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Mishawaka Principal Surprised with $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Walt Disney Elementary's Ryan Towner lauded for raising the bar for students and colleagues

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

March 16, 2022

MISHAWAKA, Ind., — In a surprise assembly today, Walt Disney Elementary Principal Ryan Towner received a $25,000 Milken Educator Award for his excellence and innovation in education. Towner's creativity and success has burgeoned since he took the helm in 2017, raising the bar for his students and colleagues through his differentiated instruction, unique professional development methods and spirited approach he exemplifies − like playing the ukulele and piano for students at arrival and dismissal. 

Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley and Indiana Secretary of Education Dr. Katie Jenner surprised Towner with the honor before cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials, and the media. Towner is among more than 60 educators nationwide to receive the recognition this season.

Hailed as the "Oscars of Teaching," the Milken Educator Awards celebrate, elevate and activate the American teaching profession and inspire young, capable people to join it. The Milken Educator Award is not a lifetime achievement honor. 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.

"Educators are an invaluable resource, and the Milken Family Foundation seeks to emphasize that this work does not go unnoticed," said Dr. Foley, who is herself a 1994 Indiana Milken Educator. "Ryan Towner fully embodies the qualities of an effective leader: innovation, enthusiasm and the ability to inspire those same merits in his colleagues." 

"Mr. Ryan Towner represents the best of Indiana's educators, as he engages with students daily in unique ways to get them excited about learning," said Dr. Jenner. "Leveraging his passion and his creative side, he leads by bringing his fellow educators, families and community members together to help students learn and grow. We're thankful to have him representing Indiana and setting a great example for how we might best serve our students." 

Oprah, a longtime education advocate, shared her congratulations to this year's winners in a video message shared earlier this week thanking "the most incredible educators around the country" and acknowledging her deep appreciation for the "tireless work" they do. 

More About Ryan Towner 

Innovation: Raising the bar for both student and educators’ practices, Towner introduced tiered academic interventions with ongoing progress monitoring, new curriculum maps with common assessments and a renewed focus on phonics instruction for the school’s younger students. He creates an environment where students and staff feel valued, motivated and appreciated and often brings lightheartedness to campus where he greets each student by name as he plays the piano or ukulele at arrival and dismissal. He created Walt Disney’s annual Culture Night, which celebrates the school’s linguistic and cultural diversity and is one of the best attended events in the district. 

Leadership: A role model to both students and colleagues alike, Towner created a teacher leadership team that holds regular professional learning community meetings, encouraging staff to make data-informed decisions in curricular planning, differentiate instruction and collaborate across grade levels. Since taking the helm, his school has charted steady gains in student achievement and exceeded state averages with some of the strongest growth in the district. He helped create a three-week STEM camp, chaired the district's wellness committee and led its federal grant program for several years. Education runs in Towner's family—his father served as a longtime administrator for a nearby district and has strongly influenced the principal's career. 

Education: Towner earned a bachelor's in education in 2010 and a master’s in education administration in 2016 from Indiana University South Bend.

More About the Milken Educator Awards: "The future belongs to the educated."

The very 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. 

Along with the $25,000 financial prize, 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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