Press Releases    All Press Releases


A Master of Art: D.C.'s Claire Smullen Is Surprised with $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Stuart-Hobson Middle School teacher's greatest masterpiece is instilling creativity and independence in her students

October 29, 2019

Santa Monica, Calif., — Stuart-Hobson Middle School's resident art teacher Claire Smullen is known for leading elaborate set designs, from castle grounds and wonderlands to whimsical chocolate factories. But when the curtains opened on today's all-school assembly, Smullen was surprised to learn she was the star of the show. 

In a public display of fanfare fit for our nation's best athletes, actors, musicians and Nobel Peace Prize winners, Claire Smullen became Washington, D.C.'s, Milken Educator and recipient of the award's $25,000 cash prize. The crowd of cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials, and the media went wild! 

Milken Family Foundation President and Co-Founder Mike Milken, State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Dr. Lewis D. Ferebee presented Smullen with the prestigious honor. Smullen is the only winner of the Milken Educator Award in D.C. and among up to 40 honorees nationwide to receive the recognition during the 2019-20 season. 

Hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching," the goal of the Milken Educator Awards is to celebrate, elevate and activate the American teaching profession and inspire young, capable people to join it.

"Claire Smullen inspires her students to achieve their highest potential, empowering them to think creatively, act independently and expand their curiosity about the world," said Milken. "Her affirmative impact on their lives is permanent and profound." 

The Milken Educator Award is not a lifetime achievement honor. Recipients are heralded while early to mid-career for what they have achieved — and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities inherent in the Award. 

"Dedicated and creative art educators like Claire Smullen engage and support all students regardless of their strengths, experiences or skillsets and ensure that all students find their inner talents so they can thrive," said Kang. "A highly effective teacher, Claire Smullen gives her students the opportunity to build on their own interests and helps them develop confidence to take on greater challenges. Congratulations to Claire Smullen for earning this distinguished award!"

"Teachers like Claire Smullen are changing the lives of our students every day at D.C. Public Schools," added Ferebee. "I am proud of the incredible way she is making an impact on Stuart-Hobson Middle School students and thank the Milken Family Foundation for recognizing that we have the greatest teachers in the country."

More About Claire Smullen

Innovation: Early each morning, almost two dozen students wait outside for Claire Smullen to open the art room at Washington, D.C.'s, Stuart-Hobson Middle School. During this optional "zero period" class, middle schoolers design, build and decorate elaborate sets, props and costumes for the school's twice-yearly musical productions. Smullen studies the sets of student and professional productions, formulates a loose plan, then turns students free to explore, create and lead the way. The students have painted 1,000-square-foot backdrops, reproduced the magical rooms of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, built the Beast's glorious castle and created a Pinocchio costume complete with extending nose. When the curtains part on opening night, audiences gasp at the scale, detail and professionalism of the sets, hardly believing that middle school students get the credit. 

Motivation: Smullen can turn the most reluctant artist into a young Picasso. She builds students' confidence and cultivates autonomy so they can direct their own artistic journeys. Students explore different stations, learning to use all the materials and tools responsibly and to their fullest. Smullen finds talent in every student and experiments with innovative techniques. The elementary students she taught before moving to Stuart-Hobson created Chihuly-inspired chandeliers using plastic water bottles, which Smullen showed them how to distort using a heat gun. She teaches a full-year art elective for students in the school's Independent Life Skills & Communication and Emotional Support programs, of whom all have intellectual disabilities or severe autism and many are nonverbal. Smullen greets them with a high five or fist bump and creates a warm, safe environment where they can express themselves. The students' creations hang outside the classroom; a woven tapestry made by a nonverbal student who struggles with fine motor skills is displayed prominently in the principal’s office.

Leadership: Smullen chairs the school's electives department and sits on the school leadership team. She leads professional development for the district's art teachers each year. During schoolwide family nights, children and parents do art projects together in her room. Certified as a master gardener, Smullen is helping the school transform its outdoor areas into teaching spaces that incorporate student artwork like painted stepping stones. 

Community: Smullen encourages students to participate in local art contests and projects. After the 2016 presidential election, Smullen's students participated in D.C.'s "Unity Through Art" project and displayed their artwork in local businesses. 

Education: Smullen earned a Bachelor of Arts in studio art and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design from Marietta College in 2008. She received a Master of Arts in Teaching in 2012 from the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at The George Washington University. 

More information about Smullen, plus links to photos and video from today’s assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at

More About the Milken Educator Awards: “The future belongs to the educated.”

The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987. The Awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. 

Along with the $25,000 financial prize, recipients join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,800 top teachers, principals and specialists. The network serves as a rich resource for fellow educators, legislators, school boards and others dedicated to excellence in education. 

The 2019-20 honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Forum in Indianapolis March 26-28, 2020, where they will network with their new colleagues and exchange ideas with state and federal leaders on the future of education. In addition, the Milken Educator Awards' "Why Not Us" program will pair each 2019 recipient with a veteran Milken Educator mentor to explore and prepare for expanded leadership roles that strengthen education practice and policy.

  • Over the years, more than $140 million in funding, including $70 million for the individual cash awards, has been devoted to the overall Milken Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients' careers. 
  • The Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators; this season honors secondary school teachers. 
  • Veteran Milken Educators frequently go on to leadership roles at state, national and international levels. 
  • Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards has no formal nomination or application process. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels in each state. Those most exceptional are recommended for the Award, with final selection made by the Milken Family Foundation. 
  • The cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways; for instance, on their children's or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even on the adoption of children.   

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Everyone is encouraged to watch the tour at,, and

For more information, visit or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.