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Milken Family Foundation Surprises Wahiawa Educator with $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Hawaii Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke joins in honoring Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School assistant principal as model for state and nation

January 31, 2023

Wahiawa, Hawaii — Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School Assistant Principal Esther Kwon was surprised this morning with the nation's preeminent education award – the Milken Educator Award – and a check for $25,000 to spend however she wishes. Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley along with Hawaii Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke and Hawaii State Superintendent of Education Keith Hayashi presented Kwon with the prestigious recognition in front of a vibrant school assembly earlier today. 

Kwon, affectionately known as "DJ Kwon" to some of her students for her introduction of "Pineapple Talk Time" – a time for music, conversation, and reflection – when she worked as a classroom educator last year has been a beloved part of this Wahiawa school for the past decade. She is among up to 40 elementary educators across the nation who will receive the Milken Educator Award during the 2022-2023 school year. On top of today's celebration, she will have the opportunity to join the national Milken Educator Network of more than 2,900 exceptional K-12 educators and leaders across the country. Honorees receive an all-expenses-paid trip to the Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles this April. 

"Esther's commitment to the students, staff and the entire Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School community is evident to all who know her, and today, we get to highlight her excellence in teaching for the nation," said Dr. Foley, who is herself a 1994 Indiana Milken Educator. "As a strong school leader, Esther draws on her diverse roles and contributions at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary to help drive growth on a broad scale and guide a new generation of teachers. Congratulations, Esther!" 

Created by Lowell Milken, the Milken Educator Awards inspire and uplift with the unique stories of educators making a profound difference for students, colleagues and communities. The specific states and schools on this year's winners' list remain a closely guarded secret until each Award is announced. 

"Esther is an outstanding innovator who continually finds new ways to motivate students to incorporate their passions and interests into their work to keep them inspired and engaged," Superintendent Keith Hayashi said. "As a Hawaii State Teacher Fellow, Esther mentors her fellow teachers and guides them through their professional development journeys, helping to improve student outcomes across the board. We are very grateful to have such an exceptional educator and congratulate her on this well-deserved award." 

Since the initiative's inception in 1987, more than $140 million in funding, including more than $73 million in individual Awards, has been devoted to the overall Milken Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients' careers. 

More About Esther Kwon 

Innovative Educational Programs Inspire Students: Kwon has worn many hats in her many years at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School. Currently an assistant principal, Kwon looks for innovative ways to enhance students' educational experience in and out of the classroom. As assistant principal, she is an integral part of the school's administrative leadership team, helping to drive the instructional program and meet overall academic goals. Last year she piloted the Pineapple Academy, a distance learning option for 12 area elementary schools. Kwon's fifth graders started each day with "Pineapple Talk Time," where they chatted, listened to music played by "DJ Kwon," and set their intentions for the day with one of the four classroom norms: be present, be respectful, be curious, be responsible. Students served as co-teachers, helping to summarize learning and share key ideas in the online chat panel. As incentives, the "Bank of Kwon" handed out "Pineapple money" prizes. Kwon encouraged students to follow their passions, pairing them with high school students to create projects for the state's elementary STEM fair. In the program's inaugural year, 100% of Kwon's students showed growth on diagnostic assessments, with 80% meeting or exceeding grade level targets in language arts, 66% in math. Kwon shared her learning practices with peers and invited state leaders into her online classroom to showcase what effective virtual instruction looked, sounded and felt like. 

Peer Mentor Who Keeps Students at the Fore: Kwon is a leader at Inouye and beyond, helping others stretch to think differently and do better for students. She chaired her grade level and the School Community Council, tutored students after school and mentors new teachers. As a Hawaii State Teacher Fellow, Kwon facilitated focus groups, shared her expertise and published articles on topics like project-based learning and increasing student engagement. She led a discussion about education policy with more than 60 teachers, leaders from the Hawaii Department of Education, legislators and community members. Kwon helped design professional development and systems of support for teacher leaders as a member of the National Hope Street Group Teacher Advisory Council. 

A Steady Guide in Global Education: Kwon has provided rich, well-rounded educational experiences for Inouye students. As the school's gifted and talented teacher, she implemented an interdisciplinary curriculum and led students through project-based learning focused on UNESCO's Global Goals. After teaching in Korea for a semester, Kwon created a world language program for grades three, four and five in which more than 200 students learned basic Korean phrases, vocabulary and Hangul, the Korean alphabet. Her classroom stressed the importance of inclusion and acceptance—students used coding skills to create games for visually impaired children, wrote and recorded songs about caring for others, and performed choreographed dances with peers in special education classes. 

Education: Kwon earned a bachelor's in political science in 2012 from the University of Virginia and a master's in elementary education in 2015 from Johns Hopkins University. 

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

Along with the financial prize, recipients join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,900 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 honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles this April, 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 (MFF) mentoring program, in which new 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. 
  • Veteran Milken Educators demonstrate a wide range of 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 receive 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. Created by Lowell Milken, 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 Milken Family Foundation celebrates more than 40 years of elevating education in America and around the world. Learn more at