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"Gracias, Señora Torres!" Spanish Teacher Vanessa Torres of Columbia, South Carolina, Clinches Milken Educator Award and $25,000

Nursery Road Elementary teacher brings Spanish language and culture to life

December 06, 2016

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Walk through the halls of Nursery Road Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina, and they may be abuzz with students conversing in Spanish. That's a credit to the work of K-5 Spanish teacher Vanessa Torres, whose students' buzzing voices turned into loud cheers when she was surprised with the prestigious Milken Educator Award at an all-school assembly. The honor comes with a $25,000 cash prize that Torres can use any way she chooses.

Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley, South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman and Lexington-Richland School District Five Superintendent Dr. Stephen Hefner were on hand to bestow the recognition upon Torres. Torres is South Carolina's only recipient of the Milken Educator Award this year, and she is among up to 35 honorees who will receive the prestigious honor nationwide for 2016-17.

This season marks the 30th year of the Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching."

"Vanessa Torres ignites a passion for learning in students at Nursery Road Elementary," said Foley. "By infusing the rich language of Spanish into students' education—and making connections across the curriculum—Vanessa is enhancing students' experiences and instilling life lessons of cultural respect and understanding that they will remember throughout their lives. I salute her and am excited to track her exciting career in the profession."

"I am so proud of Vanessa Torres and the commitment to excellence she exhibits every day to her students at Nursery Road Elementary," said Spearman. "Mrs. Torres serves not only her students but her fellow teachers and the Lexington-Richland 5 through her leadership and passion for education. I want to thank the Milken Family Foundation for the partnership we share in recognizing educators like Vanessa in our state and around the country and look forward to future collaborative efforts to showcase and uplift the teaching profession."

"We are so proud of Mrs. Torres! She is a caring, competent and dedicated teacher who strives every day to make a positive difference for her students," said Hefner. "I extend my congratulations as well to the entire Nursery Road faculty and staff. This honor reflects the wonderful school culture and the great teaching and learning that happens at Nursery Road every day. Thanks so much to the Milken Family Foundation for their continued support of outstanding teachers and especially for honoring Mrs. Torres today."

At Nursery Road Elementary, Torres immerses students in learning the Spanish language with storytelling, skits, games, songs, salsa dancing, and peso point prize raffles—all conducted entirely in Spanish. When Torres and her students meet in the halls, they greet each other and converse in Spanish. At the end of the year, Torres takes her students to a local Mexican restaurant so they can practice their language skills in a real-world setting.

Torres teaches all students at Nursery Road Elementary, which is a high-performing Title I school. Her classes include a large number of students with disabilities. She excels at differentiating her classroom activities to engage students at all levels, from special education to gifted and talented. Torres invigorated the Spanish program at Nursery Road Elementary, engaging students, parents, teachers and the community. Now students practice their Spanish songs and dances at home and look forward to their weekly Spanish lessons with Torres. More than 80% of Torres' students exceeded their 80%+ accuracy goals on the assessments Torres developed to track her students' progress. Torres aligns her assessments to her standards and the State SLO/GBE (Student Learning Objectives/Goals-Based Evaluation).

Known for her unbridled energy, Torres inspires her colleagues with her infectious passion for teaching. She works with teachers in all content areas to connect her Spanish curriculum with their standards and instruction. Torres chairs the Nursery Road Elementary Walk to School, a successful event that brings students, parents and community members together to walk students to school. To boost student participation, Torres convinced local athletic stores to donate clothing and sporting equipment, then held grade-level drawings in which participants won footballs, bicycles and more. She also led the school's efforts in the District Five Dance Marathon, a benefit for a local children's hospital; Nursery Road Elementary led the district in participation and fundraising.

Torres serves on numerous committees, attends World Language Teacher Leader meetings, and is helping Nursery Road Elementary in its efforts to become an Arts Integration school. When district visitors observe at the school, they stop in Torres' classroom. Torres can be counted on for special projects at the school and district. She choreographs musical numbers tied to instructional themes during Nursery Road Elementary's twice-yearly all-school performances. Though Torres landed close to home—she is a Columbia, South Carolina, native and graduated as valedictorian from Columbia High School—she has studied abroad in Spain, Costa Rica and Indonesia.

Torres earned a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and sociology from Furman University in 2003 and a Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and intercultural studies from Columbia International University in 2005.

More information about Torres, 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, Torres' 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.

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2016-17 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum this spring in New Orleans. Educators will have the opportunity to network with their new colleagues and hear from state and federal officials about the importance of 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 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 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 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.