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ESL Student success translates into a $25,000 Milken Educator Award for teacher Michelle Johnson

Rhode Island educator boosts test scores and spirits of her third graders at Fogarty Elementary School in Providence

October 17, 2018

SANTA MONICA, Calif., (Oct. 17, 2018) — Third grade teacher Michelle Johnson is taking her students from remedial to raring to go at Mary E. Fogarty Elementary School in Providence, Rhode Island. It's an unlikely arc of success in her 8-language polyglot melting pot classroom of English learners, where she expects a lot from her students—and gets it. Test scores are skyrocketing: Although all of her students began the last school year behind in reading, all reached grade level by yearend with 40% exceeding that benchmark. And math scores jumped 67%. The tech savvy teacher blends digital online media with traditional classroom methods to achieve the best results and is known to celebrate her students' progress along with their families in an annual year-end classroom pizza party.

Yet it was Johnson celebrating unanticipated success this morning at a surprise school assembly where she was presented with a Milken Educator Award by Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley and Education Commissioner Dr. Ken Wagner. An elated Johnson was named a 2018-19 recipient of the national recognition, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. She is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Rhode Island this year, and is among the up to 40 honorees for 2018-19.

The Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching," has been opening minds and shaping futures for over 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."

Johnson is bringing that future closer to her diverse group of English language learners though smart technology, personal commitment, community outreach and a multitude of curriculum and staff development initiatives. A dedicated educator who embraces a structured classroom set up, Johnson also uses technological learning opportunities wherever she can, employing translation applications and programs such as Google Classroom and Zearn Math to help students overcome their individual hurdles.

"Michelle Johnson knows that the gift of language is one of teaching's greatest gifts, the precursor and pathway to all higher learning," said Foley. "By providing the tools to assist her ESL learners in mastering English, she is opening doors of knowledge that her students couldn't have previously imagined. Michelle's commitment to children and her creative approach is the kind of inspirational leadership we seek in Milken Educators."

"At a time when our state's population of English Learners continues to grow, we need EL teacher leaders like Michelle Johnson. She celebrates her students, engages her families, and creates a classroom environment that both supports and challenges her students," said Wagner. "Congratulations to Michelle and the entire Fogarty team on this exciting honor."

"Michelle Johnson has the whole package – the skills, energy and dedication to engage students and inspire them to grow," said Christopher N. Maher, superintendent of Providence Public Schools. "Her positive impact has spread beyond her classroom to reach the entire Fogarty school community. Parents celebrate her, students emulate her and we all admire her. She is the best of her profession."

About Milken Educator Michelle Johnson
At the end of the year, third-grade teacher Michelle Johnson throws a party for students and families in her classroom at Mary E. Fogarty Elementary School in Providence, Rhode Island. Over pizza and juice served by Johnson's family members, pupils and their parents watch a celebratory slideshow and pore over folders of drawings, papers and projects. Johnson teaches a sheltered-instruction class of English language learners, so the room buzzes with conversation in at least eight different languages. Johnson started this much-loved pizza-party tradition when she came to Fogarty and set increasing parent engagement as a goal for her first year. She celebrates every student's growth, no matter the starting point. They make great strides in her classroom: While 100% of her 26 students began last year below grade level on Lexia Reading assessments, all reached grade-level benchmarks by the end of the year, and 40% scored even higher. In math, students showed an average growth percentage of 67%, the highest in the school.

Johnson constantly strives to improve her instructional skills and leads the way in incorporating technology into her instruction. She led Fogarty's adoption of Blended Learning, which combines online digital media with traditional classroom methods, and has facilitated Edcamp learning sessions for teachers of all grade levels. Johnson has introduced GetEpic, IXL, translation apps, Classroom Dojo, Google Classroom, and Zearn Math into her lessons. A building leader, Johnson serves on the Instructional Leadership Team, fundraising committee and hiring committee, a position elected by her peers. She is on the school's Laboratory Team, serving as an in-house mentor and model to support professional development, and regularly opens her classroom for others to observe. Johnson works with future educators through the Inspiring Minds program, is active in RITELL (Rhode Island Teachers of English Language Learners), and has been published in the TESOL Quarterly, a national academic journal.

Radiating an inner calm that keeps her students focused, Johnson runs a structured classroom where children understand her expectations and transitions flow smoothly. A masterful relationship-builder, she chairs the Parent Engagement Committee and organizes schoolwide events like Harvest Fest, the family holiday party, STEAM and math nights, and Bingo for Books. Johnson always makes time for "Coffee by the Curb" on Wednesday mornings, when teachers greet parents at drop-off with hot coffee and conversation. She welcomes volunteers from Brown University and local nonprofits and uses Donors Choose to secure funds for classroom projects from businesses and other community organizations.

Johnson earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education in 2006 and a master's in teaching English as a second language in 2014 from Rhode Island College.

More information about Johnson, 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, the 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 on 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,,, and

For more information, 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 31 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.

Lynne Russo 
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