Soldotna teacher wins national prize

Posted: Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Bruce Rife, a biology teacher at Soldotna High School, has received a 2001 Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award.

The award is one of the most prestigious in the field of education.

It is a surprise for winners, because there is no application process and the state committee selections are made in secret.

Rife was taken off guard by the announcement at Monday night's meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education.

"I am utterly shocked and quite pleased," he said upon receiving the news.

His wife and colleagues got the good word beforehand and duped him into attending the meeting. The central office told him he had to be there to answer questions about grants.

Shirley Holloway, the Alaska Commissioner of Education and Early Development, made a special trip to Soldotna for the presentation. When she made the announcement, Rife was sitting in the audience, nursing a head cold and grading student reports on fetal pig dissections.

When the commissioner unrolled a giant facsimile check for $25,000 and his name was on it, he was flabbergasted.

"They all hooked me," he said Tuesday. "I just fell for it. What an incredible surprise."

The prize includes an all-expense-paid trip to the annual Milken Family Foundation National Education Conference in Los Angeles in June; participation in a national network of 1,600 of the nation's top teachers and principals; and $25,000, which the winner can use any way he or she wants.

Rife said that he has not yet decided how he will spend his windfall, but classroom equipment and a new family vehicle are on his wish list.

The award is the latest in a string of honors for him.

Last year he was named as one of the borough's BP Teachers of Excellence, and he has been Alaska's biology teacher of the year, among others.

He also is active in school and community projects, including service on the board of directors of the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska and the Friends of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Rife originally trained to be a forester, graduating from Colorado State University with a bachelor's degree in forestry management in 1981. At the time, he recalled, a downturn in the timber market made it essentially impossible to get a job in that field.

So he turned to mission work and ended up teaching troubled teens at a private interdenominational school in the Dominican Republic. The work led him to discover his calling as a teacher.

"I was just inspired by working with the youth," he said.

He went back to college, subsequently earning teaching certification and a master of science degree with specialties in biology and chemistry. After teaching on the high school and college level, he came to Alaska and began teaching at SoHi.

He lives with his wife, Jill, a nurse, and their two children, 9-year-old Sarah and 7-year-old Joseph, in the Gaswell Road area south of Soldotna.

Rife was quick to credit others for his success in the classroom. He praised the high caliber of Kenai Peninsula educators, the award-winning staff at SoHi and the students, whom he described as his main motivation.

"It's a team," he said. "We kind of push each other. It is the kids who really do the work."

The Milken Family Foundation, based in Santa Monica, Calif., provides grants to promote education and medicine. Information about it is available on the Internet at

The purpose of the Milken monetary awards is to promote excellence and encourage talented young people to pursue careers in education. The foundation gave its first educator awards in 1987 to 12 Californians. The program has since expanded to involve 45 states.

Alaska began participating in 1990.

Three past recipients are from the Kenai Peninsula: Todd Syverson of Soldotna, now an assistant superintendent for the district; Lorraine "Sammy" Crawford of Kenai, who now serves on the school board, and Richard Sander of Homer, who teaches math and physics at the high school there.

This year, Alaska named two winners. The other was Rhonda Gardner, a language arts teacher at Chugiak High School.

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