Jennifer Richardson of Conway tries to bring a little of the outdoors into her fifth-grade science classroom at Wooster Elementary School, which opened in 2008 and was the first school in Arkansas to receive silver status in Leaders in Energy Efficient Design certification.
Along one wall of her classroom sits a variety of aquariums and cages for the “critters” she has on display. There’s a guinea pig, a leopard gecko lizard, a hermit crab, a hamster, a red-eared slider turtle and the latest — a ferret that just learned how to shake her cage and get loose in the classroom. The students care for these critters on a regular basis.
Signs posted in the classroom declare, “It’s easy being green,” and “Everyday is Earth Day.”
Richardson, 48, doesn’t seem to mind that one of her students told her she doesn’t seem like a “girly-girl.” And she doesn’t run in the other direction when she’s called to the playground when she’s sure the only reason she’s needed is to corral a snake.
It’s this “out-of-the-box” teaching philosophy that has earned her honors during her 25 years as a teacher. The most recent honor came in December when she received word that she had been selected to receive the 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Richardson said the application process for the honor began in the spring of 2012, but the White House did not release the names of the award recipients until Dec. 20, 2013.
Richardson is among 102 mathematics and science teachers receiving this year’s award, which, according to information from the Presidential Awards website, is the highest honor bestowed by the United States government specifically for kindergarten through 12th-grade mathematics and science teaching. The awards were established by Congress in 1983 and are administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
This year’s awardees represent all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Department of Defense Education Activity. Richardson and the other educators will gather later this year in Washington, D.C., to accept their accolades, which include a $10,000 cash award for each teacher to use at his or her discretion.
“I am very humbled by this award,” Richardson said. “I have the privilege to work with a great group of ladies and gentlemen in the Greenbrier School District. I look at this as an honor for them as well.
“It was a shock to learn that I had won,” she said, noting that her award is for science. “I was nominated by Rob Beadel (director of forestry education for the Arkansas Forestry Association), who is the state coordinator of Project Learning Tree, which is an environmental education program sponsored by the Arkansas Forestry Association.” Richardson was named Outstanding Project Learning Tree Educator by the Arkansas Forestry Association in 2009. PLT presents an approach to teaching children about the forests, forestry and the environment.
“I had to prepare a 45-minute tape on how I teach and then type up some of my reflections on my teaching,” she said of the Presidential Awards application process. “I also had to show samples of my students’ work. I had to take assessment of my teaching and of my kids and what they needed. It was a good process, very involved.”
Richardson said she submitted that in the spring of 2012.
“I did receive notice that I was a state finalist and thought that was a nice honor. I never heard anything more and just put it out of my mind.
“Then during the summer, I received an email asking me for permission for an FBI background check. I sent that back in July, and in August, I received another email asking me to submit a bio and a head shot. All the time, I was told this was confidential. Another month went by, and in the fall, I received a final copy of my bio. I heard nothing more until Dec. 20, when I received an email, saying, “Congratulations. You have been selected.”
“I was absolutely shocked,” she said with a laugh.
Richardson grew up in Dardanelle, the daughter of Linda Hudlow and the late Jackie Hudlow. She graduated from Dardanelle High School in 1983 and from Arkansas Tech University in 1987 with a Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education. She is certified to teach kindergarten through sixth grade. She received certification as a middle-school generalist by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards in 2010.
She began her teaching career in Dardanelle, teaching at the elementary school for 10 years. She moved to Faulkner County with her husband. Tim, and their sons, Evan, now 20 and stationed with the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Lane, 13 and a student in the Greenbrier School District. She taught five years in the Vilonia School District and is now in her 10th year with Greenbrier, having taught at Westside Elementary School before moving to Wooster Elementary when it opened.
In addition to teaching fifth-grade science to approximately 80 students, Richardson also coordinates the Wooster Environmental Science Club for fifth-graders.
This club focuses on educating the community about environmental issues, as well as finding solutions to problems in the local area. She said this year the school also has a fourth-grade club that is coordinated by Jolene Weldon.
Richardson said the Environmental Science Club always participates in the Conway Ecofest in the fall.
“It’s always a hit,” she said.