Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Milken Educators: Where Are They Now? (Part 2)

November 2, 2015

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By Rebekah Schilperoort

For the second of a multi-part series, we asked Milken Educators to reflect on how winning the award has impacted their lives and careers.

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

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. Let’s see how these outstanding recipients have gone on to shape and influence education policy and practice today.

Remember to follow all of the action of this year’s Milken Educator Award season:

Dr. Maggie Knutson (MN ’04)

Maggie Knutson volunteering in classroom in Costa Rica

Photo: Maggie Knutson poses with a 5th grade classroom in Villa Real, when she spent time volunteering in Costa Rica in 2014.


Dr. Maggie Knutson won the Milken Educator Award in 2004 for the profound impact she had as a teacher at Orono Intermediate School in Long Lake, MN. She also contributed her expertise as a consultant with the Minnesota Department of Education in various capacities and not long after receiving the award, Knutson accepted an appointment by the governor to the Minnesota State Board of Education. In the following years she finished her doctorate in curriculum and instruction and became the founding director of the country’s first girl-focused charter school, Laura Jeffrey Academy, in St. Paul, MN. The school’s motto was “to over-serve the under-served” and Knutson actively recruited students by holding informational sessions at community centers in Section 8 housing, and at Hmong and Somali markets.   


Knutson is currently the Learning Architect for a small education technology start up, MindBlown Labs, in Oakland, California. The company creates highly interactive, experiential learning tools and curriculum that teach financial capability to young people (grades 9-12). Part of the overarching goal is to help youth understand how to make smart financial decisions for their future. Knutson provides the educational expertise and support to help make the game and curriculum as  powerful and engaging as possible.

In her own words: 

“When I received the award in 2004, I remember my dad’s response: ‘Great! Now you can reach farther.’ I wanted a pat on the back from him yet his response was: reach higher, and that’s exactly the effect the award has had. 

“This award itself has been both a validation of great work and a push to do more. Our field does not have explicit pathways of career advancement, and oftentimes, classroom teachers don’t feel inclined to step out of their comfort zones of the classroom. Receiving the Milken Educator Award helped clear the path for leadership opportunities outside of my school district. 

“I remember the reception for Milken Award recipients (it was in Washington DC that year). The feeling was incredible. As a teacher, I’m often in rooms filled with teachers, but this was different. I felt as though I had found ‘my people.’ I was surrounded by teachers who were not only passionate and hard working (so many teachers are) – this group was also innovative and risk-taking. We were all dissatisfied with the educational status quo and at the same time really positive, hopeful and solution oriented. That experience, and continuing to be a part of the Milken Family network, has helped me define myself as an educational leader and inspired me to take educational career paths less traveled. I’m forever grateful.”

Tonya Breland (NJ '06)

Tonya Breland


Tonya Breland was a fourth grade teacher at Fountain Woods Elementary School in Burlington Township, NJ, at the time of her award in 2006, where she piloted numerous innovative and effective programs. She volunteered to start a new social studies program, one component of which specifically targeted English as a Second Language (ESL) students, and was selected by the district to pilot a curriculum reading program. She later became principal of Fountain Woods, and in that role helped remove the school from the state's list of schools in need of improvement. 


Breland now leads her own educational consulting firm, Teach Educators and Scholars Organization, LLC (TESO) in Burlington, NJ. The mission is personal to Breland: to help students succeed. She does this by providing professional development and consulting services to schools and organizational organizations and tutoring services to students K-12.

In her own words: 

“Winning the Milken Award validated what I did as a classroom teacher. Although I felt I was doing my job by making a difference for my students, I didn’t necessarily think I was any more special than my colleagues. The Milken Award shone a light that empowered me to do even more in and for my profession. It helped me feel I could effectuate change at a broader level.

