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Transforming Students into Code Warriors Earns Miki Cacace a $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Hawaii teacher's digital initiatives unleash learner enthusiasm at Ewa Makai Middle School

March 10, 2020

SANTA MONICA, Calif., – In Miki Cacace's 7th- and 8th-grade computer science classes, students are creating a better future, one line of code at a time. Cacace's students at Ewa Makai Middle School near Honolulu learn the basics of coding in her yearlong coding class while building games and apps that get test driven and rated by their peers. Leading a new generation of digital code warriors by keeping the fun in computer fundamentals, Cacace gives students hands-on experience in technology and a window onto digital career opportunities of the future. She also involves students' families in the process to stoke the fires of enthusiasm and shares digital teaching techniques with colleagues in order to share the wealth of STEM education with any and all students. 

But today was a celebration of Cacace's own achievements as she was named a 2019-20 recipient of a Milken Educator Award in a surprise ceremony before students, faculty and community leaders. Presenting the Award were Hawaii Superintendent of Education Dr. Christina Kishimoto and Governor and First Lady Ige. The national recognition comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. Cacace is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Hawaii this year and is among 40 honorees for 2019-20. 

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." 

Cacace is bringing that future closer for her students with approachable technology and a STEM-friendly curriculum that puts the emphasis on doing and creating. She makes abstract skills like coding more concrete for her students by focusing on project-based learning and demonstrating real-world tie-ins, practical consequences and career opportunities. Relentlessly upbeat and creatively driven to reach each of her students, Cacace is dedicated to putting the skills of tomorrow within everyone's reach. 

"Miki Cacace demonstrates the power of coding, computer science and STEM education to create opportunities and a better future for all," said Lowell Milken, creator of the Milken Educator Awards. "Her dedication, creativity and spirit generate the kind of inspirational leadership we look for in Milken Educators. I am confident she will contribute greatly to both the Hawaii and National Milken Educator Networks, as she has and will continue to do for students and colleagues." 

"Miki's innovative coding classes have empowered her students to dream big in their pursuit of 21st century STEM careers," said Kishimoto. "The Department thanks Miki for her passion and dedication to nurturing Hawaii's next generation of computer scientists." 

"Miki's impact extends far beyond her own classroom, as shown by her commitment to developing a district-wide K-12 computer science program," said Campbell-Kapolei Complex Area Superintendent Sean Tajima. "Our complex is so proud of her accomplishments, and we can't wait to see what the future holds for this incredible educator." 

About Milken Educator Miki Cacace

In Miki Cacace's yearlong coding class at Ewa Makai Middle School in Oahu's Ewa Beach district of Honolulu, students learn by doing rather than watching. They create games and apps, wire their own micro: bits and troubleshoot device issues, building foundational skills they will need for 21st century careers. Cacace, a math teacher, volunteered to expand her curriculum with the coding class. Students had already chosen their electives, but Cacace promoted the new class during lunchtime, selling it as a fun and exciting alternative. Students signed up in droves, knowing that whatever Cacace was teaching, they were in good hands. She developed the curriculum with a combination of three days of summer training, resources from Project Lead the Way and Code.org and her trusted cache of instructional strategies. Cacace's students invite friends to try out their apps, offer constructive suggestions and vote for their favorites. Cacace showcases the group's work at Coding Night, where parents and siblings check out students' creations. 

In Cacace's class, students build confidence and practice problem-solving, decision-making and collaboration skills. During field trips to the Microsoft and Apple stores, students talk to professionals about their STEM backgrounds. Many of Cacace's students start the year unsure of how their studies connect to their future lives and careers; Cacace bridges that gap. Building a pipeline of students who excel in computer science is a priority: Cacace is working with her peers at the district's elementary and high schools to create a K-12 computer science program, and an advanced coding class for Ewa Makai has been established as well. She mentors new teachers and is an active member of CSTA (Computer Science Teachers Association). 

With her upbeat attitude and focus on creating positive relationships, Cacace helps students who struggle to persevere, while pushing those who generally succeed to go above and beyond their capabilities. A member of the school's social-emotional learning (SEL) leadership team, she started a weekly habit of eating lunch with students who were sitting alone and encouraged her colleagues to follow her lead. To better understand the way students experience their school, Cacace shadowed a student for an entire day and challenged SEL committee members to do the same. She developed an SEL website with lessons on empathy and creating a caring culture for her peers to use during their advisory classes. Cacace is unafraid to share her personal challenges if she thinks it will help students believe they can overcome their own hurdles. 

Cacace earned a bachelor's degree in 2007 from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and a master's degree in elementary education in 2010 from the University of Phoenix. 

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

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 2,800 top teachers, principals, and specialists dedicated to strengthening education. 

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2019-20 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum where they will network with their new colleagues and exchange ideas with state and federal leaders on the future of education. In addition, the Milken Educator Awards' "Why Not Us" program will pair each 2019-20 recipient with a veteran Milken Educator mentor to explore and prepare for expanded leadership roles that strengthen education practice and policy. 

More than $140 million in funding, including $70 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development 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 selection made by the Milken Family Foundation.

The cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways; for instance, on their children's or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even on 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. Everyone is encouraged to watch the tour at www.facebook.com/milkeneducatorawards, www.twitter.com/milken, www.youtube.com/milkenaward and www.instagram.com/milkenfamilyfdn.

For more information, visit www.MilkenEducatorAwards.org or call MFF at (310) 570-4772. 

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

The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987. The Awards, created by Lowell Milken, 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. 

Along with the $25,000 financial prize, 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.

Lynne Russo 
(818) 903-6079 cell; 
lynneerusso@gmail.com


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