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Strumming science teacher Neal Cronkite rocks a $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Out-of-the-box educator is music to student's ears at Michigan's Washington Woods Middle School

February 02, 2018

SANTA MONICA, Calif., — Neal Cronkite will do just about anything to cut through the mental clutter and connect with his fifth-grade math and science students at Michigan's Washington Woods Middle School. Whether it's adopting a scientist persona, employing a high-technology smart board in his class or even strumming tunes on his guitar, Cronkite is willing to do whatever it takes to rock his students' world.

But it was Cronkite who was looking fully engaged this morning at a surprise school assembly as State Chief Deputy Superintendent of Education Sheila Alles and Milken Family Foundation Senior Program Administrator Greg Gallagher named him as the newest recipient of a Milken Educator Award. The national recognition comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. Cronkite is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Michigan this year, and is among the 44 honorees for 2017-18.

The Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching" has been opening minds and shaping futures for 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."

A STEM education aficionado who's a regular at technology conferences, Cronkite not only incorporates what he learns into his lessons but also shares the insights he gleans and classroom tech tips with his colleagues. Cronkite is equally engaged with non-technology aspects of learning, promoting empathy, teamwork, leadership and other life skills both within the classroom and beyond. When he's not soliciting critiques from administrators to improve his own teaching chops, he's leading extracurricular activities like the Stampede Running Club or working with the school district's teacher leadership teams.

"Neal Cronkite's passion for math and science education is palpable, driving him to amp up engagement from his learners in part by embracing the tools of technology but also through encouraging student self-empowerment and self-improvement," said Gallagher. "By seeking the best insights that cutting edge STEM education has to offer, and keeping in mind the whole student's social and emotional needs, he prompts each student to find their own unique path ahead. In many ways, the classroom of the future is right here, right now. And Neal Cronkite is leading it."

"Neal is a dynamic example of our Michigan teachers," said Alles. "His use of technology, and approaches in classroom learning, ensures that he is expanding the horizon for all his students. His instructional practices reflect the very best in teaching excellence and achievement."

"Neal Cronkite exemplifies the Milken Educator Award," said Holt Public Schools Superintendent Dr. David Hornak. "Not only is Neal innovative, he is data-driven, creative, resourceful, respectful and caring. Neal sets high expectations for his learning community as he inspires his students and colleagues each day. We appreciate Neal's ongoing leadership and service as well as his dedication to excellence. On behalf of Holt Public Schools, we are pleased to join the Milken Family Foundation in honoring Neal Cronkite. He makes a difference daily by meeting the academic, social and behavioral needs of the students he serves."

About Milken Educator Neal Cronkite
Neal Cronkite is exactly the kind of learner he tries to cultivate among his students: self-directed and always looking to improve. A fifth-grade science and math teacher at Washington Woods Middle School, Cronkite attends technology and STEM conferences, shares best practices with colleagues, and incorporates them into his classroom. He asks administrators to observe him in action and makes changes based on the feedback he receives. Always seeking better ways to monitor students' learning and encourage them to own their milestones, Cronkite has experimented with metacognitive reflections and self-assessments that hang on the walls. Students in his intervention classes show steady growth on six-week pre- and post-assessments.

Cronkite has unique ways of reaching students and building lasting relationships, taking on the persona of a scientist and playing his guitar during class to build enthusiasm. Though he is not an English Language Arts teacher, Cronkite has coached "Battle of the Books" teams at the library. He leads the school’s large Stampede Running Club and rewards students with special lunches for leadership and life skills, including responsibility, teamwork, respect, empathy and determination. Cronkite doesn't shout, preferring to let students develop self-awareness and realize the benefits of positive behavior and participation, as well as the consequences if they don't follow through. Cronkite was heavily involved in "Erase the Word," a campaign to eliminate derogatory language aimed at students in Washington Woods' cognitively impaired classroom. Parents request Cronkite for their children, and students in advanced grades often check in with him and cite his influence on their successes.

Technology plays a big part in Cronkite's classroom. He wrote a successful grant to install a large Smart Board; students learn basic programming, use the Classroom Dojo app, and interact with each other via Google Classroom. A member of the Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning, Cronkite helps his colleagues incorporate technology into their classrooms as well. He serves on the building leadership and district teacher leader teams, participates in the district’s math professional learning community, and mentors new teachers. 

Cronkite earned a bachelor's in elementary education in 2005 from Western Michigan University and a master's in K-12 administration in 2012 from Michigan State University.

More information about Cronkite, 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, Cronkite's 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, 2017-18 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in Washington, D.C., March 20-23, 2018. 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 about the Milken Educator Awards, 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 30 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.

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