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Community First: Chinle Principal Melissa Martin Recognized as One of America's Best with $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Martin's instructional leadership and dedication to meeting the needs of students and colleagues alike have contributed to the academic growth of Chinle Junior High School and broader community

Oprah Winfrey congratulates Milken Educators in heartwarming video message as 'light in this world'

April 25, 2022

Santa Monica, Calif., —  At Chinle Junior High School (CJHS) in Arizona, Principal Melissa Martin knows the significant challenges her students face on the path to academic achievement because she was once where they are. Students in Chinle, where Martin herself graduated, travel up to 60 miles to attend school, and many live in homes without electricity or running water. Now, the largest district in the Navajo Nation has risen to become the highest-performing reservation district in the state. Martin has been there every step of the way, first as teacher, then academic coach and now in her first year as CJHS principal. In a surprise school assembly today, her dedication to empowering Chinle students and colleagues alike was celebrated with a national Milken Educator Award – an honor that includes a $25,000 cash prize she can use however she wishes. 

When the Award was presented by National Institute for Excellence in Teaching Co-President and COO Dr. Joshua Barnett – representing the Milken Family Foundation – and Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, the crowd of students, colleagues, and state and local officials erupted in applause. 

Martin is among more than 60 educators across the country to receive the Award during the 2021-22 season and the first in the Chinle Unified School District (CUSD). In addition to today's celebration, Martin will join a national network of more than 2,800 Milken Educator Award recipients dedicated to strengthening excellence in K-12 education. 

"Chinle Unified School District's trajectory of growth is nothing less than extraordinary, and Melissa Martin and the talented faculty under her leadership have played an essential role in this success," said Dr. Barnett. "Melissa's experience as a strong, instructional leader – combined with her care and compassion for the community she so proudly serves – are inspiring and worthy of today's national recognition." 

Hailed as the "Oscars of Teaching," Milken Educator Awards inspire and uplift with the unique stories of educators making a profound difference for students, colleagues and communities. The Awards are not designated for lifetime achievement. 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. 

"As a teacher, an academic coach, and a principal, Melissa Martin has excelled in every setting," said State Superintendent Hoffman. "She has been a leader in a time that has been harder than any in our modern school system. We are proud and grateful for her commitment to this community, and to all of the kids and teachers she has impacted." 

"On behalf of Chinle Unified School District, I would like to thank the Milken Family Foundation for honoring the work of one of our talented and high potential young leaders, Mrs. Melissa Martin. I welcome this opportunity to recognize not only Mrs. Martin for her much-deserved achievement, but also the phenomenal team of educators and staff that have supported her efforts," said CUSD Superintendent Quincy Natay, who also participated in today’s celebration. "This prestigious award that Mrs. Martin has earned is also continued evidence of the academic achievements CUSD students are capable of despite the many daily challenges they face. Congratulations, Mrs. Martin, well done!" 

Oprah, a longtime education advocate, shared her congratulations to this year's recipients in a video message thanking "the most incredible educators around the country" and acknowledging her deep appreciation for the "tireless work" they do.

More About Melissa Martin

Uplifting Students: Melissa Martin is dedicated to enhancing opportunities for students in Chinle, Arizona. Now the principal at Chinle Junior High School, Martin has fostered promising improvement in school culture through communication, a focus on student learning and responsive actions to meet family and staff needs. As a first-year principal, she has especially excelled in communication with families throughout the reopening of schools for in-person learning in fall 2021. The genuine interest Martin demonstrates toward students and staff results in positive relationships that serve as a strong foundation for collaborative practice and notable student outcomes.  

Positive Track Record in Instructional Leadership: Before moving to the junior high, Martin was an academic coach at Chinle Elementary School (CES), where she visited classrooms to support teachers, testing new instructional practices with students before rolling them out to staff. She planned and led weekly job-embedded professional development, especially for teachers in pre-K through second grade. 

District Growth: Chinle USD is the largest district in the Navajo Nation, serving 3,400 students, with virtually every student a member of the Navajo Nation. The district partners with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) to create common language and expectations around effective teaching and academic goal-setting. NIET's systems for educator effectiveness have represented one of several district strategies used to attract, retain, and develop effective teachers in every classroom, with remarkable results. NIET's instructional rubric and the structures of educator leadership and support under NIET's TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement helped the school implement the newly adopted Beyond Textbooks curriculum. Martin was a key member of a high-functioning leadership team that led a phenomenal team of teachers to steady growth in academic achievement at CES. The school has risen from a D-rated Focus School to a B; a contributing factor to the district now being the highest-performing reservation district in the state. In 2020, the school was selected among five nationwide as an NIET Founder's Award finalist. 

Shaping Bright Futures: A member of the Navajo community and a graduate of Chinle High School, Martin is a powerful role model for Chinle's youth as they look to their futures beyond high school. She understands the challenges they must overcome: Students travel from up to 60 miles away to attend school, and many students live in homes without electricity and/or running water. Knowing that Chinle's young people represent the future of their tight-knit community, Martin was a noteworthy member of the team that led the implementation of the district’s early childhood program to ensure a solid foundation for the youngest learners. 

Learning Adaptation: When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Navajo Nation, Martin actively collaborated with CES staff to coordinate district-established distribution plans ensuring that CES students and their families had access to resources, learning materials and food. She supported teachers, communicated daily with staff, students and families, and took a lead role in implementing district plans for virtual learning. All students received devices and hot spots from the district, and Martin provided ongoing professional development to help teachers plan effective virtual instruction and maintain the school’s high learning expectations. 

Coaching Beyond Campus: Martin is an avid runner and has coached track and cross country. Several of the runners she coached at Chinle High School followed her into education and now teach in her building. Martin and her husband, Shaun – the athletic director at Chinle High – founded and host an annual international cross-country tournament at nearby Canyon de Chelly National Monument that brings attention and awareness to the Navajo Nation.

Education: Martin holds a bachelor's in elementary education (2004) and a master's in educational leadership and administration (2020) from Northern Arizona University, as well as a master's in elementary education (2010) from Grand Canyon University.

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

Along with the financial prize, Milken Educator Award 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.

  • In June, the honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles, where they will network with their new colleagues as well as veteran Milken Educators and other education leaders about how to increase their impact on K-12 education. In addition, they will learn about how to become involved in the Milken Friends Forever (MFFs) mentoring program, in which freshman Milken Educators receive personalized coaching and support from a Milken Educator veteran on ways to elevate their instructional practice and take an active role in educational leadership, policy and practice.
  • 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. 
  • Veteran Milken Educators frequently go on to serve in leadership roles at state, national and international levels. 
  • "We find you. You don't find us!" Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards initiative 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. The most exceptional candidates are recommended for the award, with final selection made by the Milken Family Foundation. 
  • The $25,000 cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways. For instance, some have spent the funds on their children's or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even adopting children.  

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events or to watch the award events unfold, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook (@MilkenEducatorAwards), Twitter (@Milken), YouTube (/MilkenAward), Instagram (MilkenFamilyFdn), and TikTok (@MilkenAward).

For more information, visit or call the Milken Family Foundation at (310) 570-4772.

About the Milken Educator Awards
The 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. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. The initiative was created by the Milken Family Foundation, which celebrates 40 years of elevating education in America and around the world. Learn more at

Press Contact:

Jana Rausch
Vice President, Communications
310-570-4774 Office 310-435-9259 Cell