WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is honoring the finalists for the 2013 National Teacher of the Year award and saluting the winner, a Washington state teacher credited with improving science enrollment at his high school.
The winner is Jeff Charbonneau, a science teacher at Zillah High School in Washington state's Yakima Valley.
Obama made special mention of the six educators who died last December in Newtown, Conn., during a shooting spree where a lone gunman also killed 20 elementary school children.
The president said teachers encourage children's passions, inspire their imaginations.
Obama said: "These teachers, they are the ones we entrust with our kids, they are the people who love our kids."
Charbonneau is a science teacher who helped transform his small school into a place where nearly every student graduates with some college credit was named as national teacher of the year.
Zillah High School's Charbonneau is the state teacher of the year and was announced Monday as the national winner by the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Principal Mike Torres said Charbonneau, 35, has added a lot to the school located in Washington's Yakima Valley and has inspired other teachers to push themselves.
"Jeff is one of our many instructors that make Zillah High School a special place," Torres said. "The level of passion that he has for teaching is contagious."
Torres also gives Charbonneau credit for helping push more kids to continue learning after high school. Ninety percent of last year's graduating class went on to continue their learning, either at college, in an apprenticeship program or the military.
Those numbers have a lot to do with a program Charbonneau started to help students get college credit for the classes they take at the high school but not through Advanced Placement tests. Seventy-two classes at Zillah High School can result in credits from Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University or local community colleges.
Torres would like to keep Charbonneau right where he is, teaching science classes at his alma mater, but he also recognizes what he could share with teachers and others across the nation.
"When I look at his background and how he carries himself, I think he would be a great representative for education across the nation," Torres said. "I feel like he can compete with anyone for national teacher of the year."
The teacher-of-the year program began in 1952 to focus public attention on excellence in teaching. The winner is recognized by President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony, scheduled for Tuesday.
Charbonneau started teaching in 2001 at Zillah, the same school he attended. He teaches chemistry, physics, engineering and architecture. He also runs a statewide robotics competition and serves as yearbook adviser for the 400-student school.
His favorite part of teaching is being present at the moment of discovery for a student.
"When they get it and they have that `aha moment.' There's really nothing that matches that," he said.
Charbonneau said he breaks down topics into small enough steps that students can grasp each one and gain confidence as they advance and accomplish what they want. The nation should feel the same way about public schools, he said.
"Nothing in life is truly hard," Charbonneau said.
"We are not a nation of failing schools. When I hear that I literally cringe," he said. "There is so much going right with education that we ignore."
He does believe there's still work to be done, including addressing the achievement gap between students from different ethnic and economic groups.
The three other finalists were Rhonda Holmes-Blankenship, an English teacher from Maryland; Alex S. Lopes, a special education teacher from Florida; and Heidi Welch, a music teacher from New Hampshire.