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Top-Notch Hawaii High School Teacher Surprised with $25,000 Milken Educator Award

January 29, 2016

SANTA MONICA, CA — Waipahu High School science teacher Michael Sana’s path to his professional teaching career began during his own high school years with a promise to his mother as she battled cancer. She promised him that she would hang on until his graduation if he promised that he would someday finish college and make a difference in the lives of others.  Both kept their promises.

Today, Sana received a tremendous surprise when he was presented the prestigious Milken Educator Award and a $25,000 check.

Governor David Ige, First Lady Dawn Amano-Ige and Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, joined Dr. Jane Foley, Senior Vice-President of the Milken Educator Awards, and more than 20 former Milken Hawaii awardees to make the surprise presentation in front of nearly 2,500 students, teachers and guests.

Sana is the state’s 73rd Milken Award winner. He is the only Hawaii recipient in 2015-16 and one of up to 40 recipients across the country this school year.

“Mr. Sana’s work at Waipahu High has been truly exceptional and has raised expectations of what is possible in high school science programs,” said Governor Ige. “On behalf of the State of Hawaii, I congratulate him on this well-deserved recognition and thank him for his dedication to Hawaii’s public school students.”

Sana’s excellent work as chair of the Waipahu High science department has helped to transform its science program into an ambitious college-ready platform that challenges students and boosts them towards college science careers. 

“Michael’s passion for teaching and mentoring has helped dozens of students begin their college careers with a desire for rigorous scientific research,” said Superintendent Matayoshi. “His hard work has helped to make Waipahu High’s science curriculum a bright spot in the department and we’re grateful for all he does to support other teachers. This prestigious recognition is well-deserved.”

When Sana started teaching AP Biology, there were only 12 students. Now there are 40. He also teaches biology and medical biotechnology, the only instructor in the state certified with Rutgers University to teach biotech.

His students conduct and publish authentic scientific research. For instance, freshmen and sophomore science students perform lab techniques such as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), micropipetting, gel electrophoresis and protein extractions as well as how to create genetically modified organisms in a hands-on, inquiry-based learning environment. Sophisticated work, indeed, but Sana has taken his instruction a step further, and has successfully guided his students to 120 publications with the National Institutes of Health. He has also enabled them to gain on-site experience at places like the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Rutgers University, and has written and received grants that promise that the next 25 years will be an exciting time for the Hawaii Department of Education.

He was accepted to the prestigious Lawrence Livermore Teacher Research Academy, where he completed hands-on skill and knowledge development instruction over several summers. He also conducted cutting-edge Level-4 research for experiments with the bubonic plague.

In 2011, Sana secured a commitment from the Academy to mentor six Waipahu teachers, and another to partner with students in real-time science conferencing via video feed. He leveraged a federal Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness via Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grant, and secured funding to further support the science department at Waipahu, which he chairs. He also received a grant to host a summer science scholars symposium for 40 students to work at Rutgers with their Waksman Institute of Microbiology researchers.

His students, whose end-of-course biology scores of 306 far outpace the state’s average at 274, are high-achieving, and often participate in state and international science and engineering fairs, including the Intel Fair. His real-world, eclectic approach to learning and teaching continues to help reap scholarships for his students to such far-flung schools as Columbia University, the University of Southern California, the University of Pennsylvania and Occidental College.

Sana is a graduate of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, a post-baccalaureate degree in secondary education and a master’s degree in curriculum studies. 

The Milken Educator Awards program, which was launched by the Milken Family Foundation (MFF) in 1987, has been described as “the Oscars of teaching” by Teacher magazine. Recipients are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. Many have gone on to earn advanced degrees and be placed in prominent posts and on state and national education committees. Alternating yearly between elementary and secondary educators, the Milken Awards are sourced through each participating state department of education, which appoints an independent blue ribbon committee to confidentially review candidates for recommendation to MFF.

This year, MFF launched a #MyTeacherRocks Instagram campaign that encourages students to take selfies with their favorite teacher and describe in the caption why their teacher is special. To enter the contest, entrants are asked to follow @MilkenFamilyFdn on Instagram, post their selfie to their individual account and use the #MyTeacherRocks and #MilkenAward hashtags. Two photos with the most “likes” will be selected in February and April 2016. The first of the three winners was selected in November 2015.

For more information about the Milken Educator Awards, visit or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.

The Milken Educator Awards tour is on social media at;;; and

The Milken Educator Awards, created by the Milken Family Foundation, were launched 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.