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Two CT teachers win $25,000 Milken Educator Award granted to standout educators

Lesley Cosme Torres
Connecticut Public
New Haven K-8 STEM teacher Alyssa Basso (facing camera) is congratulated after it was announced she won a $25,000 Milken Educator Award. “...to know that someone thinks that I’m good enough doing what I’ve always wanted to do my whole life is just overwhelmingly amazing. These are tears of joy, I swear,” Basso said.

Teachers in New Haven and Southbury are being recognized for making a difference in the lives of their students.

Alyssa Basso, a New Haven K-8 STEM teacher, and Ashley Dunne, a Southbury K-5 music teacher, were awarded the prestigious $25,000 Milken Educator Award.

The Milken Educator Award is an initiative to celebrate early to mid-career K-12 teachers for what they’ve achieved as an educator and encourage them to continue thriving in the profession. The award is given to 75 teachers across the nation who are not aware they’re being considered.

“This is not a lifetime achievement award. It's intended to go to people early in their career and say, ‘Your work is amazing. We want you to stay and do this work for decades to come,’” Jane Foley, vice president of the Milken Educator Awards said.

At New Haven’s John S. Martinez Sea and Sky STEM Magnet School, Alyssa Basso was in tears after receiving the award. Basso said she’s dreamt about being a teacher since she was little. She remembers lining up her teddy bears and pretending to be a teacher.

“I always tell the kids, you have to live your dream, you have to work hard, it’s worth it. And to know that someone thinks that I’m good enough doing what I’ve always wanted to do my whole life is just overwhelmingly amazing. These are tears of joy, I swear,” Basso said.

As a STEM teacher, Basso promotes engaging her students in the things they learn. She helped establish an outdoor program in partnership with Common Ground High School and Trifecta Ecosystems that allowed her students to create a pollinator garden and test samples they have grown.

Basso also developed a partnership with New England Science and Sailing and obtained a grant which allowed her fifth graders to test the water in different areas. She has created many initiatives that allow her students to connect real world projects to the curriculum.

Basso said all she wants to do is inspire kids. She said she shows up at work every day hoping she’s making a difference in their lives.

Charlene M. Russell-Tucker, commissioner of the state Department of Education, said she wants teachers across the state to know how much they’re appreciated and valued.

“Connecticut has some of the best educators in the country. And having two awardees here today is really just awesome,” Russell-Tucker said. “What it shows is that our teachers are an inspiration not only to their students, but to their colleagues. And frankly, to the entire state. We want to make sure at the state level that we're valuing who they are, what they bring, as they are the heartbeat of our system.”

At Gainfield Elementary School in Southbury, Ashley Dunne was in shock when she realized the impromptu assembly she helped put together was for her.

Dunne said she's always loved working with young people and was excited about going into a career where she could make an impact in kids’ lives. When she discovered her love of music, the two seemed like the perfect mix.

“I just feel very appreciative, I feel a lot of gratitude. As teachers, I think we do what we do because we love students,” Dunne said. “And it’s hard work and you spend a lot of hours putting into planning what you’re gonna do but also building relationships with students and families. To be recognized was just incredible. I’m still in shock and awe.”

Around the school, her music room is known as the heart of campus, as students explore their musical talents. According to her colleagues, Dunne collaborates with other classes to connect her music curriculum with core disciplines.

When students learn about fractions in math, they learn about quarter, half and full notes in her music class. She’s known to immerse students in music from the time periods featured in their history lessons. She also works with special education teachers to ensure all students can access learning about music.

In June 2024, Basso and Dunne will attend an all-expense paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles where they will meet current and past recipients to learn more about ways they can broaden their impact on K-12 education.

Lesley Cosme Torres is an Education Reporter at Connecticut Public. She reports on education inequities across the state and also focuses on Connecticut's Hispanic and Latino residents, with a particular focus on the Puerto Rican community. Her coverage spans from LGBTQ+ discrimination in K-12 schools, book ban attempts across CT, student mental health concerns, and more. She reports out of Fairfield county and Hartford.

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