Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Milken Educators: Where Are They Now? (Part 1)

August 4, 2015

August 4, 2015

By Rebekah Schilperoort

Milken Educators Where Are They Now

Through honoring the country’s top educators for the past 28 years, the Milken Educator Awards— an initiative of the Milken Family Foundation—has driven excellence in the world of education and inspired countless future educators. 

Milken Educator Award winners are welcomed into a powerful professional network that serves as a valuable resource to fellow educators and policy makers at all levels. Many recipients have gone on to shape and influence education policy and practice today. For the first of a multi-part series, we asked Milken Educators to reflect on how winning the award has impacted their lives and careers. 

Dr. Hector Ibarra (IA ‘93)

Dr Hector Ibarra, left, with his son Derek.


Dr. Hector Ibarra won the Milken Educator Award in 1993 for his outstanding work as a science and robotics teacher at West Branch Middle School in West Branch, Iowa. One of his projects reduced the school's energy costs by 70 percent and won national acclaim, including a mention by then-President Bill Clinton in his address to the nation on global warming. 


After receiving several more honors—winning the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Award, being inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame and receiving a Christa McAuliffe fellowship—Dr. Ibarra now teaches a graduate-level meteorology, climate and oceanography online course for teachers.  

Though he’s retired from classroom teaching, Dr. Ibarra is still incredibly active in education. He mentors and coaches students through environmental, energy and health projects for national contests; evaluates teacher applications for the Presidential Awards in Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST); serves on the Board of External Advisors for the Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory; and reviews test questions for ACT, a college-readiness assessment non-profit. 

In his own words

“I was completely surprised when Mr. Lowell Milken called to inform me I was in the first group from Iowa to be selected as a Milken Educator in 1993.  At first, I did not believe him nor did I know about the award.  Being recognized as a Milken Educator immediately provided credibility, as well as state and national acknowledgement regarding my teaching strategies, educational philosophy and projects.  Suddenly, I was in the spotlight.  Many wanted to know how my teaching methods impacted student learning and what my ideas and thoughts were regarding education.  

“Being selected as a Milken Educator made me want to do more. The Milken Family was instrumental in inspiring me to raise my standards, to work harder to prove their investment was correct and to research opportunities benefitting students and schools. Thank you to the Milken Family for their generosity and foresight to recognize excellence in education, and most importantly, for believing in the thousands of educators who have made a difference in their communities.”

Craig Lindvahl (IL '89)

Craig Lindvahl


Craig Lindvahl taught high school band and television production at Teutopolis High School in Teutopolis, Illinois, when he won the Milken Award in 1989. He led a group of students to produce a documentary on the country and culture of Marshall Islands, which was distributed through the Peace Corps to thousands of schools. 

In addition to his work in education, Craig has written, composed and produced documentary films for PBS, netting him 12 Emmy Awards.


Craig’s impressive 35-year career in education led to an appointment on the Illinois State Board of Education in February 2015. He also serves as Executive Director of the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship, which is a company that educates future business leaders.

In his own words

“Receiving the Milken Educator Award completely changed my life. It gave me an invitation to a world that was previously unavailable to me—a world where policy makers and educational leaders actually wanted to know what I thought about things.  

“The award also provided a family of people who celebrated the success of others and who encouraged and cheered as other educators did innovative things. The work that I do now came 20 years after the award, but there’s a fairly direct line between what I gained from the award and the opportunity I have to create positive learning experiences for a much larger group of students.

“It’s a challenging time for teachers, to be sure, but that’s been true every year since I entered the profession in 1979, and it was true every year before that. The truth is that it’s never been more important for kids to have great teachers, and the profession has never mattered more.  That trumps everything else.  I’m more excited about kids than I’ve ever been, and great teachers are having more impact than ever. It’s an exciting time to be a teacher!”

Madeline Hanington (MD '11) 

Maddy Hanington


Known for turning troubled students into model learners, Madeline (Maddy) Hanington won the Milken Educator Award in 2011 for her work as the Language Arts Resource Teacher at Gaithersburg Middle School in Gaithersburg, Maryland. There, Maddy has helped students  write scripts and produce videos around the history of Montgomery County Public Schools and has been recognized by the Gaithersburg mayor and city council for her ongoing commitment to her students.


Maddy continues her classroom teaching at Gaithersburg as a Language Arts Content Specialist. She will be teaching sixth-grade English and a reading intervention class this upcoming school year. 

