The award qualifies Peterson to represent the state in the national competition at the American Association of School Administrators conference in New Orleans in February.
"It's humbling," Peterson said. "And it validates statewide the work that has been done here in the district."
Peterson's nomination for the award originated with school board member Sammy Crawford, who went to the national association for information on the award.
"As a teacher, I worked with seven different superintendents, and Donna is by far the most outstanding," Crawford said. "In leadership certainly, she is the CEO of an $88 million organization and is excellent. And in terms of communication, she has used the e-mail system as well as her public speaking skills to address every interest group interested in education.
"She has the respect of all the other school administrators throughout the state. Clearly she's an outstanding administrator."
The award comes three weeks after an overwhelming vote of no confidence by school district employees, who are unhappy about what they perceive to be Peterson's lack of support in the contentious contract negotiations that currently await mediation.
The school board officially nominated Peterson for the state award in August.
Community members also supported the nomination, writing letters of recommendation for Peterson's application packet.
Steve Horn, executive director of the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, wrote to commend Peterson's work with technology in the district.
"We have worked together in collaboration on a couple of different levels," Horn said Monday.
He highlighted the school district's development of Internet-based video conferencing programs, Web casting of school concerts and a fiber optic link between schools and the center that allows for cyber-instruction in classrooms.
"All of that has been under her vision and leadership," Horn said. "She's the type of person who sees a vision and has allowed her staff to go forward to implement a technology plan.
"The district really has made some advances in technology in the classrooms, and I'm really proud to have a district like that to work with," he said. "I appreciate her leadership in moving it forward."
Former state Department of Education and Early Development Commissioner Jerry Covey also wrote a letter of recommendation, and two parent volunteers with whom Peterson has worked submitted a poem written in her behalf.
"I told them they did it," Peterson said jovially of the parent volunteers. "(The award committee) was just shocked that somebody did something different."
In addition to the letters of nomination, Peterson also had to submit a detailed resume and answers to five essay questions.
"I basically had to condense all of my professional life into two pages," she said.
The process, though rigorous, was a great professional experience, Peterson said. The exercise is one she recommends for all superintendents, because it helped her focus on the big picture and provided material for speeches and columns.
And, of course, it won her statewide recognition -- much to her surprise.
Though nominees know they are up for the award, Peterson said in the past the winner has been notified before the state conference so family members can attend. This year, however, things were different, and Peterson was not informed of her award until the presentation time came.
"I went to Valdez completely oblivious," she said.
Though Peterson said the award is an honor, she noted the greatest benefit will probably be the opportunity for professional development.
In February, Peterson will travel to New Orleans for the American Association of School Administrators national conference and meet the other 49 top state superintendents from around the country.
"As I understand it, they put us all in a room together," Peterson said. "I can't imagine being in that room with people who have done so well.
"I'm going to try to learn all I can from them."
Peninsula Clarion reporter Jenni Dillon contributed to this story.