BRICK, N.J. — The gym at Brick Memorial High School was packed with students and visiting dignitaries when Maria DeBruin’s name was called.
She stood near the top of the bleachers, rising from her seat as the shrieks of excited students erupted around her.
“One of the best teachers in the entire country, out of 3 million teachers, is here in your school,” said Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation, an organization that honors teachers across the United States.
It awarded DeBruin a $25,000 prize at the surprise assembly.
DeBruin, an analytical chemist turned Advanced Placement and honors chemistry teacher, is one of just 45 teachers in the entire nation chosen for one of the prestigious Milken Educator Awards. The honor is akin to the Oscars of teachers, Foley said.
“We don’t clap and hold ceremonies for outstanding educators very often,” Foley said during the assembly, which was attended by New Jersey Education Commissioner Kimberly Harrington and previous Milken awardees from across New Jersey.
“Outstanding educators are the backbone of every distinguished school such as this, and only if we elevate the teaching profession will talented young people . consider a career in education,” said Foley. “One teacher during his or her career has the power to positively influence thousands of young people’s lives.”
The Asbury Park Press reports that DeBruin has turned around AP chemistry in Brick Memorial, where at one time the class was so unpopular that it was held only every other year, district staff said. Under her deft leadership, there are now three sessions of AP chemistry held.
“She cares about her kids,” said Acting Superintendent Dennis Filippone. “She engages them. She’s enthusiastic about a subject that is very difficult to teach nowadays, and she’s grown her programs exponentially over the years to the point where we almost have to turn kids away from her class. That’s a real testament to her.”
DeBruin records her lectures and posts them online so students can watch if they are out of school or need to go over points covered previously in class. But she does not go lightly on her students. She quizzes and tests them rigorously. A score of 90 percent on a test is a difficult and noteworthy accomplishment in her classes.
John DiPetrillo, a Brick Memorial junior, said: “She’s been the best teacher I’ve ever had, and not just the best (but) my favorite teacher.”
DeBruin has a special talent for simplifying complex subjects and then helping students understand complexity, said Walter Hrycenko, supervisor of the science department and DeBruin’s former AP chemistry teacher when she attended Monsignor Donovan, now Donovan Catholic High School in Toms River.
“She always has hooks to get kids interested in certain topics, which in terms of chemistry is . not everybody’s favorite subject,” he said.
Richard Caldes, principal of Brick Memorial, said DeBruin is on the cutting edge of education and also serves as a role model for students.
“I knew that I always wanted to be a teacher,” said DeBruin, who has worked in Brick schools for nine years since leaving her job as an analytical chemist.
“It’s definite affirmation for everything that I’ve worked for,” she said while walking the hallway. A moment later, a student came up and embraced her, saying, “Miss DeBruin, I love you.”
“This is the right field for me,” she said. “I’ve found my path. This is it.”