She was invited to become a 2014 Lowell Milken Center Fellow for her innovative teaching methods and student mentorship. Maddy worked with students to research and uncover the incredible story of an unsung hero, Sylvia Mendez—a girl who, at only age 8, played an instrumental role in a 1946 landmark desegregation case that challenged racial segregation in Orange County, California schools. 

In her own words

“I believe that as a teacher it is my duty to engage my students every day and make sure they become lifelong learners. I also believe that as a mentor, teacher and department head, it is my job to be a role model for teachers ensuring that all students have the opportunities they need to grow and learn. I have been asked to go into administration, but I love teaching too much!  My students know that when they enter my classroom they are safe, they can take risks, they can laugh, they can ask questions and most importantly, they can learn!

“Winning this award has opened many doors for me.  I was asked to be part of the Governor’s Task Force for a post-Labor Day start of the school year, which was a yearlong obligation and involved meeting with congressmen, senators, union representatives, community members and businessmen. I was also invited to be a part in the State Superintendent’s Teacher Task Force to discuss education policy and initiatives.   

“As a member of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes Advisory Board, I attend many events, such as Maryland’s Teacher of the Year banquet, the governor’s town hall meetings and the Milken Scholars banquet.  As a Lowell Milken Center Fellow, I learned all about researching an ‘unsung hero’ using project-based learning. I led my students in researching civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, which culminated in a play they wrote about her life, “The Story of a Brown Skin Girl.”It was performed in front of family, friends, teachers and community members.”

Nader Imad Twal (CA '03)

Nader Twal with his wife and children.


When Nader Imad Twal received his Milken Educator Award in 2003, he was a "bible as literature” and philosophy teacher at Millikan High School in Long Beach, California. He was part of a small team that wrote curriculum for struggling readers, which was adopted by the district and played a key role in developing a college preparatory international studies program. 


Today, Nader is using his influence to help shape process and policy as an Innovative Professional Development (iPD) program administrator for Long Beach Unified School District, the third largest district in California. 

In his own words: 

“A friend of mine used to say that ‘some people dream; some people dream big; and some people dream so big that they cause others to dream.’ I have always had a desire and dream to live a life of eternal worth—a life bent toward education. What better way to impact the world than to help shape the minds in it. Our kids believe the myth that they are the future, so they spend their education waiting to matter. They are the present. They matter now and they need advocates and educators to cultivate that in them. 

“What the Milken Award did was make this dream of mine a reality. The Milken Family Foundation’s vision for education and its belief in me reflected a dream so big, that it challenged me to dream bigger and extend my potential influence to shape systems. An educator at heart, the expression of that passion has now shifted to the systems-level, where I can help create the conditions to equip, empower and inspire every teacher and student to live their own lives of eternal worth—to make their lives matter now.”

Dr. Angie Besendorfer (MO ’96)

Dr. Angie Besendorfer


At the time of her award in 1996, Dr. Angie Besendorfer was a teacher at the Nevada R-5 Storefront School, an elementary alternative school serving at-risk fourth graders in Nevada, Missouri. She went on to hold several key positions in Missouri education, including assistant superintendent of Joplin Schools in Joplin, Missouri, where she was a leader in the recovery efforts after an EF-5 tornado hit 10 schools, destroying five.

Related Connections article: Aftermath of Devastation Fosters New Formula for Success 


After 23 years in teaching and several more honors (John C. Maxwell Leadership Award Top 100, Governor's Leadership Coin recipient and Tri-State Business Journal Most Influential Woman), Angie now focuses her efforts on administration of innovating digital learning as Chancellor of the non-profit, competency-based online college Western Governors University Missouri (WGU).

In her own words: 

“I was so young, having just started my seventh year of teaching, when I received this awesome, unexpected and life-changing award. My first response was ‘They must think I'm doing something really great so I’d better get started.’ 

“I used the award money to earn my master’s degree, which launched my career into administration. Many doors opened because of my association with the Milken Family Foundation and I have had an amazing journey. It has been a privilege to serve students and families in seven communities and now across the great State of Missouri. I have been teacher, elementary principal, professional developer, special services director, assistant superintendent and superintendent before this job found me. The really great story about becoming chancellor for WGU is that I was at a National Milken Educator Conference in the late 1990's when I first heard about Western Governors University. I believe my connection as a Milken Educator was an influencing factor in being selected.  

