"I received a letter than described the award and the requirements needed to receive it," Lavlinskaia said. "I like the way Mr. Feeney teaches. He's strict and demanding and I noticed the students were doing better with him. I thought he was worthy to be recognized."
However, there was one obstacle. Feeney did not have the experience necessary to receive the award from Princeton.
So when Lavlinskaia brought the letter to her principal, Karol Brancato, to tell Brancato of her plan, Brancato surprised her top science teacher.
"That's OK," Brancato said to Lavlinskaia. "I've already nominated you."
Brancato's nomination form to the Princeton University judging committee included letters of recommendation from fellow teachers, from students and other important personnel. Lavlinskaia had no idea that the principal had already begun the nomination process before the form was ever brought to Brancato's attention.
"They all wrote letters for me," said Lavlinskaia, who was born and raised in the old Soviet Union and studied in her native land, earning her doctorate in biochemistry from the Institute of Animal Research in Moscow in 1991. "They were very impressive letters."
Obviously, Princeton was impressed with the application and the letters, because in January, the awards committee sent Lavlinskaia a package that said the committee had narrowed down the process from 73 applicants to 10 finalists - and Lavlinskaia was one of them.
"They told me that they were coming to school to observe me in class," Lavlinskaia said. "So they came, sat in on some of my classes, met with five teachers and five students to talk about me. I don't know what they all had to say about me. It must have been something."
Princeton teaches teachers
Princeton University's "Program in Teacher Preparation" has been a part of the Ivy League's mainstream since 1959. Princeton received an anonymous gift from an alumnus to establish the program to pay tribute to New Jersey's top high school educators.
From the final 10, the select committee chose four to receive the award, which included a $5,000 stipend and a $3,000 grant to the school library of each recipient.
"Among the many impressive nominations we received from around the state, the winners of this year's awards demonstrated exceptional levels of innovation and dedication," said John Webb, the director of the Program in Teacher Preparation. "These four teachers are committed in profoundly special ways to nurturing the minds of their students and to enhancing the quality of education available at their schools. They are truly extraordinary educators who not only apply the highest caliber of professionalism to their work, but also go far more than the extra mile to strengthen both their students' learning experiences and the academic life of their schools."
Lavlinskaia was indeed selected as one of the four recipients. Incredibly, two of the four recipients this year are from Hudson County, with the other being Raymond Page, who teaches at St. Anthony in Jersey City.
"I was very much surprised to be the one to receive the award, considering the circumstances," said Lavlinskaia, who has been a member of the High Tech faculty for the last 10 years and head of the science department for the last five. "There are a lot of good teachers in the state. When I was told I was getting the award, I couldn't talk. I was speechless."
Lavlinskaia got her award at the Princeton University commencement exercises earlier this month. She sat on the same dais as Muhammad Ali received an honorary degree.
"It was amazing to be there at the same time with Muhammad Ali," Lavlinskaia said. "It was so touching. The whole thing was really unbelievable. I had a cap and gown on for the first time in my life. When I was in Russia, we didn't have caps and gowns when we graduated. So it was very moving and emotional for me."
Lavlinskaia also is an adjunct professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at Fordham University. She has also published more than 20 research articles and shares that research with her teaching colleagues.
Inventive ways to teach During her teaching career at High Tech, Lavlinskaia has developed inventive ways to make science more fun and easier to learn. One of those is called "Biopardy!," a take-off on the popular syndicated game show "Jeopardy!", only with a biology twist.
"I promised myself a long time ago that I would make biology more interesting," Lavlinskaia said. "Back in Russia, there was a game we played with topics. It had an element of knowledge and an element of playfulness. So I came up with this game. It helped the students get ready."
More importantly, it also helped the participants of the High Tech Academic Bowl team, which captured the Hudson County championship this year. In fact, the top two finalists in the county-wide Academic Bowl were both from High Tech.
It also must have had an impact. Last year, more than 60 percent of the High Tech students who took the advanced placement (AP) biology exam received a perfect score.
During her career, Lavlinskaia was named High Tech' Teacher of the Year in 2003 and received a national Siemens Award, which honors commitment to students and the Advanced Placement program, last year. Karol Brancato, the principal at High Tech, credited Lavlinskaia for enhancing the students' lives.
"She is also very gifted in supporting students as they make life choices," Brancato said. "She is equally adept at recognizing the underachiever who wants to blossom and the exemplary student who is missing a passion for learning."
Annie London, who was one of the students who wrote a letter of recommendation for Lavlinskaia and was interviewed by the committee when they visited the school in January, said that "Dr. Nina made me fall in love with biology."
"Dr. Nina's enthusiasm is utterly contagious," London said. "I am not alone in this belief. She is the only teacher I have ever had who has managed to create a real family where students stay connected to even after they graduate."
Lavlinskaia was very humbled by receiving the award from Princeton.
"It's great that such a huge and respected institution like Princeton can appreciate the work high school teachers do," Lavlinskaia said. "It also shows other high school teachers that there are ways to get things done. I hope this inspires other teachers. It's a great honor I'll always cherish."
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or email@example.com