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Jonesboro Band Director Grant Harbison Receives Milken Educator Award to the Tune of $25,000 for Instrumental Role in Student Success

Harbison promotes an inclusive community and culture of music and academic excellence at The Academies at Jonesboro High School 

Oprah Winfrey congratulates Milken Educators in heartwarming video message as 'light in this world' 

U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona says Milken Educators "personify excellence in education"

May 11, 2022

Santa Monica, Calif., — In Grant Harbison's band room at The Academies at Jonesboro High School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, high schoolers from all backgrounds find a place to explore music and join a welcoming network of support. The band director fosters excellence both in arts and academics, teaching nearly 200 musicians who routinely earn honors at state and regional festivals. A graduate of The Academies himself, Harbison holds an impressive repertoire of performances with world-renowned musicians like Leonard Slatkin and Dave Brubeck. Now, Harbison has returned to his alma mater to share his passion for music with Jonesboro's next generation. 

In addition to leaving an impression on his students, Harbison's positive, inclusive instructional practices have landed him a national $25,000 Milken Educator Award. In a surprise assembly today, Arkansas Department of Education's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Deputy Commissioner Dr. Ivy Pfeffer joined Milken Educator Awards Vice President Stephanie Bishop to present Harbison with the honor before cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials and the media. Harbison will join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,800 educators and leaders across the U.S. dedicated to furthering quality K-12 education. 

"Grant Harbison understands the impact of music education across the curriculum, engaging young musicians with lessons in critical thinking, creativity, determination and discipline that will serve them enormously at this pivotal time in their lives," said Bishop, who is herself a 2001 Milken Educator from Virginia. "We are proud to have an exceptional music educator like Grant add his voice to the Milken Educator Network and look forward to the contributions he will bring on a national scale." 

Harbison is among more than 60 educators nationwide who will receive the Award during the 2021-22 school year, and the second from Arkansas. He joins Kamisha Burlingame, a fourth grade teacher who was surprised in April at Thomas Jefferson Elementary in Bentonville. The last recipient in Jonesboro Public Schools was awarded in 2013. 

"Congratulations to Mr. Harbison on being named a Milken Educator," Arkansas Department of Education Secretary Johnny Key said. "Mr. Harbison is not only an accomplished musician but imparts his knowledge and experience on to his students. A graduate of The Academies at Jonesboro High School, Mr. Harbison saw a need to invest in his alma mater and future students by returning to his school as a teacher. As a teacher, he serves as a role model to his students by ensuring they are just as committed to core academic classes as well as band. Thank you, Mr. Harbison, for your commitment to your students, your fellow teachers, and your community." 

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. 

Oprah, a longtime education advocate, shared her congratulations to this year's recipients in a video message thanking "the most incredible educators around the country" and acknowledging her deep appreciation for the "tireless work" they do. U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona said Milken Educators "personify excellence in education" and "inspire leadership and motivate students to excel." 

More About Grant Harbison

Balancing Arts and Academics: Grant Harbison is passionate about ensuring his students' success in both the band room and their core classes. He promotes literacy and math in his music classroom, cultivating a positive, welcoming atmosphere that motivates students to reach their highest potential. Students who have struggled in earlier grades thrive under his leadership. 

Building a Talent Pipeline and Promoting Success for All: Harbison is committed to promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in Jonesboro's music program, actively recruiting students from all backgrounds, including those with learning differences. The 160 high school musicians in Harbison's symphonic, jazz and marching bands routinely earn honors at All-Region and All-State band festivals. Harbison also teaches more than 100 junior high students, starting in seventh grade, to build the pipeline for the high school band program and get kids hooked on the culture of excellence and inclusive community he promotes. 

Leadership in Music Education: An accomplished performer, Harbison has recorded with orchestras and wind ensembles at the University of North Texas. He sits on Arkansas' All-State Jazz Committee and serves as secretary for the Arkansas Jazz Educators. At Jonesboro, Harbison participates on the building leadership team and Equal Opportunity Schools committee. 

District Involvement: He co-chairs the district's diversity task force and has mentored students under the Jonesboro "Trusted Adult" program. Harbison started a professional learning community for fine arts teachers that focuses not just on arts education, but also on supporting students' overall academic success.

Modified Music Instruction: Even during the changes in education created by the pandemic, Harbison always approaches his instruction with a smile and "can do" attitude. He modified instruments, held rehearsals outside in tents and embraced virtual instruction to keep his musicians safe. Concerned about younger students, Harbison set up a tutoring program for the district's junior high band members to accelerate student learning. 

Community Impact: He is committed to every student's music education, raising funds and securing donations for students who cannot afford instruments. A hometown hero, Harbison builds strong and lasting relationships with colleagues, families, community members, and most of all students, many of whom earn college scholarships thanks to their musical accomplishments.

Education: Harbison earned a Bachelor of Science of Music Education in 2008 from Arkansas State University and a Master of Music in 2010 from the University of North Texas.

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.

  • In June, the honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles, 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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