“Over the years, I have had many wonderful opportunities as a Milken Educator.  First, I have my Milken friends across the country, whom I have learned from and shared with so that students and teachers win on both accounts. It has been great to connect with them when they happened through Missouri or on my travels and at conferences. In addition, our Missouri Milken Educators have close connections with the state commissioners of education where I believe our group had real influence on what happened for our students. I've served on commissions and been invited to write articles. I participated on a team that studied what motivates award-winning teachers to improve. I've presented at national conferences and traveled internationally for my job. I've introduced other educators to visionary thoughts in education by bringing them as a guest to the conference or taking them to tour the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes. Sharing the blessing of being a member of the Milken family has been wonderful. The greatest honor was when, due to extenuating circumstances, I was asked to step in to organize a notification for one of our new Missouri Milken Educators. That was awesome!

“I believe our lives are a culmination of the many experiences that we have along the journey. The fact that I was selected at such a young age and have been able to cherish this relationship for almost 20 years is incredible. I was exposed to visionary thoughts about the possibilities in education and believed they could and should happen because that is what our students deserved. This exposure had a major influence on my thinking and as a leader I have said many times, we have to dream it to become it.  We often chatter about how we can fix things and my latest question is "What would it look like if we REALLY meant it?"  My Milken experience influenced me as a visionary and helped me lead innovation in my corner of the world. I had no idea at the time that my name was called that my future had just been launched in a way that would allow me to dream bigger and touch more lives than I ever imagined.”

Shannon Garrison (CA '08)

Shannon Garrison with some of her students


Shannon Garrison was a fourth-grade teacher at Solano Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, at the time of her Milken Award in 2008. In a classroom that combined English Language Learners (ELLs) with students on Individual Education Plans (IEPs), she provided differentiated and scaffolded instruction to accommodate needs at multiple levels. Two years after her award, Shannon was invited to become a Lowell Milken Center Fellow in recognition of her passion to provide all students with a highly rigorous and engaging educational experience. Her students’project on Unsung Hero Ralph Lazo is featured at the Center and online.


Shannon is entering her 19th year as a classroom instructor and teaches fourth and fifth grades at Solano Avenue Elementary in downtown Los Angeles. She is currently serving her second four-year term on the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which has played an important role in evaluating the progress and state of education in the United States for more than three decades. 

After spending several summers working with Lowell Milken Center Fellows, Shannon was selected to serve as Fellowship Coordinator for the Center.

In her own words

“Receiving the Milken Educator Award changed my life! In 2008, I was doing everything I could to make my classroom and school the best they could be for the students I served.  I was completely dedicated to providing the best possible educational program for these kids, but I never really considered the possibility of having an impact on the education system beyond the walls of my school.  

“I vividly remember Lowell Milken at my notification telling me that he expected great things from me.  I recall him saying that this award was being given for what I was going to do to make a positive difference in education. I took that to heart! I will remember that day forever because I suddenly had an entire ‘family’ who believed that I had the ability to make a difference. That is extremely powerful. Since that day, I have tried my best to reach beyond the walls of my classroom to make a positive impact on education for all children, while still providing my students with an amazing educational experience. 

“In 2010, the Milken Family Foundation submitted my name as a nominee for the 4th grade teacher position on the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB).  The National Assessment Governing Board is an independent, bipartisan board that sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as The Nation's Report Card. The assessment makes objective information on student performance available to policymakers and the public at national, state and local levels. It has served an important role in evaluating the condition and progress of American education for more than three decades.  After a year-long selection process, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appointed me to the Board.  It has been one of the greatest experiences of my career.  I work alongside a diverse group of people including, governors, legislators, curriculum specialists, school board members, parents, business people and other educators.  I have learned a great deal about assessment and expanded my knowledge of educational policy.  I am currently in my second four-year term, and I am chair of the Assessment Development Committee and serve on the Executive Committee as well.

“I have also been very involved with the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes.  I was awarded a Fellowship in 2010, and it had a huge impact on my teaching.  My students and I did a project on Ralph Lazo, which was life changing (read about the project).  The research, the trip to Manzanar and meeting Mr. Kikuchi are things none of us will ever forget.  The past several years, I have spent several weeks each summer as the Summer Fellowship Coordinator.  I work alongside the amazing staff at the Center and assist them in training teachers on project-based learning.  It’s been an awesome experience.  I have the opportunity to work with talented educators from across the globe while further developing my own knowledge of project-based learning and unsung heroes in history.”

