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Making (and Learning) History Every Day, Teacher Ryan James Earns $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Social Studies specialist revs up his students at Lucille M. Brown Middle School in Richmond, Virginia

November 15, 2017

SANTA MONICA, Calif., — Real life is the laboratory for change, and Ryan James is a hands-on social scientist who helps students of all learning levels get great results in the classroom—and in the wider world beyond. Working with at-risk students, James engages them in social studies, civics and history through popular music, technology and innovative and adaptable classroom approaches. It's working: Under his leadership, James' students achieved a 92% pass rate in 2014-15, 10 points above the district average and a 7% gain over the previous year. A teachers' teacher who mentors his colleagues as well as his students, James has boosted professional development for staff in history and civics along with student test scores.

But what goes around comes around, and James is the one who got a boost in his professional life this morning as Lowell Milken, Chairman and Co-Founder of the Milken Family Foundation—joined by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, Superintendent of Public lnstruction Dr. Steven R. Staples, Secretary of Education Dr. Dietra Trent, and Richmond Schools Interim Superintendent Thomas Kranz—named James a winner of a 2017-18 Milken Educator Award at a surprise school assembly in Richmond, Virginia. James accepted the $25,000 cash prize in the school auditorium filled with cheering, appreciative students, faculty and community leaders. James is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Virginia this year, and is among up to 45 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."

Whether James is tutoring special needs students, leading the gifted students International Baccalaureate program or coaching the school's sports teams, he is relentlessly engaged with his students, the community and his fellow educators to create the best learning opportunities for one and all.

"Education is a door that always beckons, but it takes a truly talented educator like Ryan James to make the door of knowledge swing wide open for students who may face more than the usual challenges," says Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation. "Ryan holds high standards for students while creating lessons and a level of engagement that reveal a brighter world of academic achievement, social success and civic engagement."

"I congratulate Ryan James and the entire Lucille Brown Middle School community for earning this well-deserved honor from the Milken Family Foundation," Governor Terry McAuliffe said.  "Ryan James joins the 43 other Virginia teachers who have collectively earned $1.1 million in prize money since the Award's inception in 1999. It's no secret that Virginia boasts world-class public schools and I am proud that the foundation has recognized the dedicated teachers who make that possible."

"Ryan James is known in Richmond for doing whatever it takes to make sure his students understand their rights and duties as citizens and how they can make a difference in our political and economic systems," Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven R. Staples said. "He challenges his students every day to do their best and never give up, whether in the classroom or on the football field."

"Mr. James is the epitome of what this prestigious award represents," said Richmond Public Schools' Interim Superintendent Thomas Kranz. "It takes a truly innovative educator to engage our students in the classroom, and he could not be more deserving of this recognition."

About Milken Educator Ryan James
Ryan James, a seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher at Lucille M. Brown Middle School in Richmond, Virginia, excels in building relationships with and motivating students—especially those who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Two years ago he took over the Standards of Learning (SOL) Civics class, where outcomes are directly related to the school's accreditation rating. Under his leadership, James' students, many of whom live with poverty, trauma and homelessness, are achieving higher levels of academic achievement and engagement. Students' attitudes about learning and school have improved significantly—and James gets much of the credit.

James differentiates his teaching adeptly, offering combined lessons for the whole group, modified assignments for students with disabilities, and small-group or one-on-one sessions, calling on a retired social studies teacher as a tutor. He makes bi-weekly assessments and enacts interventions based on that data. In addition to the SOL class, James also leads the school's International Baccalaureate (IB) program, offered to advanced and gifted students. He incorporates technology for both instruction and assessment and supports project-based learning; in one unit on the U.S. judicial system, students researched legal cases online to learn about the development and interpretation of the law. He also uses music, specifically rap, to keep students engaged. On the first day of school last year, James greeted students with his own version of the popular #SoGoneChallenge: "Y'all eighth grade now, y'all top of the class / Pay attention, work hard, and I'll bet you pass."

Good-natured, humorous and self-effacing, James often sports a bow tie and has a talent for impersonations that make students and colleagues chuckle. He coaches the basketball and football teams, tutors students in history, and takes his middle school students on college tours at James Madison University, his alma mater. He is a leader among his colleagues: James mentors new teachers, serves as seventh-grade team leader, sits on the school’s planning and management team, and helped implement a new history curriculum—leading professional development for the staff in history and civics. Former students come back to shadow him for high school assignments, and many go on to attend and succeed in college. James believes he has a duty to serve as a role model and help students see the importance of education in achieving lifelong success.

James earned a bachelor's degree in history in 2011 from James Madison University, with a double minor in interdisciplinary social sciences and secondary education.

More information about James, 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, James' 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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