“Since winning the Milken Award, I’ve served in the capacity of principal, where I had the unique pleasure of turning around a school in need of improvement and removing it from the state of New Jersey’s list of schools in need of improvement. I have since started my own educational consulting firm, Teach Educators & Scholars Organization, LLC, where I empower other educators to reach their full potential as they help students reach theirs. My passion is to help others fulfill their potential and I do this through speaking, training and consulting with schools, educational organizations, and others. I currently serve as co-chair for the State Professional Learning Committee (SPLC) with the NJ Department of Education. We advise the commissioner of education on issues related to professional learning for the state.  

“I’ve written a children’s chapter book, Mykayla Mitchell Moves Away, a story for K-3rd graders about friendship. I’m currently in the process of penning a professional empowerment book to help others live their passion and reach their highest potential as they make things happen in their professional or personal lives.

“As a consultant and trainer, I have an opportunity to positively influence more educators and inspire them to raise the bar for students and help students succeed. I am energized by fulfilling this mission. Winning the Milken Award has opened up a world of possibilities that I never dreamed existed for me.” 

Yanaiza Gallant (RI ’12) 

Yanaiza Gallant and Jane Foley


When Yanaiza Gallant won the Milken Educator Award in 2012, she was making her mark as the K-5 reading specialist for Lillian Feinstein Elementary School in Providence, RI. Through intervention strategies and literacy events, reading achievement levels rose schoolwide under her influence. 

Related: See photos of her award ceremony and watch the video of her reaction!


After winning the Milken Award, Gallant was accepted into a selective transformation leadership program through the New York City Leadership Academy. From there, she was hired as the “proud” transformation principal of Orlo Elementary School in East Providence, RI.

In her own words: 

“I will never forget my Milken assembly. I had stayed after school the day before to set up the entire gym. Little did I know that I was decorating for myself. When they called my name, I thought so much as I walked up to the microphone. I knew that at the moment, I was going to be able to show the students in front of me, who were students just like me (immigrated to the US, second-language learner, grew up with limited resources), that ANYTHING is possible!

“The Milken Educator Award opened up so many doors for me. After being presented with the Milken award, I was asked to chair Governor Chafee's Teacher Autonomy Task Force, which promoted educator voice in education.  This process brought together multiple stakeholders such as the Rhode Island Department of Education, superintendents, principals, local unions, business professionals and teachers to advocate for a stronger educator voice to be present in both state and local levels.  The Milken Award also made it possible to go and speak at local schools and community forums about perseverance and growth mindset. The award was exactly the reminder that I needed to continue to pursue my passion for education and the need to inspire others in the field. The Milken Award pushed me to say more, do more, and be more!”


L. Candy Suiso (HI ’99)

Candy Suiso


L. Candy Suiso received the Milken Educator Award in 1999 after creating a ground-breaking student-production program at Wai`anae High, where she had previously been a Spanish instructor. In 1993, she started Searider Productions, an elective program at Wai`anae that offers students the opportunity to explore, create and engage in all forms of media.


As the executive director of Searider Productions, Suiso has expanded the program from video production to include journalism, digital media, animation, graphic design, web design, interactive media, audio production and photography — all embedded in the school’s curriculum. Through the ever-expanding academy, students have created digital shorts, educational programming for PBS affiliates and much more. Several former students are now instructors in the program. 

In her own words: 

“Receiving the Milken Family Foundation award was a life-changing event for me. We were already off to a great successful start with our program, but now we had the prestigious Milken Award attached to our name — a very respected national recognition in the teaching profession. There was so much more work to do and it motivated me to do more!

“The Milken Award opened many doors for me. Since receiving the Milken Award, our program received two national grants: one from the U.S. Department of Education Native Hawaiian Education Program and one from the WKKellogg Foundation. We were recognized twice as an Apple Distinguished Program for innovation, leadership and educational excellence. Most important was the networking with great educators who all share the same mission: empowering our youth to make our communities a better place to live, work and play. 

“I am forever grateful to Lowell and Michael Milken and the Milken Family Foundation for opening so many doors for me. I continue to be challenged every day to work harder and serve our community. My heartfelt Mahalo and Aloha is beyond words.”

