An Aurora third-grade teacher who splits her time between the classroom and coaching other teachers was surprised Wednesday with a prestigious education prize that carries a $25,000 no-strings-attached check.

Jennie Schmaltz of Elkhart Elementary School is being honored with a Milken Educator Award, given annually to educators throughout the country who not only have achievements on their resumes but have plenty left to give, according to organizers.

At a gym assembly Wednesday morning, Lowell Milken, co-founder and chairman of the family foundation that gives the award, asked students who helps them do their best every day. The first student to be called on didn’t hesitate. “Teachers,” he said.

“Good teachers really do make a difference,” Milken said, sharing a sentiment backed up by research.

Schmaltz is credited with helping improve teacher retention at Elkhart. She splits her time leading a class of 23 third-graders, with coaching other teachers.

According to the district and the Milken Family Foundation, 90 percent of staff at the school say they are “pleased with the professional development and instructional coaching” she leads. Both her students and the students of teachers she coaches have been showing at least 65 percent growth, “despite multiple challenges in the student body which included parent deaths, learning disabilities and a high percentage of English Language Learners.”

But “it’s not a lifetime achievement award,” Milken said. “We believe you have the potential to accomplish even greater things.”

After she was given a few minutes to process the news, Schmaltz thanked the rest of the staff at her school, and her students.

“You achieve great things when you surround yourself with greatness,” Schmaltz said. “I learn every day from you.”

According to state data, Elkhart Elementary, a school serving a declining enrollment of about 600 students where 93 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, has been improving. In the 2012-13 school year, the school moved up in ratings to the performance category. State officials and politicians congratulated the students Wednesday for the continuing improving achievement.

The Milken Educator Award is given to up to 35 educators across the country each year through a process that starts with recommendations from sources the foundation won’t identify. Names are then reviewed by committees appointed by state departments of education, and their recommendations are vetted by the Milken Family Foundation, which picks the winners.

Teachers cannot apply for the award, which has been dubbed the “Oscars of teaching” by Teacher magazine.

Even though her mom is also a teacher, Schmaltz did not grow up planning to become an educator.

She went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, started out in journalism school and ended up with a degree in psychology.

It was a few years later when she had a child that she decided to go back to school and become a teacher instead.

Now as she works in the city she grew up in, she says she found her calling. But she said hearing her name at the assembly Wednesday still caught her by surprise.

“I kept saying ‘Oh my God, oh my God,’ and then I finally was like, that’s me,” Shmaltz said. “That was about it. The rest is a blur.”

So what will she do with the money? A few of her third-graders told her they expected candy, cookies, pizza parties and the like after giving her their best and helping her win.

Shmaltz said she is torn between using the money for the school and her students, or using it to take a trip.

“I might go to Disneyland,” she told the students.

Milken told her she is free to use it on herself. He said the financial award is meant as a recognition that teachers often make financial sacrifices in becoming teachers.

When Shmaltz called her mom to tell her she won the award — still less than an hour after the news and in a room full of her students, officials and journalists — Schmaltz started crying as her mom told her she was proud.

Then her third graders rushed to hug her and nearly tackled her to the wall.