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Boosting Special Ed Achievers Earns a $25,000 Milken Educator Award for Teacher Jennifer Paolantonio

Rhode Island educator helps increase an entire school's potential at Ponaganset High in North Scituate

January 15, 2020

SANTA MONICA, Calif., –  Special education teacher Jennifer Paolantonio takes learning to a higher level at Ponaganset High School in North Scituate, RI. And not just for her special-ed pupils, either. Maybe they should call what she does "extra-special" education, because Paolantonio is raising up the entire school with her inclusive, all-encompassing approach. She creates individually tailored solutions for students with mild to moderate learning disabilities that allow each student to thrive and grow. Inspiring students to believe in themselves and follow their passions, Paolantonio spurs her students to get involved in school assemblies, sports and the arts, as well as meeting and exceeding their learning goals. Paolantonio's cross-disciplinary and adaptable methods build inclusiveness into all the lessons and activities in her classroom and across the broader school environment. 

Yet it was Paolantonio who was included on a special honor role of achievement today at a surprise school assembly when she was presented with a Milken Educator Award by CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching Dr. Candice McQueen and Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green. Paolantonio was named a 2019-20 recipient of the national recognition, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. She is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Rhode Island 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." 

Making that opportunity universal is central to Paolantonio's mission. Whether she's promoting Special Olympics events and competitive after-school sports or collaborating with colleagues to better integrate students with special needs into their regular classes, Paolantonio propels students to reach their individual educational goals and the school to attain its central mission of better serving all students. Paolantonio's commitment to inclusiveness extends into the community as well, with involvement in charity events and fundraisers for worthy causes. 

"Jennifer Paolantonio is making excellence and inclusiveness an everyday expectation for her students and her school," said McQueen. "Her dedication, visionary leadership and creative teaching make us proud to welcome her as a Milken educator." 

"I look forward to any opportunity to celebrate great teaching, and when it’s a teacher who works closely with differently abled students, it's particularly close to my heart," said Infante-Green. "These individuals are educators, but also advocates, and by all accounts, Jennifer Paolantonio is the kind of educator and advocate who inspires her students and sets them up to thrive and succeed. Congratulations to Jennifer and the Ponaganset community on this exciting and well-deserved recognition." 

"Jenn stands out among the amazing teachers we have at Ponaganset High School," said Dr. Michael Barnes, Superintendent of Foster-Glocester Public Schools. "She truly focuses on developing all facets of a child – academic, career, and personal-social. Her dedication, expertise, advocacy, and passion for advancing students' learning have left an indelible mark on students and adults throughout our school, our district, our state and internationally. I count Jenn as a valued colleague and appreciate her exceptional service to our students and communities." 

About Milken Educator Jennifer Paolantonio

Jennifer Paolantonio firmly believes that that facilitating and guiding learning is her most important charge as an educator. A special education teacher at Ponaganset High School (PHS) in North Scituate, Paolantonio teaches students in grades 9-12 with mild to moderate learning disabilities but insists that as long as students believe in themselves, they can accomplish their goals without limits. Paolantonio plans themed lessons that cross disciplines, helping her students integrate into other classes based on their interests and strengths: chorus, plant science, manufacturing, visual arts and new this year - United Sound. One student with Down Syndrome and a stutter disorder now speaks Spanish thanks to Paolantonio's collaboration with a Spanish teacher. Several students who arrived in her classroom as nonverbal finished the program speaking. Brimming with confidence, her students lead all-school assemblies, plan fundraising and extracurricular activities, sing in talent shows and play sports, all while meeting their learning goals. 

A champion for inclusion, Paolantonio has created a culture where all students and adults expect, welcome and support the integration of special education students into every aspect of the PHS experience. The school year begins with an assembly with all students wearing "I Choose to Include" t-shirts. Paolantonio collaborated with students and colleagues to draft an inclusion pledge recited by PHS students, one the Special Olympics International now asks all schools to take. Colleagues throughout the building observe her classroom to learn how to modify their curriculum and activities to include her students. She worked with the Special Olympics to create a full, unified sports program and coached basketball and volleyball, before recruiting others for these roles. Paolantonio has advised seniors on capstone projects that spread the message of inclusion throughout the state, including the elementary level. In 2017 PHS was the first high school in Rhode Island to be recognized as a Unified Champion Banner School. 

Paolantonio has traveled to Washington, D.C. for Capitol Hill Day as Rhode Island's Special Olympics teacher representative and traveled with students to China for the Special Olympics East Asia Summit to advocate for full inclusion. She has served on building and state advisory committees. Paolantonio has organized many schoolwide and community events, including assisting local law enforcement with the Torch Run; a Pink Madness basketball tournament to raise money for breast cancer; and the annual Unified Polar Plunge, in which PHS led the state in funds raised and participants. She presented in support of the Special Olympics at the 2019 South by Southwest EDU conference in Austin, Texas. 

Paolantonio earned a bachelor's degree in special education from Rhode Island College in 2006. She is pursuing a master's degree in literacy from Providence College. 

More information about Paolantonio, 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 2,800 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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