Dr. Cyndi Paik (CA '04)

Cyndi Paik with students


Dr. Cyndi Paik was an assistant principal at California Elementary in Orange at the time of her Milken Educator Award in 2004. Dr. Paik helped create an environment at the school that promoted achievement and developed a program in which grade-level teams discussed, reviewed and planned for student improvement through on ongoing assessments aligned to state standards. 


Dr. Paik’s 18 years in public education and diverse talent set have led to several promotions, including Principal of California Elementary and Administrative Director of Accountability and Special Programs.  Currently, she provides educational leadership as Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services in Westminster School District (K-8).

In her own words

“Upon receiving my prestigious Milken Educator Award, I have grown tremendously. On a personal level, I became determined to expand my horizons and develop networks with other people in all facets of the economy to become an effective, well rounded and inspiring person. Professionally, a flame was ignited within me and the desire to promote effective teaching and learning in education. 

“Furthermore, I developed the courage to make changes in education to ensure a positive learning environment first and foremost for students, but also for teachers, staff and all other stakeholders as an educational leader, as I was promoted from Assistant Principal to Principal, then Director to an Assistant Superintendent. Although I have served in different leadership capacities, these were areas of focus that remained steady, which drove my work: ensuring clear goals and expectations, promoting life-long learning, developing problem solving skills and fostering self-reflections in those around me. I am grateful and proud to be a Milken Educator, serving our community in shaping the future of the 21st century learning environment and global economy.”

Dr. Deborah Hunley-Stukes (VA ’99)

Deborah Hunley-Stukes


Dr. Hunley-Stukes was the principal of Hugo A. Owens Middle School in Chesapeake, Virginia, when she received the Milken Educator Award in 1999. She also served as the host of a local cable TV show called "Growing Up in Chesapeake" for more than 10 years and was an officer of the Chesapeake branch of the NAACP.


Since receiving the Milken Award, Dr. Hunley-Stukes received two promotions and now serves as Director of Middle Schools/Curriculum & Instruction for Chesapeake Public Schools. In this role, she’s impacting the lives of students and influencing public education policy locally.  Additionally, Dr. Hunley-Stukes received a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies, and serves as an adjunct professor for Old Dominion University.

In her own words:

“Being raised on public assistance (welfare) and reared in public housing, there was always the stigma of having ‘no way out’ and remaining a product of the ‘the system.’ Through the support of a strong single mother, who always believed in me and my ability to succeed, I was able to make my dream a reality by becoming a classroom teacher. Through hard work and dedication to the profession, I was rewarded and able to continue to impact the lives of even more children (outside of the classroom), by serving in the capacity of assistant principal and then principal. In my opinion I had reached the pinnacle of my career.

“In October 1999, my career began to climb to even higher heights, greater than I could have ever imagined. As principal of a relatively new middle school in Chesapeake, I was surprised beyond belief when I was awarded the Milken Educator Award.  I was the first educator in the Chesapeake Public School system—and one of the first in the state of Virginia—to receive this prestigious honor. Being the recipient of this award gave me a stronger voice in public education, whereby people listened when I spoke.  After receiving the Milken Award, I was recognized by state legislators (and local officials) and was often afforded the opportunity to weigh-in on matters that would positively impact public education.  I was also often called upon by the Virginia Department of Education to serve on countless committees and assist with the identification of ‘the best and brightest’ educators across the state of Virginia. As the host of a local cable television show, “Growing Up in Chesapeake,” receiving this award strengthened my voice by allowing me to share pertinent information about the strengths and weaknesses in public education, while keeping parents and the community informed.

“Who would have thought that a little girl from public housing projects (who, according to statistics, should not have been successful), would have been afforded the opportunity to have such a strong voice and impact in public education? A voice that was undoubtedly strengthened by receiving this prestigious honor from the Milken Family Foundation. A voice that has had an impact on the lives of others, and yes, even on the lives of those in public housing projects. I will forever be indebted and eternally grateful to Lowell Milken and the Milken Family Foundation.”

