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Michelle Iwasaki Earns $25,000 Milken Educator Award for Empowering Honolulu Teachers and Raising Achievement for Students

Hawaii Governor David Ige, First Lady Dawn Amano-Ige join in honoring Kalihi Kai Elementary School academic coach as model for state and nation

February 28, 2022

Santa Monica, Calif., — Mentors enrich teachers' careers at all levels. Kalihi Kai Elementary School's Michelle Iwasaki knows the value of this relationship firsthand as a former teacher at the school and current academic coach of kindergarten, first and fifth grade teachers. 

At a surprise assembly today, Hawaii Governor David Ige and First Lady Dawn Amano-Ige joined Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley and Hawaii Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi to honor Iwasaki as the sole recipient of the Milken Educator Award for the 2021-22 season. The national recognition comes with a $25,000 unrestricted cash prize. 

In addition to the celebration before cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials, and media, Iwasaki will join the national Milken Educator Network of more than 2,800 exceptional educators and leaders across the country dedicated to strengthening K-12 education. 

"Michelle Iwasaki fosters a vibrant learning community at Kalihi Kai where teachers are empowered to hold high expectations for themselves and their students," said Dr. Foley, who herself is a 1994 Milken Educator from Indiana. "Her leadership in building capacity and trust has made a profound impact on her school and broader community, first as a teacher at Kalihi Kai and now in her role as academic coach. I welcome Michelle into the national Milken Educator Network and look forward to her contributions." 

Iwasaki is among more than 60 educators nationwide who will receive the Award during the 2021-22 school year. As Kalihi Kai Elementary's first Milken Award recipient, she joins a rich history of educators in the Farrington Complex Honolulu District who have earned the recognition. A Honolulu educator last received the Milken Educator Award in 2018.

"Michelle is a shining example among our many teachers who inspire our students to achieve new heights by giving them vibrant new perspectives and the motivation to succeed," Interim Superintendent Hayashi said. "Her work not only improves student outcomes, but also advances teacher development for her colleagues around her and at other schools and we congratulate her on this well-deserved award and 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. 

More About Michelle Iwasaki 

Arts Integration: Michelle Iwasaki is always looking for long-term solutions to support and serve students. When the school partnered with Turnaround Arts in 2015, Iwasaki led the process of adding the program's arts integration strategies into Kalihi Kai's curriculum. Creative approaches like Tableau, Snapshot, Reading Images and Visual Thinking helped boost engagement and allowed students deeper access to curriculum materials as they worked on their reading proficiency. 

Kalihi Kai and Beyond: Iwasaki trains and mentors Kalihi Kai's teachers in art integration strategies, conducts professional development, and leads visitations and presentations to other schools. When Mufi Hannemann, Honolulu's former mayor and a former student at Kalihi Kai, visited the school with a group of Hawaii Pacific Fellows, Iwasaki led the same kind of Tiny Toy Tales lesson she used with six-year-olds for the dozen-plus adults in business suits. Participants were asked to retell a story using small toys as the characters, with Iwasaki modifying the story with repeated phrases and movements that improve both engagement and recollection. Turnaround Arts has had a profound impact on Kalihi Kai: The school "graduated" from the program thanks to improved student outcomes across the board and is no longer targeted as a Priority school by the state education department. 

Evidence-based Practices: As a former classroom teacher who now mentors and trains educators, Iwasaki believes in building the capacity of others in the profession by broadening their understanding and strengthening their practice. She trains colleagues in the use of Guided Language Acquisition Design strategies for English language learners. Iwasaki developed a schoolwide RTI-A (Response to Intervention-Academic) system with diagnostic assessments, progress monitoring and evidence-based interventions. She conducts bimonthly classroom observations for her grade levels, shares data with teachers to help them elevate their instructional practice, and prepares new teachers for walk-throughs and observations. Iwasaki has presented at ECET2, a teacher-led community focused on teacher leadership and collaboration, as well as conferences like Read to Me and School of the Future. 

School and Community Leadership: A National Board Certified Teacher, Iwasaki worked with building leadership and each grade level to develop pacing guides geared toward a focused learning target, instructional strategies, assessment, intervention and enrichment. Iwasaki seeks out community resources like the University of Hawaii's Sound Partners, an evidence-based early reading intervention, to help close the achievement gap at Kalihi Kai. She serves on the school's academic review, arts leadership and literacy grant teams, and shepherded Kalihi Kai through its WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) accreditation process in 2018-19. 

Education: Iwasaki earned a bachelor's in English in 2003 and a master's in education in 2004 from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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.

  • The honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum, 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

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