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Super Teacher Chad Downs Transforms Students into Super Hero Mentors, Earns a $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Michigan teacher balances freedom and structure, boosts outcomes at Ann Arbor Open School

December 12, 2018

SANTA MONICA, Calif., — The lead teacher at Michigan's Ann Arbor Open School, Chad Downs is a super educator whose secret weapon is transforming his students into grade school Super Heroes. By deputizing his advanced English Language Arts students as vocabulary and spelling mentors, he fosters cooperation, social cohesion and academic growth among mentors and mentees. It's working. Nearly all of his students achieve at or above their learning benchmarks. Deftly balancing structure and freedom, Downs teaches a third- and fourth-grade classroom that focuses on project-based learning with individually tailored instruction. Downs encourages students to follow their passions as they direct their own studies and track their progress. He brings in guest speakers from the community to talk about their careers and organizes trips to Detroit, Kalamazoo and the Henry Ford Museum.

But it was Downs who was taking an unexpected educational journey this morning at a surprise school assembly where he was presented with a Milken Educator Award by Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley and Interim Michigan State Superintendent of Education Sheila Alles. An enthusiastic Downs was named a 2018-19 recipient of the national recognition, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. He is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Michigan this year, and is among the up to 40 honorees for 2018-19.

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."

Laying the groundwork for that better educated future requires a multifaceted approach from creative teachers like Downs. In addition to his classroom expertise, Downs is the district's co-curricular director of athletic and academic clubs, leads staff meetings and organizes school events including the popular Open School Conference, which brings together staff, retirees, parents and former students for brainstorming and input from the broader community. In addition, Downs teaches a course on manners and civility during the school's twice-yearly Focus study period and encourages students to join him in community service projects.

"Chad Downs demonstrates a commitment to student growth, parental involvement and community outreach which all contribute to making him an outstanding teacher," said Foley. "Teaching students to teach themselves, while helping others learn, is a gift to students that will last a lifetime."

"We congratulate Mr. Downs for this very deserving recognition. He is exemplary in how Michigan educators are delivering instruction in alternative ways to meet the individual needs of their students," said Alles. "When we attend to the whole child from the classroom to the home and community, as Mr. Downs does on a daily basis, students will overcome their learning barriers and be successful, lifelong learners. Their success will be Michigan's success on our way to become a Top 10 education state in 10 years."

"Today is a great day in the Ann Arbor Public Schools as we are delighted to hear that Mr. Chad Downs has been honored with the prestigious Milken Educator Award for achieving excellence as a top educator," said Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeanice Swift. "Chad is a most deserving Award winner; he dedicates his energies daily in exemplary service to the students he serves, as a partner on his team at Ann Arbor Open School, and his work consistently enriches the Ann Arbor Public Schools and community. We are proud today of this fine educator, and we thank the Milken Family Foundation for their work to honor Mr. Downs and the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and to bring attention to worthy contributions in the profession of education."

About Milken Educator Chad Downs
In Chad Downs's third- and fourth-grade multi-age classroom at Ann Arbor Open School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, students aspire to join the Super Hero Club. The group isn't for those with extraordinary strength or speed; instead, the Super Heroes are students advanced in English Language Arts who earn the coveted position of mentor, helping their classmates with spelling and vocabulary. The public K-8 magnet school focuses on self-directed exploration and project-based learning, helping students achieve academic and social-emotional goals that exceed grade-level expectations. Downs brings out the best in every child he teaches. His students make a lot of choices about the direction of their learning, engaging in self-evaluation and taking ownership of their progress. Downs gives students both freedom and structure as they rotate through different jobs and work at their own pace, following their passions in their projects.

With relationship-building at the core of the Open School philosophy, Downs plays games with his pupils, engages them in conversation, and talks with them about their outside interests. He asks them to write weekly letters home that summarize their accomplishments and keep parents included in the classroom's educational process. The walls of Downs's classroom feature work from former students as inspiration for the current class. To bring classroom learning to life, he invites guest speakers to talk about their careers and organizes field trips to nearby cities and museums. Downs's students are thriving on all fronts, with nearly all hitting their learning benchmarks last year.

Downs has been a social studies and math curriculum instructor, developed curriculum, and led professional development. As the building's Lead Teacher, he supervised student activity, maintained safety, led staff meetings, sat on the school improvement team, implemented the Crisis Task Force and Diabetic Crisis Team, and organized school-wide celebrations like Field Day. Downs is the Ann Arbor Middle School District's co-curricular director, responsible for athletic and academic clubs. He has organized the popular Open School Conference, a weekend-long meeting for staff, retirees, former parents and students. Downs is a renowned problem-solver; when a question arises, someone inevitably responds, "Ask Chad."

Downs earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education in 2003 from Eastern Michigan University and a master's in educational leadership in 2008 from Concordia University.

More information about Downs, plus links to photos and a video from today's assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at

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 2,700 top teachers, principals and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2018-19 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in New Orleans from March 21-24, 2019. Educators will have the opportunity to network with their new colleagues and hear from state and federal officials about maximizing their leadership roles to advance educator effectiveness.

More than $138 million in funding, including $68 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional learning 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 approval by the Milken Family Foundation.

Past recipients have used their Awards to fund their children's education or their own continuing education. Others have financed dream field trips, established scholarships and even funded 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. The Milken Educator Awards tour is on social media at,,, and

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

About the Milken Educator Awards
The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation 31 years ago 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.

Lynne Russo 
(818) 903-6079 cell;