Dr. Tammy Alexander (AL '98) 

Dr Tammy Alexander


Dr. Tammy Alexander was honored as one of inaugural Alabama Milken Award winners in 1998. As a fourth-grade teacher at Lynn Fanning Elementary School in Meridianville, Alexander was the first teacher in her school to implement the Accelerated Reading Program, which later became the model for the entire school. Prior to teaching, Alexander was the director of Girls Incorporated, an advocacy agency designed to help young girls develop confidence and break free of traditional stereotypes.


Alexander credits winning the Milken Award with several milestones in her career. 

Shortly after winning, she was chosen to join the National Science Foundation's Hands-on Science Program (HASP), which aims to help other fourth-grade teachers develop a more activity-based science curriculum and later became a statewide initiative. She currently serves as director of the AAMU/UAH Regional Inservice Center at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville. The center provides professional learning opportunities for schools in 12 north Alabama districts. Alexander also teaches as an adjunct professor at the university and has earned her doctorate in literacy and reading.

In her own words: 

“I was a member of the first class of Alabama Milken Award recipients. The journey after that has been fast paced and fun.

“As a teacher I (always) knew the impact we have on the world. Teachers pour into students. We believe in them and encourage them to make their dreams come true. That's what my teachers did for me. As a girl who grew up in poverty, I had teachers who told me that I could ‘be whatever I dreamed I could be.’ I know teachers are not seen has the dream givers, the dream believers, the dream encouragers — but we are. The Milken Award reminds teachers that when you ‘think’ no one is watching, they actually are. The award says that you matter and to keep up the great work you’re doing.

“I have left the elementary classroom and moved to the collegiate level where I now impact future teachers — how cool is that? I love the work I am doing; it’s a gift that keeps on giving through the future teachers I serve.”

Baruti K. Kafele (NJ '09)  

Dr Baruit Kafele


Baruti Kafele won the Milken Award in 2009 for leading the transformation as principal of Newark Tech High School in Newark, NJ. Fittingly, his African first name means “teacher,” and he has been awarded several honors for his outstanding efforts in improving the lives of young people and educators, including the East Orange School District and Essex County Public Schools Teacher of the Year.  

Related: See photos from his Milken Award ceremony and watch his reaction to winning the award.


An author of five books and international consultant, Kafele speaks to thousands of educators and students every year. He conducts 130 full-day workshops and 30 keynote speeches annually. He’s the bestselling author of three books: The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence (2015), Closing the Attitude Gap (2013) and Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and in Life (2009). Follow him on Twitter! 

Related: Educator profile: Baruti K. Kafele (NJ '09)

In his own words: 

“The Milken Award has given me a credibility that I did not have prior to receiving it. It tells clients and educators that I am legit — that I have not only done this work, but I did it effectively.”

Kirk Brown (CA '99) 

Kirk Brown


Kirk Brown was a biology and biotechnology teacher in the International Baccalaureate program at Tracy High School in Tracy, California, when he won the Milken Award in 1999. Brown taught at Tracy for 25 years, where he inspired many graduating seniors to major in biology-related fields in college. Thanks to Brown’s influence, several of his students have seen their work published on scientific projects, such as identifying the cause of stem rot disease in rice or studying the carcinogenic effects of barbecued foods.

Related: Educator Profile: Kirk Brown (CA ’99)


Brown is currently the director of Science and STEM Integration / Innovation at San Joaquin County Office of Education, where he directs efforts for the county. Brown is the Co-Lead Writer of the CA Science Framework and has been on the Science Expert Panel that advised the California Department of Education as they adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. He’s also the author of the textbook Biotechnology; A Laboratory Skills Course.

In his own words: 

“Winning the Milken Educator Award has made a huge impact on my career. I won the award in my twelfth year of teaching. I continued to teach for another 13 years at the same school. Over that time, I had many opportunities to speak and provide professional learning for teachers. I developed many new programs and had many visitors to my classroom.  

