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St. Louis Educator Wins $25,000 Milken Educator Award for Doing "Whatever It Takes" to See Every Student Succeed

High School Teacher Mark Garascia Is Changing the Stigma Around Alternative Education, One Student at a Time 

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

U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona says Milken Educators "personify excellence in education"

April 29, 2022

St. Louis, MO — In a surprise assembly today, Mark Garascia, an alternative education high school teacher at Hancock Place High School, received a $25,000 Milken Educator Award for his leadership in creating a game-changing alternative education program for the school's at-risk students. His program, known as PAWS (Providing Alternative Ways to Succeed), meets students where they are and pushes them to grow beyond their own expectations of themselves. Since starting the program, he has doubled student attendance and graduated every student in his class. 

Milken Educator Awards Vice President Stephanie Bishop and Missouri Commissioner of Education Dr. Margie Vandeven surprised Garascia with the honor before cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials, and the media. Garascia is the first teacher at Hancock Place High School and one of only two educators in Missouri to be recognized with the Award this year. He joins the ranks of more than 60 teachers nationwide to receive the distinction. 

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. 

"Mark Garascia is truly one-of-a-kind when it comes to high school educators," said Bishop, who herself is a 2001 Milken Educator from Virginia. "He sees the good in every single one of his students and relentlessly motivates them to reach their fullest potential. His strong, steady spirit guides his students to succeed in every area of their lives. Congratulations Mark, and welcome to the 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. 

"Providing access to opportunity is our mission at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and teachers like Mark are making that happen every day in classrooms across our state," said Commissioner Vandeven. "The PAWS program at Hancock Place High School is developing a new generation of learners who are equipped with the skills they need to succeed in either postsecondary training, college, or the workforce, and we are so proud of Mark's hard work to ensure this program is advancing opportunities for his students." 

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. U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona said Milken Educators "personify excellence in education" and "inspire leadership and motivate students to excel." 

More about Mark Garascia 

Whatever It Takes, for Every Student: When a student joins PAWS, Garascia does not let go until graduation day—whatever it takes to get there. It's been more than five years since Garascia came to Hancock Place High School to create PAWS, aimed at helping students with academic and disciplinary challenges recover credits so they can graduate. Rather than being assigned to PAWS, students apply and go through an interview process, giving them an opportunity to reflect on why they need the program, and involving parents and guardians as partners in their success. Calm and steady, Garascia focuses on each student's needs, using pacing guides, reward systems, and friendly competitions to make learning fun and help students meet their goals. All students come into PAWS with a clean slate, regardless of what brought them there. Weekly and monthly goal-setting and regular progress reports provide encouragement and positive reinforcement. Garascia involves families at every step, communicating students' accomplishments by text, email, Zoom, and in-person meetings. The program has a 95% attendance rate, and every single PAWS student graduates, thanks to Garascia's personal attention. 

Shifting the Stigma of Alternative Education: Garascia's strategies at PAWS are helping change the perception and direction of alternative education. He presented at the Missouri Alternative Education Network conference on removing the stigma of alternative education by concentrating on individual needs and stories. Garascia sits on the Missouri Commissioner of Education's roundtable to strategize the future of education in the state, as well as serves on district committees for professional development, facilities, and safety. He hosts countless visitors in his classroom, mentors new teachers, and — during the pandemic — helped his colleagues adapt to online learning. 

Committed to his Students, No Matter What: Garascia's commitment to every PAWS student is relentless. If students are absent without communicating, he calls, texts, looks at their social media, and eventually involves their parents and visits their homes. When an English language learner joined PAWS and couldn't communicate with anyone, Garascia used a translation app to connect and also engaged the rest of the class in a mission to help the new student adjust. PAWS students often work or have family obligations during the day, with their most productive time for schoolwork often extending into the wee hours. Garascia adjusted his sleep schedule to be available for them late at night, even working with them on holidays —whatever it takes to get students across the finish line. 

Education: Garascia earned a bachelor's in social science education in 2007 from St. Louis University, a master's in social science in 2009 from Webster University, and a master's in reading and literacy in 2012 from Benedictine University. 

More information about Morgan, 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.

  • In June, the honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles, 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),