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Kelly Smith, Published December 15 2009

Fargo teacher honored with Milken Award, $25,000 prize

A Fargo teacher received an early and unexpected holiday gift on Monday.

After a rousing standing ovation from students and peers at Fargo’s Ben Franklin Middle School, Barry Olson received $25,000 as North Dakota’s 52nd Milken National Educator Award recipient.

“I just enjoy doing my job,” the earth science teacher said after the surprise announcement.

The competitive award recognizes teachers and principals across the country for their talent and commitment to the field.

The 49-year-old has taught in Fargo Public Schools for 17 years and is the state’s second consecutive winner from Fargo.

“To all educators, the award says, ‘Yes, you are doing the most important work in our society,’ ” said state school Superintendent Wayne Sanstead. “To the community, the award spotlights the good schools we have and the wonderful teachers and administrators we have. To students, the award says we value educators.”

Olson was selected out of some 8,000 educators in the state by former winners and representatives from major state educational organizations.

“He builds a great relationship with students,” said Ben Franklin Principal John Nelson. “He’s just got a very creative mind on how to reach out and … get them excited about education.”

From taking students scuba diving and showing them how astronauts train to bursting a 55-gallon drum to demonstrate pressure, Olson is known for his hands-on teaching style.

“I’m always looking for new things to bring in the classroom to find something that allows kids to make a connection to the real world,” he said.

In May, he’ll join winners from each state in an all-expense paid trip to a Los Angeles ceremony.

As for the $25,000 prize, it’s no surprise how Olson plans to use it.

With a son at the University of North Dakota and another at West Fargo High School, Olson said he and his wife will likely use the money to support their kids’ education.

Education, he stressed to his students, can help their futures, too, even if it isn’t in teaching.

“I hope when you guys get your job you enjoy doing it,” he told them. “Go out and find a job that you truly like to go to work to every day.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515