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D.C. Principal Rachel Tommelleo Surprised With $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Leader of Center City Schools' Brightwood Campus unifies school around closing achievement gaps

October 26, 2018

SANTA MONICA, Calif., — Principal Rachel Tommelleo considers every student and teacher at Brightwood Campus as a member of her family. She started a "Brightwood families" program, in which every student is matched up with a personalized inter-grade group and a teacher who has strong relationships with those students. The relationships fostered through the program and many others implemented by Tommelleo make all of her students, 99% of whom receive free or reduced-price lunch, feel supported. And it shows.

By the end of Tommelleo's first year as principal, Brightwood earned the National Title I Distinguished School Award for closing achievement gaps for subgroups and students with disabilities.

So it seemed only natural today when State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang visited Brightwood to commend faculty and students on its growth on state assessments. The celebration was a Brightwood family affair, with Tommelleo in charge and greeting a room filled with her entire school and dignitaries. Just one catch: Tommelleo had no clue that all along, she was the intended guest of honor.

In dramatic fashion, Milken Family Foundation President and Co-Founder Mike Milken took to the floor to surprise Brightwood's fearless leader with the prestigious Milken Educator Award and its accompanying $25,000 cash prize. Tommelleo is D.C.'s sole recipient for 2018-19 and among up to 40 honorees nationwide.

"Rachel Tommelleo has proven to be an effective, compassionate and committed leader who has helped make Brightwood an outstanding school," said Mike Milken. "Most importantly, she has made the school a safe and nurturing place where students get a strong start on the path to further education and lifetime success."  

"Excellent educators like Principal Rachel Tommelleo are able to inspire and motivate teachers, mobilize their parent communities, and create schools where students can thrive. Principal Tommelleo's approach to data-driven instruction, engaging with families, and empowering her staff have had a powerful impact on ensuring students can learn and thrive," said Kang. "The Milken Educator Awards present an opportunity to celebrate educators and the work they do for their school communities. We appreciate the Milken Family Foundation's focus on recognizing incredible educators in D.C. and across the country. Congratulations to Principal Tommelleo for earning this distinguished award!"

Research shows teacher quality is the number one in-school factor determining how well a student performs. The Milken Educator Awards, named by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching," not only aims to reward great teachers, but also 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."

About Milken Educator Rachel Tommelleo
At Center City Public Charter Schools' Brightwood Campus, serving pre-K through eighth grade in Washington, D.C., each student is part of a "Brightwood Family." Inspired by a School Retool summer program, Principal Rachel Tommelleo designed the school family "hack" to make sure every student had access to relationships with staff and peers to support academic, social and emotional growth. Each staff member now has a "family" of one student per grade level. The inter-grade groups meet every 4 to 6 weeks for get-to-know-you activities and service projects, giving the older students leadership opportunities to mentor younger students. Tommelleo makes a priority of creating a strong, positive school culture: She knows every student's name, interacts with the children daily, and has initiated a No Bully Project and Kindness Challenge. The principal is known as a servant leader who does whatever is necessary to remove obstacles so students and staff can thrive.

Every year Tommelleo and her staff pick a few "big rocks" to focus on. When writing was the skill in the spotlight, Tommelleo created a weekly writing contest judged by a rotating team of teachers; students read their work and sang original songs, all captured on video. Spurred by a fellowship with the Relay Graduate School of Educator's National Principals Academy, Tommelleo implemented data-driven cycles with her teachers, every few weeks digging into learning standards, looking at student work and determining what to reteach.

She has led professional development on data-driven instruction for up to 300 district staff. Families meet with Tommelleo and staff members to look at data together and go home with specific activities to help their children improve in the areas where they need extra help. A former elementary and middle school teacher and instructional coach, the principal is known for her ability to analyze and dissect classroom instruction and make coaching recommendations for improvement.

Brightwood earned the National Title I Distinguished School Award for closing gaps for subgroups and students with disabilities at the end of Tommelleo's first year as principal. The school has received Tier I commendation from the Public Charter School Board for student achievement, and graduates attend some of the District's most competitive high schools.

Brightwood's staff sees Tommelleo as a helpful resource, trusted colleague and thought partner. She believes in distributed leadership and has empowered teachers to take on additional responsibilities by leading cultural nights, performances, athletics and enrichment programs. Tommelleo has built the school's thriving arts program, hosts a back-to-school barbecue, and started a uniform donation drive. She pushes teachers to attain their goals: When a new pre-K teacher said he wanted to become fluent in Spanish, Tommelleo encouraged him to spend six months in Spain, confident he would return with skills to help both students and the school succeed.

Tommelleo earned a bachelor's in mass media communications in 2004 from New York University and a master's in elementary education in 2006 from Mercy College.

More information about Tommelleo, plus links to photos and video from today's assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at http://www.milkeneducatorawards.org/educators/view/rachel-tommelleo.

Milken Educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. Along with the $25,000 prize and public recognition, Tommelleo'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, 2018-19 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in New Orleans, Louisiana, March 21-24, 2019. 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 www.facebook.com/milkeneducatorawards, www.twitter.com/milken, www.youtube.com/milkenaward, and http://instagram.com/milkenfamilyfdn.

For more information about the Milken Educator Awards, visit www.MilkenEducatorAwards.org 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 over 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.

Jana Rausch
Communications Director
310-570-4774 Office 310-435-9259 Cell


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