SAN FRANCISCO — Amid cheers from her students and thunderous applause from over a dozen people representing a who’s-who of local and national politics, Visitacion Valley Elementary School first-grade teacher Mindy Yip was stunned to receive an unrestricted $25,000 award.
The Milken National Educator Award was presented to Yip by co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, Mike Milken, who was flanked by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Mayor Gavin Newsom, California Superintendent Jack O’Connell and San Francisco Superintendent Carlos Garcia.
The assembly was a carefully thought-out ruse, disguised as recognition of the school’s greatly improved test scores, before Milken took it in a different direction and began speaking of the award. Principal Vincent Chao was the only one at the school aware of the assembly’s actual purpose.
“[Yip] has dedicated her life to the students,” said Milken before surprising the school with the announcement, “to make sure their futures are bright, as well as the future of our country.”
Yip has spent time on many different committees in her teaching career, including serving on the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Program Coordinator at Visitacion Valley.
She becomes one of 80 educators this year to receive the prestigious award, which is decided by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by each state’s department of education — not a formal nomination or application process.
After receiving the award, Yip made it her first order of business to announce that she would be giving half of the money directly to the school.
At the close of the assembly, Mayor Newsom made some poignant statements about the education system.
“When children walk into the classroom,” he said, “it doesn’t matter what color their skin is, where they grew up or how rich or poor they are. What matters is the teacher in their classroom.”
San Francisco and Visitacion Valley embody that sentiment. The school is only a few blocks from two large housing projects; 83 percent of the students are eligible for free or price-reduced lunches; and an astounding 64 percent are English Language Learners (ELLs).
Yip’s variety of instructional strategies help accommodate her students’ many needs.
At a school as ethnically diverse as Visitacion Valley, her ability to speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Lao and Hmong bridges many gaps among herself, her students and their parents.
She is also brimming with creativity: She has focused on student-centered activities, such as having the students design homework for her to complete each day. She has also recognized the importance of food in Asian culture and demonstrated food projects in the classroom.
“I wanted to be a teacher because I love children,” Yip said after getting over the initial shock and tears of joy. “I love seeing their faces when they say, ‘I got it,’ or ‘I have a question.’ ”