Ottawa An Ottawa school principal was caught speechless when he won a prestigious national teaching award.
When Steve Woolf was asked to schedule an award presentation ceremony at Ottawa Middle School, he logically assumed all the fuss was for someone else.
Woolf, middle school principal, figured the award might go to a student, since 20 percent of the student body earned grade-point averages of 3.8 or higher.
Or maybe it was aimed at one of the instructors, he thought, since the faculty had guided more than half of the student body to the honor roll.
"I thought, 'This is great: Our kids are great, our staff is great, somebody's going to win an award,'" Woolf said. "Then they announced my name. I about fell off the stage."
Instead, he fell into a prestigious club when he was named one of five Kansans to win the 1995 Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award.
Woolf, in his second year as Ottawa Middle School principal, will receive $25,000 for winning the award, plus a trip to Los Angeles for an education conference.
"It's not very often that I'm at a loss for words," Woolf said, "but I didn't know what to say."
Shock value is a traditional element of the award, organizers said.
In the selection process, districts submit names of previously recognized educators -- Woolf is a former middle-school principal of the year -- to the state with the understanding that some will be chosen for a state "talent pool" to serve on various committees.
The information actually is used by Milken committee members to select winners, who are not notified until the awards are presented.
Don Duncan, Ottawa superintendent, said he was as surprised as Woolf that the award was coming to Ottawa.
"My reaction was that it's outstanding that such an award is available," Duncan said. "And, of course, we're very, very pleased that one of our administrators was selected for it."
The Milken Family Foundation is a private philanthropic institution that works to "discover ways to build human resources.'' Among other goals, the foundation seeks to reward educational innovators who involve the community and offer opportunities to disadvantaged students.
According to a news release from the state board of education, Woolf was cited for motivational programs that slashed discipline problems by 70 percent while improving grades.
"We reward and recognize in a major way," Woolf said. "In absence of reward or recognition, most people will perform just above punishment level ... but we want our kids to perform at the highest level."
An example: The school doesn't award letters for athletics, just academics. Pep assemblies are held to motivate students in the classroom, and thanks to partnerships with businesses, students who earn good grades receive free meals and prizes.
Woolf said schools across the nation, from Georgia to Alaska, have requested information about Ottawa's incentive programs.
Woolf is one of at least two local educators to win the award. Tom Christie, principal at Cordley Elementary School, won the award in 1992 when he was a teacher at Deerfield.