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Lofty Science Success Earns a $25,000 Milken Educator Award for Teacher Rachel O'Kelley

North Carolina science educator elevates student performance at John A. Holmes High in Edenton

February 04, 2020

SANTA MONICA, Calif., – Science teacher Rachel O'Kelley's students know that she'll do whatever it takes to launch them forward in their science lessons at John A. Holmes High School in Edenton, NC. Even if that means doing it literally by building catapults in class to explore scientific concepts such as momentum and gravity. Emphasizing small-group study and project-based learning in her classroom, O'Kelley adapts her lessons on the fly to ensure that students of all aptitudes are engaged and challenged. She also has a firm grasp on high schoolers' priorities, channeling teens' obsession with romance into an atomic "dating game" that demonstrates which atoms bond well with each other building strong relationships, and which form bonds that are more fickle and fleeting. Amping up the fun while reinforcing the scientific fundamentals, O'Kelley's high expectations and engaging lessons are propelling students to new heights, continually exceeding their educational growth targets.

Yet it was O'Kelley who was soaring to an unanticipated level of success this morning at a surprise school assembly where she was presented with a Milken Educator Award by Milken Educator Awards Senior Program Director Greg Gallagher and North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson. O'Kelley was named a 2019-20 recipient of the national recognition, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. O'Kelley is the only Milken Educator Award winner from North Carolina this year, and is among up to 40 honorees for 2019-20. 

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."

Armed with tech tools and savvy, ever-adaptable lesson plans, O'Kelley is bringing that brighter future into sharp focus for her students in class and beyond—in part thanks to the after-school community service projects she organizes. She's also a positive factor on the staff side of the school equation. In addition to being head of the Holmes High science department, O'Kelley is a district-wide curriculum development leader and an advocate for her fellow teachers within the district administration.

"Rachel O'Kelley goes the extra mile to make sure all of her students get the kind of science education that will be so vital in the years ahead," said Gallagher. "She knows firsthand what Stephen Hawking was talking about when he said, 'Science is not only a discipline of reason but also one of romance and passion.' O'Kelley is clearly passing along her verve for science to the next generation, and it's one of the many reasons we're proud to welcome her as a Milken Educator."

"Congratulations to Rachel for this well-deserved recognition," said Johnson. "Like so many of her peers, she cares deeply for her students and holds them to high expectations. She personalizes instruction and engages parents. Rachel also is a leader in her school and district, helping to support new teachers and actively participating in district initiatives aimed at improving learning for all students. Her students are fortunate to have her, and so is North Carolina." 

"Mrs. O'Kelley is an incredibly dedicated and loving teacher,” said Edenton-Chowan Schools Superintendent Dr. Rob Jackson. "As a graduate of the high school she teaches in, she knows our students, their families, and our community. She believes herself to be a fellow learner along with the students and her fellow teachers and has earned the respect and admiration of her colleagues and of each of the staff members she works with. She believes that her students will be successful and they are. Perhaps the best way to describe Mrs. O'Kelley is to simply say that she is a teacher that I would love for my children and future grandchildren to have."

About Milken Educator Rachel O'Kelley

"We’ve got this!" That's what students hear from science teacher Rachel O'Kelley when they enter her classroom at John A. Holmes High School in Edenton, North Carolina. O'Kelley focuses on improving learning for every student, even those whose past performance might keep them out of rigorous classes like hers at other schools. O'Kelley differentiates her instructional practices and activities in every lesson, using essential questions and activating strategies to engage her pupils. Students work in small collaborative groups for technology-based activities, create graphic organizers to show what they have learned, and maintain vocabulary notebooks to cement their understanding of scientific terminology. O'Kelley uses friendly competition to motivate her classes, where students build catapults and play a "dating game" to figure out which atoms form stable bonds. Students know O'Kelley cares about them and they thrive in her culture of high expectations: On EVAAS (Education Value-Added Assessment System), O'Kelley's students continually exceed expected growth. 

O'Kelley is a leader in both her building and the school district. She has served on the support teams for school improvement, learning-focused framework implementation and behavior. O'Kelley chairs the science department, is the school's chemical-management hygiene officer, chaired the graduation committee, helps new colleagues as a lateral entry science buddy teacher and meets with the district superintendent monthly to address educator concerns as representative to the teacher advisory council. A Princeton ACT trained instructor, O'Kelley regularly presents at the regional Beginning Teacher Summit, leaving her fellow teachers motivated and with resources in hand to use in their classrooms. 

O'Kelley is committed to helping high school students become the best citizens they can be. She founded and leads community service projects through the LEO Club, affiliated with the Lions Club International. O'Kelley often attends athletic and academic events to cheer on her students. She involves families in her classroom and uses technology to keep parents informed of assignments, tests and expectations. Always looking for ways to improve her classroom, O’Kelley sold homemade pound cakes and cookies this summer to raise funds for yoga balls, lab gloves and colored printer paper. 

O'Kelley earned Bachelor of Science degrees in science education and biology and a Bachelor of Arts degree in chemistry in 2013 from East Carolina University. 

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

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 2,800 top teachers, principals, and specialists dedicated to strengthening education. 

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2019-20 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in Indianapolis from March 26-28, 2020 where they will network with their new colleagues and exchange ideas with state and federal leaders on the future of education. In addition, the Milken Educator Awards' "Why Not Us" program will pair each 2019-20 recipient with a veteran Milken Educator mentor to explore and prepare for expanded leadership roles that strengthen education practice and policy. 

More than $140 million in funding, including $70 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development 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 selection made by the Milken Family Foundation.

The cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways; for instance, on their children's or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even on 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. Everyone is encouraged to watch the tour at,, and

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

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, created by Lowell Milken, 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.

Lynne Russo 
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