Rick Crosslin (IN '98)

Rick Crosslin and students


After winning the Milken Educator Award in 1998 for his accomplishments as an outstanding science teacher at Chapel Glen Elementary School in Indianapolis, Indiana, Rick Crosslin received numerous additional honors, including the 1990 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science; the 1996 MSD of Wayne Township Teacher of the Year; the 1997 Indiana Exemplary Teacher Network Award; the 1999 Hoosier Association of Science Teachers; a 2001 Christa McAuliffe Fellowship; the 2004 Indiana University School of Education Distinguished Alumni Award; and an Emmy in 2005 for his work on an educational PBS series.  


Rick is still opening the minds of young learners to the wonders of science as the Scientist in Residence for the Metropolitan School District Wayne Township in Indianapolis. He also produces educational science videos for his YouTube channel and a television program on WFYI Public Media, "Indiana Expeditions with Rick Crosslin." When he’s not writing units of study for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, or contributing lesson plans about sea monsters for National Geographic, Rick facilitates a Science Summer Safari camp for kids. 

In his own words:

“The Milken Award is a ‘gold standard’ of teaching excellence. I have felt this both internally and from the community and my fellow colleagues. To be publicly recognized and financially rewarded are two of the hallmarks of a professional. The Milken Educator Award does both. I believe this award has given me the confidence to share with the public my love, views and successful teaching practices. It has also given my voice as an educator much more leverage –because educators, government leaders, parents and the community respect and validate the Milken Family Foundation –and Milken Educators. Unlike most news stories, the Milken Award is the most positive educational message that our media shares with the world.

“Finally, one of the most important aspects of the award is the network of innovative teachers. There is so much to learn from each other in the Milken Network. It is a place where I can share ideas and learn from experts in a variety of educational endeavors. Being a Milken Educator challenges me to be my best and to strive to be excellent.”

Dr. Natasha Cooke-Nieves (NY '10) 

Dr. Natasha Cooke-Nieves


Between 10 years of classroom teaching in Brooklyn and becoming the Science/Math Instructional Specialist for the Children First Network—a New York City public school initiative that provides operational and instructional support for schools—Dr. Natasha Cooke-Nieves was honored with the Milken Educator Award in 2010 

Her rigorous, hands-on lesson plans have engaged and excited students, while she also empowered instructors and administrators with tools to accelerate student achievement. 


Dr. Natasha Cooke-Nieves has taken her talents in education to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City where she serves as Senior Specialist in Science and Teacher Education.

In her own words:

After winning the Milken Educator Award, I was not only offered my current position but it opened my eyes to how I can better serve the teaching profession, starting from the ground up. Through the help of a Race to the Top grant the American Museum of Natural History was awarded, the Master's of Art in Teaching program began. I realized I could serve as an effective leader in pre-service teacher education as a professor and as a clinical supervisor to earth science teacher candidates.  

“It was very reassuring to feel the love you receive upon being honored with the Milken Educator Award. You finally feel valued as a teacher and compelled to spread the love and encourage others to join the profession.  I am able to do that as a faculty member during a groundbreaking time within informal and formal education—a teacher college housed in a museum.”

Dexter Chaney (IL ’10) 

Dexter Chaney in his office.


At the time he received his Milken Educator Award in 2010, Dexter Chaney was a third-grade teacher at Martin A. Ryerson Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois. Dexter applied personalized instruction techniques that led to significant academic gains for the students at that school. 

As a member of the Chicago Area Alliance of Black School Educators, Dexter initiated community-based projects like the “Clean and Green Day,”a neighborhood cleanup program that paired male teachers with middle-school students to encourage teamwork and provide mentorship.


Dexter continues to be a role model to students as the Assistant Principal at a college-preparatory public school—KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Destiny Elementary School in Dallas, Texas. He is also completing the Miles Family Fellowship, a two-year leadership development pathway that could lead to the founding of a new school in an underserved community. 

Related Connections article: Rising to the Top to Help Those at the Bottom

In his own words:

“The Milken Educator Award has pushed me to think about how important it is to be an advocate for our kids and our profession.  So often, the story of educators is told by people who do not serve in schools.  I appreciate the Milken family because they have pushed me to say more, do more, and be more for our kids and families.”

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  • How wonderful to get to see what these wonderful educators have done since being honored with the Milken Award. They are truly an inspirational group.

    Posted by Karen Garrison, 04/08/2015 2:58pm (5 years ago)

  • Maddy was the best one could hope for in a resource teacher, department chair, and helpmate/colleague. Everyone should be so lucky as I was to work with her, if only for one year.

    Posted by barbara greenway, 04/08/2015 1:46pm (5 years ago)

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