panel of teachers.
The National University System singled out one teacher in every state and the District of Columbia for the prize, which it described as a reward for teachers “who give so much of their time, dedication and energy to our communities.”
The teachers are brought to its attention by nominations.
And that’s created one of two nagging mysteries for Lacey.
“I don’t know who nominated me,” she said.
In seeking nominations, the National University System and Sanford Teacher Award administrators simply asked:
“We’re calling on ALL teachers, faculty, staff, principals, parents, students, and anyone else to nominate an extraordinary, inspirational teacher.
“You know the one - the one who comes up with creative ways to teach that make students love learning; the one who stays late to help a student who needs a little extra support; the one who genuinely cares about students and shares in their hopes and dreams for their future.”
The other mystery as far as Lacey is concerned is why she was picked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m sure there are thousands, tens of thousands of teachers who could have been picked,” she said.
A New York City native who relocated here in 2004 so she could pursue her doctoral studies at Arizona State University, Lacey has taught a total 14 years – including six at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Phoenix and the last six at Desert Vista.
In announcing the award, National University said Lacey “has personally seen the power of education change lives and enhance the quality of her students’ lives.”
“She has taught students that have now gone on to pursue careers and high education studies in all fields including, medicine, technology, science and more,” the university said.
“This is such an honor, especially at this time of the year,” Lacey said. “It’s just been a wonderful, wonderful surprise and I feel very fortunate.”
Lacey is the beneficiary of the philanthropy of T. Denny Sanford, a South Dakota businessman who made his fortune as the owner of First Premier Bank and Premier Bankcard – both among the biggest credit card providers in the country. Both businesses specialized in extending cards to credit-impaired people, charging higher-than-average interest rates.
Considered one of the top 50 philanthropists in the nation, he has given away $1 billion – part of his stated intention to “die broke.
Sanford told Forbes that leaving his fortune to a foundation or heirs would be “a huge burden to place on someone else.” Sanford said, “I like to think I have enough years left to spend all this money.”
Worth an estimated $2.2 billion, the 82-year-old Sanford has lavished gifts mainly in the areas of education and cutting-edge health care research and other programs – although he also last year bestowed $9 million on the San Diego Zoo. And he brags about how he’s done all this without a foundation or even a very big staff.
To get an idea of his commitment to education, you only have to look at the National University System.
The system describes itself as a nonprofit system “of university and education-related affiliates that, together, endeavor to provide an exceptional student experience to lifelong learners.”
With National University as its flagship, its pioneering efforts focus on “creating innovative solutions to education and meeting the needs of a diverse student population, including adult learners and working professionals.”
The system includes several other universities, a high school and a K-12 charter, and its namesake university is an accredited private nonprofit university with a unique one-course-per-month format and flexible online and onsite certificate, credential, and degree program.
And it includes three initiatives all bearing Sanford’s name.
The Sanford Institute of Philanthropy helps nonprofits “to significantly increase their fundraising capabilities and the impact they have in their communities and society through a proven contemporary curriculum presented by world-class nonprofit leaders, best in class faculty, and renowned philanthropists.”
The PreK-12 Sanford Inspire Initiative helps teachers create inspiring classroom environments and the Sanford Harmony is a PreK-6 social-emotional learning program aimed at developing strong relationships among students that will grow as they grow.
The award that Lacey won is part of Sanford’s goal of honoring teachers who have a history of “creating inspirational and harmonious classrooms that support student development and achievement.”
Sanford explained why teachers mean so much to him.
“As a child, I was fortunate to have a few teachers who truly inspired me to learn and succeed. Educators have many similar opportunities to touch children’s lives and make meaningful impacts that can last a lifetime,” he said. “As an entrepreneur and philanthropist, I can think of no better return on investment than inspiring students to embrace learning and find their path in life.”
She said she doesn’t know yet what she’s going to do with the money once it arrives early next year and said she’s told the same thing to her two sons, Majesty, 18, and Tesfyah, 13.
She won’t even begin to guess why she was singled out.
As an English as Second Language teacher, she said, “My students are from all over the world. I think that I do celebrate diversity.”
“But I don’t know what specifically made them pick me. I do spend a lot of time working with students,” she added, noting that she’s part of an intervention program at Desert Vista that tries to help struggling students get on track.
“I think it’s all of those things that must have been considered, but I just don’t know. I wish I knew because I’d bottle it up and apply for every grant I could.”
But as much as that mystery may tantalize her, Lacey isn’t going to dwell on it.
“To me, it’s a miracle,” she said. “I feel very blessed.”