Press Releases    All Press Releases


A Real-Life Wonder Woman: Santa Fe Second-Grade Teacher Melissa Kovac Receives $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Kovac from Amy Biehl Community School receives Award during surprise all-school assembly

November 02, 2016

Santa Monica, Calif.  A teacher known to surprise her students by dressing up as Wonder Woman or by donning a giant bee costume wasn't ready for the surprise that awaited her at today's school assembly in the gymnasium of Amy Biehl Community School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That's where second-grade teacher Melissa Kovac learned she had won a prestigious Milken Educator Award, recognizing her commitment to her students, their families and the community.

Kovac is the newest recipient of the $25,000 cash award, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching." This 2016-17 season marks the 30th anniversary of the Awards.

Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley, New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera, and Superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools Dr. Veronica C. Garcia presented Kovac with the Award.

"The teaching profession drives all others. Outstanding educators create firm foundations for our future leaders and ignite a passion in them to reach their highest potential," said Foley. "Melissa Kovac is a breath of fresh air for her students as she inspires them to explore science, improve their reading and discover the world head on with spirit and determination."

"Melissa Kovac represents the excellence of the teaching profession in New Mexico, and the Milken Educator Award is a well-deserved recognition of her passion and commitment for our kids," said Skandera. "For years, the Milken Family Foundation has honored some of the very best teachers in our state, and today Melissa Kovac joins a long line of amazing change-makers and servants in our schools."

"I couldn't be prouder of Melissa Kovac for garnering this prestigious award," said Garcia. "We are so fortunate to have her teaching in our district. Her love of children and teaching is infectious and this honor is most deserved. She is another example of the many outstanding teachers in our district. We thank the Milken Family Foundation for recognizing her."

Kovac engages her students at Amy Biehl, a high-need K-6 school, with a multitude of hands-on activities, including her learning-focused theatrical flair that extends to her students. For a unit exploring the biographies of famous Americans, for example, students fashioned three-dimensional heads of the person they were studying, wrote a five-paragraph essay—no small undertaking for second-graders—and then presented their research to the class while wearing their subjects' likenesses.

In the fall, the second graders dissected pumpkins, recording their observations about the skin, seeds and flesh in their science journals, then traveled to a farm to see pumpkins growing on the vine. With help from the Northern New Mexico Inquiry Science Education Consortium, Kovac and her students grew beans in the classroom and outside in the school garden, experimenting with different soils, light and watering patterns, recording their observations and predictions.

Whether the topic is science, math, social studies or English, Kovac employs consistent procedures and techniques to keep students' attention and accommodate their learning styles. And it's working. Kovac's students posted significant gains in test scores under her tutelage: In 2015-16, proficiency rates rose more than 45% in math and almost 35% in reading.

Kovac has assumed a leadership role both at Amy Biehl and within the district. She attacks new initiatives with gusto, mentors students and new teachers, and incorporates state-of-the-art instructional techniques, including measurable learning targets. Not surprisingly, teaching peers often visit Kovac's classroom to absorb her methods and adapt them to their own classes. She led professional development around the use of reading response journals for the district's principals, following up with specific teacher training at schools throughout the district.

Through it all, Kovac puts the needs of the students first—both academically and emotionally—as she pours her heart and soul into Amy Biehl. Two years ago, when a student in Kovac's class passed away suddenly, counselors visited the class. But Kovac wanted to do more. She led the effort to name the school garden after the student; as an art project, Kovac had each student make and paint a tile, then hung the tiles in a heart shape. The students dedicated the ceramic mural to the memory of their classmate.

By tackling serious issues head on and putting the fun in fundamental learning, it's easy to see why Kovac is a real-life superhero of primary education.

Kovac earned a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education from New Mexico Highlands University in 2005.

To learn more about Kovac and to view photos and a video from today's Award assembly, visit

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, Kovac's honor includes membership in the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top principals, teachers and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.

More than $138 million in funding, including $68 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards program, 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 Awards has no formal nomination or application process. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then 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 to further their own professional development. Others have financed dream field trips, established scholarships and even funded the adoption of children.

Regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events are shared on MFF social media profiles at,,, and using the #MilkenAward hashtag. Details are also available on the Awards homepage at or can be obtained by calling MFF at (310) 570-4772.

About the Milken Educator Awards
The Milken Educator Awards, created by the Milken Family Foundation, is in its 30th year. 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.

Lynne Russo
(818) 903-6079 cell;
Jana Rausch
Director of Media and Public Affairs
310-570-4774 Office 310-435-9259 Cell