Steamboat teacher earns top honors

Cindy Gay, who teaches science at the high school, wins national award for excellence

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— When Cindy Gay returned home from school on Valentine's Day, she discovered a misplaced FedEx envelope sitting on her living room floor.

She had been anticipating the news for weeks, but when she picked up the flat envelope, her anxiety grew.

But to Gay's surprise, that flat envelope contained significant information. Gay, a Steamboat Springs High School science teacher, was congratulated on winning the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching for Colorado the highest recognized teaching award in the nation.

"It's like a college acceptance letter you know you got in because the envelope is really thick," she said of her lifeless, thin envelope.

However, the simple letter inside explained she would have the opportunity to meet senators, the president and other presidential award winners on a trip to Washington, D.C., this week.

After reading the letter twice to negate her doubts, she immediately called her husband and mother. They and her two sons will travel with her to Washington to acknowledge her great accomplishment.

While getting a chance to meet with policy makers, Gay said she would like to discuss important Colorado issues, such as standardized testing.

"There is a focus on literacy and math, driven by CSAP testing," Gay said, who is also the teacher on special assignment for the high school. "We need to look for ways to integrate science in with literacy and math. Often science gets put on the back burner."

With the education reform movement, asking teachers to begin teaching differently doesn't necessarily give them support in doing these tasks. Many times new strategies and skills need professional development, she said.

Teachers on special assignment are those teachers facilitating the implementation and articulation of content standards. Each school in the district has a teacher to make sure students in kindergarten through the 12th grade have the opportunity to master and excel at the standards set by the state.

Receiving recognition wasn't the only reward. Gay will receive $7,500 in grant money to improve science education. When she was a finalist for this award, she received $750 that gave students hands-on activities for the classroom, a large fish tank and resource material for environmental science.

A science teacher at the elementary and secondary level, and a math teacher at those same levels, will receive this presidential award for their state.

Four presidential excellence awards will be given to each state in the country.

"It's exciting, but not quite real yet," Gay said. "I'm busy still teaching kids. I'm sure when I get there I'll be excited."

The president only signs two teaching awards: the Award for Excellence and the National Teacher of the Year.

After being nominated by friends and colleagues from the Colorado Science Teachers Leadership Cadre, writing numerous essays, showing examples of work and filling out questionnaires became her focus for a while.

Gay said she thinks her hands-on approach to teaching may have landed her the winner for science teaching in the state.

"I think they felt that the kind of teaching that I do, in terms of hands-on, is very real-world," Gay said modestly. "There are a lot of teachers doing incredible and great things with students. That's why it's such an honor to be singled out."

Celia Dunham, a first-grade teacher at Strawberry Park Elementary, said that when her son had Gay as a teacher, his inspiration was heightened because of Gay's ability to connect with every student.

"She capitalized on what was valuable to the kids," Dunham said. "She makes the work worthwhile so the kids feel like, 'We're doing something that matters.' She gives kids that voice."

Dunham said that people have many different levels of intelligence or different ways of learning that may not always include reading and writing. She said Gay takes this into account and makes learning more meaningful.

"When I saw how she inspired my son, I said, 'This woman really cares about my child,'" Dunham said.

While "tromping" around the flattops of Glenwood Springs as a child, Gay said a love of being outdoors swayed her away from art and into environmental science, and her parents were not pleased.

"Art and science are intimately related in lots of ways," she said. "The natural environment inspires art and people in art and the environment have the same kind of passion."

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