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Strong student reactions earn chemistry teacher Jonathan Cadena a $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Arizona teacher's experiential science classes are formula for success at Desert View High in Tucson

January 18, 2018

SANTA MONICA, Calif., — For high school science teacher Jonathan Cadena, it's all about getting a reaction, a chemical reaction, from his students. A teacher at Tucson's Desert View High School, Cadena's classes are experimental in every sense of the word.  Not only are students doing chemical experiments in class, but he's constantly engaging them in the larger experiment that is life itself.

Yet it was Cadena who was a component in an exciting mixture this morning at a surprise school assembly where he was presented with a prestigious Milken Educator Award by Superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District Steven Holmes and Milken Family Foundation Chairman and Co-Founder Lowell Milken. Cadena was named a 2017-18 recipient of the national recognition, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. He is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Arizona this year, and is among the 44 honorees for 2017-18.

The Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching" has been opening minds and shaping futures for 30 years. Research shows teacher quality is the driving in-school factor behind student growth and achievement. The initiative not only aims to reward great teachers, but to celebrate, elevate and activate those innovators in the classroom who are guiding America's next generation of leaders. Milken Educators believe, "The future belongs to the educated."

Critical thinking and hands-on experience are keys to Cadena's classroom success with his highly engaged learners. Teaching science with a dramatic flair as well as a down-to-earth pragmatism, Cadena is compounding student achievement with more than 95% of his students passing chemistry and many moving on to careers in chemical engineering, education or the cosmetics industry. Bilingual in English and Spanish, Cadena is clearly a role model for students in this predominantly Latino school while teaching the universal language of science.

"Jonathan Cadena prepares students to pursue 21st century opportunities by making the complexities of science intriguing and attainable," said Lowell Milken. "By advancing STEM education through experience and engagement, Jonathan's formula for success epitomizes the kind of spirit, drive and inclusiveness that characterize Milken Educators."

"We are proud that the Milken Foundation has chosen to honor Jonathan Cadena," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas. "As a chemistry teacher, he helps his students quantify and measure chemical processes. What can't be quantified is the bond between teacher and students; which serves as a catalyst for learning. My congratulations to Jonathan for this well-deserved honor."

"The Sunnyside Unified School District is extremely proud to have Jonathan Cadena as recipient of the prestigious Milken Educator Award, the first time a teacher in our District has received this distinction," said Superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District Steven Holmes. "As a science educator, Jonathan creates learning spaces that foster genuine inquiry and critical thinking in students, traits that serve to inspire future scientists and deep learners. Student agency is at the core of our District's coherence framework, which is best developed when everyone in our learning organization sees themselves as a learner. Mr. Cadena embodies this spirit in his genuine desire to learn, and in his selfless collaboration in opening up his classroom and teaching practices for colleagues to grow and develop alongside him."

About Milken Educator Jonathan Cadena
Chemistry teacher Jonathan Cadena keeps his students at Desert View High School in Tucson fully engaged. When they know the answer to one of his carefully constructed questions, they compete to get his attention, hands held high. The active learning environment Cadena creates includes small group activities focused on completion and understanding. Cadena listens to his learners to assess their mastery, making sure they are thinking critically about the components and resulting compounds in their experiments and more than 95% of his students pass his class.

Cadena earns high praise from administrators, who often bring visitors, district personnel and board members to his classroom to observe his highly effective teaching style. During one visit, Cadena, then teaching physics, was seated on a stool in front of a fan wearing a long blonde wig for a lesson on speed and velocity. Cadena has mentored other chemistry teachers with regard to instructional practices, classroom management, lesson planning and tailoring instruction through data-driven decisions. He plays a leading role in Desert View's science department, writing grants, conducting professional development workshops and managing inventory and chemical storage processes. Cadena stays abreast of emerging research and constantly incorporates new and innovative methods into his classroom.

Cadena is an Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher; he has incorporated AVID strategies into his own classroom and helped other Desert View teachers do the same. Cadena serves as a stellar role model for the school's predominantly Latino population, keeping college top of mind for academic students and reminding them to embrace lifelong learning. He sponsored an after-school science club for years; his students talk about pursuing careers in chemical engineering, the cosmetics industry and education. A skilled communicator in English and Spanish, Cadena builds strong relationships with both students and parents.

Cadena earned a degree in science education with a focus on chemistry from the University of Arizona in 2010.

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

Milken Educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. In addition to the $25,000 prize and public recognition, Cadena's honor includes membership in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top teachers, principals and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2017-18 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in Washington, D.C., March 20-23, 2018. Educators will have the opportunity to network with their new colleagues and hear from state and federal officials about maximizing their leadership roles to advance educator effectiveness.

More than $138 million in funding, including $68 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional learning opportunities throughout recipients' careers. Many have gone on to earn advanced degrees and be placed in prominent posts and on state and national education committees.

The Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators. Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Award is completely unique: Educators cannot apply for this recognition and do not even know they are under consideration. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then are reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the Award, with final approval by the Milken Family Foundation.

Past recipients have used their Awards to fund their children's education or their own continuing education. Others have financed dream field trips, established scholarships and even funded 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. The Milken Educator Awards tour is on social media at,,, and

For more information about the Milken Educator Awards, visit or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.

About the Milken Educator Awards
The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation 30 years ago 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. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish.

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