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Newark Teacher Honored with $25,000 Milken Award for Inspiring Students Through Music

Arts High School's Sarah Mae Lagasca uses professional network to encourage students to pursue careers in the arts

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

April 01, 2022

Newark, NJ — In a surprise assembly today, Sarah Mae Lagasca, a high school music teacher at Arts High School, received a $25,000 Milken Educator Award for connecting her students to the world of professional music through a variety of opportunities, including performing at Lincoln Center and the Newark Museum of Art, using state-of-the-art technology in her classroom, and introducing her students to professional musicians to help inspire a career in the arts. 

Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley and New Jersey Acting Commissioner of Education Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan surprised Lagasca with the honor before cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials, and the media. Lagasca is among more than 60 educators nationwide to receive the recognition during the 2021-2022 school year and only one of two recipients in New Jersey. Taylor Matyas, an instructional coach at Laura Donovan Elementary School in Freehold, was presented with the honor this morning. 

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. 

"Sarah Mae is not only one of our nation's best teachers, she is also an accomplished singer in her own right," said Dr. Foley, who herself is a 1994 Milken Educator from Indiana. "She has used her professional network in the arts to introduce her students to a variety of professional musicians, further inspiring and motivating them to pursue their own careers in the arts. Sarah Mae is an exceptional example of excellence in arts education, and I am proud to welcome her into the national Milken Educator Network." 

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. 

"We are honored to recognize Ms. Lagasca today," said Dr. Allen-McMillan. "She is dedicated to her students and has greatly impacted their lives by sharing her passion for the arts. Ms. Lagasca is as committed to her students as she is to her vocation, which is evident in her classroom. She is a trailblazer who emotes in a variety of ways that translates her passion and energy to her students, her colleagues, and the entire community she influences." 

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

More about Sarah Mae Lagasca: 

Reimagined Vocal Arts Program: Lagasca has reimagined the school's vocal arts program, increasing student proficiency in music theory, composition, sight reading, vocal technique, music history, recording and production technology, marketing and branding, and personal artistic growth. Students in her Contemporary Voice and Recorded Vocal Music program have performed for audiences in Newark and beyond, including New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Center and Newark's 2020 census kickoff event at the Newark Museum of Art. When social justice protests erupted around the country, Lagasca worked with other music industry professionals to bring together more than 160 singers and instrumentalists from schools across the U.S. for a virtual performance of "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Kind, smart, funny and light, she encourages them to bring their best selves and talents to each and every class. Lagasca's students leave AHS with the skills, confidence and dexterity to pursue careers in the music industry, or the knowledge and awareness of the importance of music in students' lives to become lifelong advocates for arts education. 

Uses State-of-the-Art Technology for Arts Education: Hardworking and solution-oriented, Lagasca has worked with AHS administration to build a technology-rich learning space for the school's musicians. She is now working to beef up the school’s instrumental music programs, with a strong focus on 21st-century skills and state-of-the-art equipment to ensure students have the opportunity to learn and perform at the highest levels. During remote instruction—particularly difficult for performing arts classes—Lagasca served as a go-to resource for colleagues as they worked to keep students engaged. She found and shared a plethora of ways to keep students learning in her virtual classroom, including breakout rooms, emojis, hand signals, recordings, and tools like Music First, FlipGrid and Soundtrap. 

Leads by Example: An accomplished singer, Lagasca leads by example, continuing to perform, coach privately and produce recordings. She conducted Newark's All-City Choral Ensemble and organizes workshops with professional musicians through the VH1: Save the Music Foundation and GRAMMY Museum. Lagasca leads arts-related professional development for the district and created a professional-quality admissions promotional video, which has introduced AHS to thousands of potential students and families. She has performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and on recordings including Arturo O'Farrill’s "Four Questions," which won the 2021 GRAMMY award for Best Latin Jazz Album. 

Education: Lagasca earned a bachelor's in music education from Westminster Choir College in 2013. 

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

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

Along with the financial prize, Milken Educator Award 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

Press Contacts: 

Laura Blank, (646) 245-2496 (m),
Katie Elliott, (803) 467-2381 (m),