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Local Math Teacher Surprised With National Award — And A Giant Check

Charles Trainor, Jr.
Miami Herald
Teacher Dale Adamson wins the Milken Educator Award and $25,000 at Howard D. McMillan Middle School. Only one teacher in Florida was awarded the honor in the national award.

Miami math teacher Dale Adamson filed into his middle school’s auditorium on Friday for what he thought would be a typical assembly. He left with a $25,000 check.

Adamson, 29, who teaches algebra at Howard D. McMillan Middle School in Kendale Lakes, was among 44 teachers nationwide chosen for this year’s Milken Educator Award. The national honor from the California-based Milken Family Foundation aims to recognize excellence in teaching like the Oscars do for acting.

“This is just a complete surprise. I couldn’t have seen it coming,” said a stunned Adamson, fighting back tears after the revelation.

Only a few people at the school knew why national, state and local leaders and members of the media had arrived there on Friday morning. Teachers can’t apply for the award, and the foundation doesn’t take nominations.

“You can’t find us. We find you,” said Jane Foley, senior vice president of the awards.

Billed as an assembly to celebrate the school’s academic excellence, state education commissioner Pam Stewart and Miami-Dade County schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho lauded its A-rating and listed other accolades before introducing Foley to present the award. But even then, the suspense continued to build.

In a ceremony reminiscent of “The Price Is Right,” students lined up on stage holding placards displaying the amount of the unrestricted cash prize. Four students began with cards spelling out $250, but Foley instructed them to keep adding zeroes as the crowd’s excitement grew.

Someone handed her an envelope, and she announced the winner. Students erupted in cheers, jumped to their feet and chanted: “Adamson! Adamson!”

“Is your heart OK?” Carvalho asked the teacher when he got to the stage.

“I’ll make it. I’ll make it,” Adamson replied.

Watch math teacher Dale Adamson get surprised with a national award — and a cash prize:

A Miami native, Adamson is an alumnus of McMillan, where his mother has taught geometry for 22 years. He then went to MAST Academy before attending Boston University for his undergraduate degree and Adams State University in Colorado for his master's.

After college, he signed up to be a substitute teacher and “fell in love” with the classroom. He then began medical school, but ultimately decided to become a teacher instead of a doctor.

The foundation explained its choice by citing Adamson’s talent for demonstrating how math can be applied to real-life problems. When NASA landed a probe on an asteroid, he taught his students how algebra made the mission possible. At one point, he illustrated a mathematical equation by climbing up on the school’s roof and dropping student-made baskets to the ground.

His students’ scores on end-of-year Algebra tests are 41 percent higher than the state average.

Adamson, who has taught at the school for six years, described why he loves his job: “The moment when [students] do something that just absolutely blows you out of the water, when they come up with an idea that you could have never thought of. Or when they understand a difficult concept right off the bat — and even when they don’t, when they struggle through it, and they push through, and they persevere."

“That’s such a rewarding feeling,” he said.

He plans to use the money to further his studies. He has applied for a doctoral program in education at the University of Florida and says $25,000 will make a “big dent” in the tuition cost.

While Adamson’s day started much differently than he expected, it would continue as planned, he said.

“I have two algebra sections this afternoon, and we’re building rockets today,” he said. “We need to go out and launch those rockets, ... so we’ve got a full day ahead of us.”

Jessica Bakeman is senior editor for news at WLRN, South Florida's NPR member station. Previously, Bakeman served as WLRN's education reporter for four years. Bakeman was awarded the 2020 Journalist of the Year award from the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.