Teacher magazine calls them the "Oscars of Teaching." On Monday, at a surprise all-school assembly, officials opened the envelope and called the name of a Buffalo special education teacher.
Hamlin Park School's Andrew Franz was surprised to learn that he is a winner of a national Milken Educator Award, one of 45 recipients across the country. The award comes with a $25,000 prize, but more importantly, national recognition as an innovator in the classroom.
"The most direct and powerful way to reach the mind, imagination and character of the learner is through the mind, imagination and character of an outstanding teacher," said Lowell Milken, Milken Family Foundation chairman and co-founder, who created the Awards 30 years ago. "Andrew Franz is precisely that sort of beacon educator, one who lights the way for students in a challenged community with hands-on science, creative technology and thinking outside the box of cookie-cutter educational practices to truly connect with eager young minds."
Franz teaches in a special education 6:1:1 setting where he has literally helped his students shoot for the stars. As the lead educator on the Student Spaceflight Experiment Project, he fired up his 7th and 8th graders about growing potatoes in space and enlisted biologists at the University of Buffalo and Cornell to serve as outside advisers.
He also raised funds to get the students to a STEM Conference in Washington, D.C., and to Cape Canaveral in Florida to observe the Falcon 9 rocket launch that put their tubers into orbit.The experiment, which continued at the University of Buffalo even after the students moved on to high school, earned "the SpudLaunchers" widespread recognition.
"Andrew Franz is an advocate for STEM and a passionate educator," said New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. "He uses hands-on, real-world experiences across content areas to engage his students and is dedicated to making sure that they continue to use that knowledge even after they leave his classroom. Mr. Franz is a tremendous positive force in the lives of his students and a deserving recipient of this recognition."
However, upon accepting his award, Franz told his students he is proud of them.
"You guys are a piece of my life," Franz said "You guys are my children. Without education, you don’t make dollars. Without education, you have no substance in your life."
Under Franz, students have learned about harvesting mushrooms and aquatic life in Cazenovia Park, attended the Western New York Science Fair and Tech Savvy, participated in the Minecraft Build Challenge at the Microsoft Store and tried their hand at fly-fishing, among other things, as a way to teach life skills.