Oregonian: Gresham teacher known for her personal touch wins ‘Oscar for teaching,’ $25,000 award
Author: Eder Campuzano
Posted: December 11, 2019

To read the original, visit the Oregonian.

A Portland-area teacher known for building relationships that empower teens and her effectiveness at educating high school students for whom English is a second language was awarded what’s known as an “Oscar for teaching” during a surprise ceremony at Gresham High School Tuesday.

Julie Rowell is this year’s Oregon winner of the Milken Family Foundation Educator Award. The honor comes with a $25,000 cash prize.

Program Senior Director Greg Gallagher said Rowell’s teaching style caught the foundation’s eye some time ago. He and several local and state officials praised the Gresham teacher for her work with students who need a bit of a boost.

"A teacher like Julie Rowell knows how to really connect with students and make an extraordinary impact," he said. “Her dedication, commitment and creative approach exemplify the inspirational leadership we seek in our Milken Educators."

Rowell typically works with students who have only been enrolled in a primarily English-speaking class environment for two or three years. It can take students six or seven years in such transitional programs to become proficient enough in English to drop those supports.

Most of Rowell’s students are ready in three.

Rowell told a cluster of reporters she was inspired to work with such students because of her own academic struggles in high school.

“I would’ve been an AVID student had they had it when I was in high school,” she said, referring to the college preparatory program for students who need a boost in skills such as critical thinking, writing and reading.

Rowell also manned the desk for a welcome center for migrant families during her time at Western Oregon University and became proficient in Spanish while studying abroad in Mexico. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Spanish in 2002, then a master’s in bilingual education in 2005 at Portland State University.

Rowell said she was shocked to find out she won the Milken award, telling a crowd of juniors, seniors and colleagues assembled in one of Gresham High’s smaller gymnasiums — the main venue is currently under construction — that she felt as though she was in a dream.

“There are so many educators in my building who are worthy of this award,” Rowell said after the ceremony.

She said it may seem like a cliché, but she loves teaching because of her students.

“I love seeing the progress they make. It’s so rewarding,” Rowell said. “The great days far outnumber the difficult days in this profession.”

Junior Dianne Arroyo said she appreciates how lessons with Rowell feel like a back-and-forth, a conversation, rather than lectures. She also said Rowell takes an interest in students’ lives outside of school, often asking about elements that may affect their academic performance.

“Ms. Rowell goes the extra mile for her students,” Arroyo said. “She takes into consideration that we have lives, some of us have jobs. She’s a best friend more than she is a teacher.”

Although she still has a year of high school left, Arroyo knows she wants to pursue a nursing certification with a stop at UCLA for an undergraduate degree once she graduates high school. Sometimes the paperwork is daunting, she said, but knows she and her classmates can lean on Rowell when it’s time to navigate the search for scholarship money and financial aid.

“She’ll help us all figure out how to apply,” Arroyo said. “She knows where to go and who to talk to.”

Rowell’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by her colleagues at Gresham High. Principal Drake Shelton said there’s one thing Rowell does better than any educator he’s ever worked with.

“Relationships,” he said. “That’s it. That’s what sets her apart.”