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Story Last modified at 5:59 p.m. on Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Trio of teachers earns recognition
Local educators honored on national, state and district levels

Alaska Star


Dorothea Culbert teaches math at Alpenglow Elementary and is one of two Alaska educators to be awarded a $10,000 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
Photo courtesy Greg Culbert

If there were such a thing as a Triple Crown for educator recognition, Chugiak-Eagle River would be in the winner's circle.

Two local teachers and one principal just won a national award, a statewide honor and district-level recognition.

Alpenglow Elementary fourth-grade math teacher Dorothea Culbert travels to Washington D.C., all expenses paid, on May 15 to receive the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Culbert, a teacher at Alpenglow since it opened 16 years ago, won $10,000 from the National Science Foundation as one of 85 math and science teachers around the country to receive the award.

The inventor of "Mrs. Culbert's world famous problem-solving strategies" is a self-described math lover who understands that not all her students may share her passion – at least not right away.

"Math is just hard. And not all kids appreciate the joy and fun of it at first," Culbert said this week. "But I try to make it a lot of fun and I'm able to convince a lot of kids by the end of the year that math is pretty cool."

Culbert majored in English literature at University of Alaska Anchorage, but with a math minor because she was good at math and really does love it, particularly Algebra. She even continued to a master's degree in English lit, on a teaching track, but then realized that teaching kids might be more fun than college.


Homestead Elementary principal Barbara Nagengast, at a gym dedication in honor of former physical education teacher Jerry Bancroft in March, received the Alaska Distinguished Principal for 2011 by the Alaska Association of Elementary School Principals in April.
STAR File Photo

"Teaching is never boring, and that's what I like about it," she said.

Culbert has taught students in grades three through six for 21 years now. Along with her "world famous" problem strategies, she said she tries to make the classroom fun, thereby relaxing students who might be feeling some frustration as they grapple with all the new concepts coming at them in fourth grade: long division; fractions, double-digit multiplication. She uses a lot of humor in class, she said.

She also acknowledges that math is hard, but also tries to make it clear that exercising your brain, like exercising your muscles, makes it stronger.

"The idea that your IQ is static, that's not true," she said. "The more you work at it, the smarter you get. And I remind them of that."

Culbert has two sons at Mirror Lake Middle School with her husband, Greg, owner of Northern Chiropractic.

A panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians and educators selected the award winners following an initial selection process on the state level, according to a press release from the White House. Mary Janis, a science teacher on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, won the only other Presidential Award received by an Alaskan.

President Obama issued a statement to accompany the announcement of the awards, praising the honorees' "uncommon skill and devotion in the classroom, nurturing the young minds of tomorrow's science and math leaders."


Mirror Lake Middle School band instructor Travis Harrington (right) is congratulated by Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan for a Youth Arts award in May 2010. Harrington was again honored last month, when he received the BP Teacher of Excellence Award on April 26.
Star File photo

Culbert and the other award winners will be honored at an awards dinner and will also visit with members of the Obama Administration and Congress.

In the second leg of the educator-award Triple Crown, the Alaska Association of Elementary School Principals in April declared Homestead Elementary principal Barbara Nagengast its Alaska Distinguished Principal for 2011.

Nagengast was nominated and selected by her fellow principals through a statewide search process conducted by association, according to a press release.

She previously held the position of principal at Spring Hill and Rabbit Creek elementary schools in Anchorage and served as a mentor to principals and teachers in Alaska for 15 years. She will be honored at the Alaska State Principals Conference in October in Anchorage.

And in the third leg of the Triple Crown, Mirror Lake Middle School band teacher Travis J. Harrington was recognized on April 26 as a BP Teacher of Excellence for the Anchorage School District.

Harrington teaches music and band for the sixth, seventh and eighth grades at Mirror Lake, according to a BP press release. His award-winning jazz and concert bands have taken national honors for the past three years. In addition, he coaches soccer, wrestling, mountain biking, and is a team leader for the Alyeska Community Schools snowboard and ski program.

Reach Zaz Hollander at

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, May 4, 2011.