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Data-Driven Student Success Earns Nevada Teacher Liz Barnum a $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Barnum's collaborative classroom "sparks" students' love for learning at Katherine Dunn Elementary School

February 07, 2023

Santa Monica, Calif., — Enter Liz Barnum's third grade class at Katherine Dunn Elementary School in Sparks, Nevada, and you will see students in the driver's seat. Under Barnum's expert guidance and dedication, they lead lively discussions about learning and track their progress toward mastery. Yet today, the focus was squarely on Barnum when she was caught completely by surprise with a national Milken Educator Award for her achievements and long-range leadership potential in the profession. The honor, created by Lowell Milken, includes an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize for her own use. 

Milken Educator Awards Founder Lowell Milken presented the Award, joined by Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone M. Ebert. As a lifelong benefit of the recognition, Barnum will join a network of more than 2,900 Milken Educator Award recipients and other leaders from across the country dedicated to strengthening K-12 education. 

"Liz Barnum provides her students with the skills and experiences to become problem-solvers and independent thinkers, which will serve them well in every stage of their education, and in life," said Lowell Milken. "She is a strong instructional leader and model of excellence in the school and community at large. I commend Liz on her accomplishments today and look forward to her future contributions as a national Milken Educator. Congratulations." 

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 specific states and schools on this year's winners' list remain a closely guarded secret until each Award is announced. 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. 

"Liz Barnum is a true educational leader," said Nevada Superintendent Ebert. "She is known for mentoring new and student teachers and sharing key learning so they can effectively lead. We are fortunate to have her talents supporting students in her classroom and working with her professional learning community at Katherine Dunn Elementary School. Thank you for building strong relations with your students and their families." 

Barnum is the second recipient in Nevada this school year. She joins fellow Washoe County School District educator, third and fourth grade teacher Jason Murray of Florence Drake Elementary School, who was awarded at an assembly this morning. They are among up to 40 elementary educators nationwide to be honored this 2022-23 season. 

Since 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 Liz Barnum 

Collaborative Classroom Culture: In Liz Barnum's third grade classroom at Katherine Dunn Elementary School in Sparks, Nevada, students work together to participate in their learning and reach their potential. Barnum focuses on meeting each child's individual needs and uses data to drive her instruction, creating engaging lessons that challenge the class and spur a love of learning. Student-led discussions, partner talks, and visual strategies support literacy goals for vocabulary and comprehension. 

Student Success: Barnum's classroom is a safe environment where students feel confident taking risks. Barnum's instructional strategies reflect Katherine Dunn's mission to "develop proficient readers, writers, and problem-solvers who practice divergent thinking." Almost all of Barnum's students meet grade level by the end of the year, regardless of where they started. Their SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) proficiency rates are among the district's highest: In grade 3, her students placed within the top five percent in math proficiency and ranked third in ELA proficiency among the district's Title I schools. 

School Leadership: Barnum leads Katherine Dunn's third grade professional learning community (PLC), examining data with colleagues to plan future instruction. Washoe County School District is focusing on PLCs as part of a districtwide strategy to spread and scale instructional excellence and equity. Barnum, whose team has become a model for the district, shares key learnings so others can become more effective in their own classrooms. She mentors new and student teachers and serves as a teacher leader in the School Performance Plan process, a collaborative annual effort by education leaders and families to revise the school's strategic plans to improve student and school outcomes. 

Family Connections: Barnum builds strong relationships with students and families. She communicates with families frequently about their children's strengths and achievements, and parents often visit Barnum's classroom for student-led conferences, projects and presentations. As Katherine Dunn's community has diversified, Barnum has played a big role in incorporating Latinx cultural practices and celebrations into the school culture to ensure new students and their families feel included. 

Education: Barnum earned a Bachelor of Science in elementary education in 2008 from the University of Nevada, Reno, and a Master of Education in 2016 from Grand Canyon 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 and growing of exemplary 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