It was an unusual call, but when Yarmouth middle school math teacher Karen Jagolinzer answered the phone that day in July, she immediately figured out what it was about.

On the other end of the line was a representative from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The agency wanted to look into her past.

“Apparently, if you’re going to be a guest at the White House, they kinda want to know who’s there,” said Jagolinzer, 48.

Five months later, her suspicions were confirmed: After an arduous nomination and application process delayed by an international incident, domestic policy squabbles and congressional infighting, Jagolinzer on Dec. 20 became one of 102 teachers to receive the 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, given each year to some of the nation’s best instructors in those fields.

She will receive a $10,000 grant and travel to the White House to receive the honor.

First given in 1983, the award is presented in conjunction with the National Science Foundation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. For the Obama administration, it is a public avenue to highlight one of its key educational priorities: improving student performance in science, technology, engineering and math.

“These teachers are inspiring today’s young students to become the next generation of American scientists, mathematicians, and innovators,” Obama said in a statement. “Through their passion and dedication, and by sharing their excitement about science, technology, engineering, and math, they are helping us build a promising future for all our children.”

The other Maine recipient for science was Elizabeth Heidemann of Cushing. She has taught kindergarten at Cushing Community School for 20 years.

Awarded only 11 days before the end of 2013, the announcement of the 2012 winners came later than usual. Jagolinzer finished her application for the award in April 2012.

Jagolinzer laughed about the delay Tuesday, noting the U.S. government had been busy with some weighty issues, including the federal budget crisis and a government shutdown, to name a few.

And there are still more details to be worked out, such as when she will receive the monetary award and when she will travel to the White House.

“This is an odd year,” she said. “The announcement was made, but no one knows when we’re going.”

Jagolinzer said she came to teaching after moving away from her first career in computer programming. She studied math and computer science at Colby College in Waterville, then took a job in Augusta as a programmer analyst for Central Maine Power Co.

But she soon found herself uninterested in the work and decided to return to school to teach, partly out of frustration at the anti-math attitude of women she met.

“I kept running into these women who said, ‘That’s math; I can’t do it,’” she said.

After a brief stint living and working in Pennsylvania with her then-boyfriend, Bruce, now her husband, Jagolinzer returned to New England in 1993 to teach eighth-grade math in Rockport, Mass., and then relocated to Portland a few years later. She has been teaching in the Yarmouth schools since 1998 and currently teaches fifth-graders at Frank Harrison Middle School. She lives in Cumberland with her husband and two teenage children. She said the $10,000 award, which she is free to spend as she chooses, will likely go toward her children’s college educations.

In the classroom, Jagolinzer enjoys teaching across a wide range of comprehension levels, simultaneously helping students who struggle with the material while challenging advanced learners. She said that converting negative attitudes about math remains a rewarding part of teaching fifth-graders.

“Kids come up with some preconceived notions, even by (age) 10,” she said. “A lot of them have the light bulb go on.”

Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303 or at:

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