YARMOUTH, Maine — A fifth-grade math teacher at Frank Harrison Middle School has received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the White House announced last month.
Karen Jagolinzer, 48, a 20-year classroom veteran, is one of 102 educators nationwide to receive the annual award, which is given to at most one math and one science teacher from each state, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
Jagolinzer credited her colleagues and administrators for the achievement, but said her core knowledge of math may be what has helped her stand out.
“There are many great elementary school teachers, but not too many of us have an actual undergraduate degree in mathematics,” she said. “That understanding of sequence and knowing where the kids will be, not just as fifth-graders, but in high school and college, I think that allows me to reach the kids and connect in ways other teachers might not be able to without that background. And I think my excitement helps them see that they can be excited, too, that it’s not drudgery.”
Jagolinzer studied math and computer science at Colby College in Waterville. After college, she worked as a programmer for Central Maine Power Co., but missed being around kids; the Hampton, N.H., native had grown up leading Brownie troops and coaching Little League throughout high school and college.
So she went to graduate school and studied elementary education at the University of Southern Maine. Jagolinzer began her teaching career in 1993 at Rockport Elementary School in Massachusetts, and joined the staff of Frank Harrison Middle School in 1998.
Now in her ninth year teaching the fifth grade, Jagolinzer has also taught sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. She said she has a passion for middle-schoolers.
“They’re wonderful because they’re their own people,” she said. “They’re very much aware of who they are, they have a great sense of humor, they still love you, they want to do well, and they’re really interested in what you have to say.
“Developmentally, they’re very cool,” Jagolinzer added. “They’re moving from concrete to abstract, and although some are still very literal, lots of others are making that switch. It’s fun to watch. Fifth grade is a huge growth year. They come in as little kids, but leave as sort of big kids.”
Principal Bruce Brann encouraged Jagolinzer to complete the extensive award application, which includes video analysis of a classroom lesson and an FBI background check.
This year, Jagolinzer and her husband, Bruce, will take an expenses-paid trip to the nation’s capital for an awards ceremony and meetings with members of Congress.
She’ll also receive a $10,000 prize. Jagolinzer said it will likely go into college funds for her sons, Benjamin, 17, and Sam, 13.
Although she might use some of it on a motorcycle.
“I used to ride my brother’s as a kid,” she said. “It feels a little reckless, but it appeals to me. You go through your mom minivan years, and then maybe it’s my midlife crisis.
“A little excitement,” Jagolinzer said. “Drive my motorcycle to school every day.”