“The award certainly provided credibility and ongoing recognition from area educators and people from all over the United States. Making connections with other Milken Educators was also pivotal in my expansion to regions outside of my district, county, state and country. The opportunities to network, share ideas and just talk about the challenges that arise as an educator continue to expand each time I have the opportunity to be around this wonderful community.”

Jane Ching Fung (CA '02)



Jane Ching Fung was a teacher at Lafayette Park Primary Center in Los Angeles at the time of her award. An expert in standards-based instruction and a leader in the field of early literacy, Fung is a teacher researcher who’s served on Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn's Education Commission of the States (ECS) Literacy Advisory Council and presented at the ECS National Forum. 

Related: Educator Impact: Jane Ching Fung (CA '02)


Fung has remained a classroom teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. After receiving the Milken Award, Fung became one of the founding teachers at the Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Science Center School in Los Angeles. For the past 11 years, she’s had the privilege of teaching with gifted educators, collaborating with the California Science Center and working with student teachers from University of Southern California. This fall, she became a kindergarten teacher at Belvedere Elementary School, a large Title I school in the heart of East Los Angeles.

In her own words: 

I have always been lucky to have amazing role models and friends guide me in my career. So when Lowell Milken came to my school that October afternoon, I thought we were honoring one of them, not me! I had already taken on teacher leadership roles before Lowell announced my name, but what came after was more than I could imagine.

“After the award, I felt a stronger sense of responsibility to the profession and my colleagues. I was given a very public platform to highlight the work and lives of teachers. I said ‘yes’ to every invitation that came my way when a teacher’s voice was needed. I wanted to be there to represent and to be heard. It wasn’t easy for a generally shy and self-conscious immigrant like me to leave my comfort zone, but I learned that I needed to be there.  

“I have had the opportunity to sit and collaborate with policymakers, university presidents, school superintendents, business leaders and former governors. I get to network with and learn from colleagues all over the country who share my passion and love for teaching. I have published articles and blogs on my experiences in and out of the classroom. 

“I have gained much more than just an award, I have gained greater confidence in my ability to be an advocate for the profession, educators, families and students.”

Dr. Gary Stark (AR '01) 

Gary Stark


Dr. Gary Stark was principal of Helen Tyson Middle School — Arkansas’ largest middle school — when former Governor Mike Huckabee surprised Stark with a 2001 Milken Educator Award. At Helen Tyson, Stark’s leadership accounted for a 25 percent increase in SAT9 scores in four years.


“Sometimes opportunities that come to Milken Educators become opportunities for the Milken Family Foundation as well,” Milken Family Foundation Chairman and Co-Founder Lowell Milken once said about Stark, who currently serves as president and chief executive officer of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET). NIET was founded and is chaired by Lowell to advance educator effectiveness across the country.

When attending his first Milken National Education Conference, Stark learned details of an innovative reform being considered for his state—the TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement. The initiative, whose growth became the catalyst for NIET’s creation, appealed to his interest in professional development and education reform. When former Arkansas Education Commissioner Ray Simon asked Stark to launch the TAP System in his state, it was a challenge he gladly accepted. 

Stark’s performance and his visibility as a Milken Educator put him on the fast track. After becoming the Arkansas TAP executive director in 2001, he joined the Milken Family Foundation as vice president of program development, and in 2010 he was selected to head NIET. Today, he leads a diverse team of educators, researchers, and policy experts focused on attracting, developing, motivating and retaining high-quality educators.

Related article: Growing With TAP

In his own words:

“Not only did Lowell Milken give me the gift of the Milken Educator Award, but he also gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to work with educators from all across the world. As president and CEO of NIET, I have benefited enormously from his intellect and experience as a business leader and as one of the great education reformers of our time. I look forward to advancing NIET’s exciting journey under his guidance.”


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