It’s not often that educators are hailed as celebrities, escorted by limousine from the airport to a black-tie reception, and given an awards banquet held in their honor.

But for one night, at least, winners of the 2007 Intel Schools of Distinction Awards–which recognize K-12 schools for their exceptional use of technology to enhance math and science education–got a taste of what it’s like to be treated as royalty.

“We want them to feel like stars, because they are,” said Craig R. Barrett, chairman of the board for Intel Corp. “This is the Academy Awards for education.”

So it was that representatives from the six winning schools found themselves at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4–black taffeta swishing across a red velvet carpet, a sea of tuxedos packing an ornate reception room, crystal glasses topped with champagne clinking under a crown-molded ceiling.

As guests mingled in the reception room, some talking shop, others inquiring about dress designers, an array of seasonal amuses-bouche–butternut squash bisque and baby spinach quiche–was served by white-gloved caterers. The splendor of the evening then continued in the grand ballroom.

Each year, Intel recognizes “Schools of Distinction” from across the country. This year, six finalists were chosen as the best of the best–two elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools: Escalante Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah (Science Achievement); Balboa Elementary School in San Diego (Mathematics Achievement); Conyers Middle School in Conyers, Ga. (Science Achievement); Sewell Middle School in Bremen, Ga. (Mathematics Achievement); Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Science Achievement); and Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, N.J. (Mathematics Achievement).

All schools excel in using technology to enhance math and science instruction–but all have their own unique strengths and qualities as well.

For example, Escalante places a “premium on exploration and imagination,” while Balboa focuses on developing “logical reasoning skills and mental flexibility,” according to the representatives of both schools.

Greenhills encourages “diversity of thought and discussion,” while Sewell stresses “an emphasis on ongoing professional development,” as keys to their success. Conyers believes in “independent learning with an emphasis on web-based research,” while Bergen integrates “emerging technology with traditional instruction in order for students to discover the relevance of mathematics in their everyday lives.”

An Intel representative seated at one of many ivory cloth-covered tables explained that the process of being selected as a School of Distinction is very detailed. “You have to start by filling out an online questionnaire. This questionnaire asks you everything–from your school size to your test scores, from your specific technologies to your teaching methods; it takes quite a bit of work. They [Intel screeners], of course, need to see pictures and data spreadsheets as well,” she said as she took another bite of her herb-crusted filet mignon.

After dinner, which culminated with a triple-layer chocolate tiramisu, guests shifted their focus from the opulence of the evening to the climax of the event.

Brenda Musilli, worldwide director of education for Intel and president of the Intel Foundation, named the long list of sponsors for the evening’s awards–including Agilix, Blackboard, Dell, DyKnow, eInstruction, Futurekids, LearnStar, Panasonic, Pitsco, Riverdeep, Scantron, Scholastic, SchoolNet, SMART Technologies, and Spectrum K12. Affiliate sponsors included the Consortium for School Networking, International Society for Technology in Education, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and National School Boards Association.

In total, sponsors donated more than $2 million worth of technology products and services to the winners.

Musilli also invited some of last year’s winners to explain how their schools have been using the technology they received from last year’s sponsors. Rosemary Heher, coordinator of mathematics instruction for Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, Md., said her school uses electronic whiteboards and personal response systems to make math classes more interactive. Students use their “clickers” to buzz in answers to problems–and math, she said, is now “cool” in her school.

Jo Karney, principal of Davidson International Baccalaureate Middle School in Davidson, N.C., said her school holds global math competitions. Students in her school play math games with students from across the globe, including Africa and Asia. “It’s such an amazing way to expose our students to world knowledge, to let them see what other kids can do,” she said.

Barrett then explained why the awards were so significant. He said the United States, for all its success, is not among the world leaders in education–and that the individuals being honored that evening represent characteristics the nation needs to succeed in today’s global economy: dedication, innovation, and the ability to “just do it, instead of talk about doing it.”

“We have a long way to go. I wish the whole country were filled with educators like you … I wish you were the norm,” said Barrett as he addressed the audience. “But until that time comes, we wish to honor you tonight, because you all are heroes and deserve to be treated as such.”

Representatives from various sponsoring companies then took turns introducing the six schools through slideshow presentations of their state-of-the-art science labs, or creative examples of how they integrate technology into mathematics instruction.

Educators from each school received Emmy-like statues–a sort of modern interpretation of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man–and giant lottery-sized checks worth $10,000.

Finally, one of the six schools was granted an additional $15,000 as Intel’s Star Innovator. This school, Bergen County Academies, is able to “integrate mathematics, science, and technology throughout its secondary-school curriculum and serves as an outreach to the community and local companies,” according to Intel.

Representatives from Bergen once again took the stage, and smiles and handshakes were plentiful.

The evening ended with a call to action from Barrett and Musilli, urging all educators to rise to this level of excellence, and asking the night’s winners to continue serving as role models in the educational community.

With plenty to live up to, and checks to be cashed, guests began to exit; the only thing missing was the paparazzi.

Links:

Intel’s Schools of Distinction Awards

Escalante Elementary School

Balboa Elementary School

Sewell Middle School

Conyers Middle School

Greenhills School

Bergen County Academies