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U.S. honor goes to Washington teacher

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SEATTLE — When Andrea Peterson landed her first teaching job, she faced the daunting task of creating a music program with almost no money for supplies in a climate where music was seen as just providing a break for students and teachers.

Her creativity in overcoming those challenges is being honored with her recognition as national teacher of the year. An awards ceremony was to be held Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Peterson is only the second music teacher to receive the award in the 57 years it has been given by the Council of Chief State School Officers. Recipients are selected from the state teachers of the year.

Principal Wayne Kettler, who nominated Peterson, said he's worked with many outstanding teachers in his 22 years as an educator, but Peterson is "just that one step above anybody I've ever worked with before."

Kettler and others who have worked with Peterson at Monte Cristo Elementary School in the small northwest Washington community of Granite Falls note the ways she has integrated learning from other classrooms into her music program.

When students read S.E. Hinton's novel "The Outsiders," Peterson helped them write a 30-minute play with scenes from the book. They chose three Broadway tunes that focused on race, equality and social justice, the themes of the book. Peterson herself composed two other songs after classroom discussions about the play and the book.

"She really is an incredible instructor, one of the best I've ever seen regardless of grade levels and subject matter," said Joel Thaut, superintendent of the Granite Falls School District, which has 2,200 students.

Peterson, 33, has taught in the district for 10 years.

She says it's essential for schools to offer classes like art or music and physical education because they are the only thing that motivates some students to come back to school day after day.

"If you can tap into that motivation, you can get them to achieve higher at all levels," Peterson said before flying to Washington, D.C., with her husband and young daughter.

She started as a high school and middle school band teacher but had so few students to work with that she accepted a job working with younger children when she had the chance. Now, nearly every child who finishes fifth grade can read music and has an understanding of music theory and history.

Born in British Columbia, Peterson moved to the United States with her family when she was 8 and she graduated in 1991 from Onalaska High School in Onalaska, Wash.

She won an academic scholarship to enter the University of Washington's premed program, but switched majors after visiting her twin brothers at their music school in Colorado.

She earned bachelor's degrees in vocal and instrumental music and music education from the University of Washington in 1996.

Peterson will spend the next year out of the classroom, serving as a teacher advocate.