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Gladstone Teacher Makes History as First North Kansas City Schools Educator to Receive Milken Educator Award

Chapel Hill Elementary teacher surprised with national honor and $25,000 cash prize

January 19, 2023

Gladstone, Mo.  — One sign of a dearly loved teacher: the number of invitations they receive to their former students' high school graduation ceremonies. Second grade teacher Vanessa Thomson is one of those teachers, and today, she was surprised in front of a vibrant school assembly with the prestigious Milken Educator Award and a $25,000 check for her excellence in education. Thomson's Award marks the first time a North Kansas City Schools educator has received the honor. 

Milken Educator Awards Vice President Stephanie Bishop and Missouri Commissioner of Education Dr. Margie Vandeven presented Thomson with the national accolade and the unrestricted cash prize to be used however she likes. 

Thomson, a second grade teacher at Chapel Hill Elementary School in Gladstone, Missouri, is among up to 40 elementary educators across the nation who will receive the Milken Educator Award during the 2022-2023 school year. On top of today's celebration, she will have the opportunity to join the national Milken Educator Network of more than 2,900 exceptional K-12 educators and leaders across the country. Honorees receive an all-expenses-paid trip to the Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles this April. 

"Vanessa's classroom is a nurturing place full of love, laughter, service to others and learning," said Bishop, herself a 2001 Milken Educator from Virginia. "Bringing education to life, particularly for children who speak English as a second language, takes a special kind of teacher. Vanessa captivates her students’ minds and encourages them to learn from the world around them. Our heartfelt congratulations to her for receiving this honor and making history as the first teacher in the district to become a Milken Educator!" 

The Milken Educator Awards inspire and uplift with the unique stories of educators making a profound difference for students, colleagues and communities. The specific states and schools on this year’s winners' list remain a closely guarded secret until each Award is announced. 

"Thanks to the Milken Family Foundation for shining a light on the incredible educators like Vanessa who make Missouri schools great," said Vandeven. "It's clear that Vanessa works tirelessly to meet each of her students where they are, and takes pride and ownership in their success, both in and out of the classroom." 

Since the initiative’s inception in 1987, more than $140 million in funding, including more than $73 million in individual Awards, has been devoted to the overall Milken Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients' careers. 

More About Vanessa Thomson 

Teaching Excellence Leads to Academic Success: Thomson believes every child can learn and is an expert at differentiating her instruction to meet individual student needs. At Chapel Hill Elementary, Thomson's second graders make great strides, especially in writing. During a unit on writing odes, she works alongside her students, writing her own ode to better understand the process and work involved, and brings published poets into the class as mentors. Work from Thomson's students is included in the curriculum and serves as a model for second graders across the district. Thomson works to meet students at their current level and propel them to the next, encouraging students to teach each other and to collaborate to build confidence in reluctant learners. 

Embracing Students’ Cultural Diversity in Classroom: Her classroom is rich with cultural representation, inclusive practices such as community circles and celebrations for every accomplishment, no matter the size. Last year, Thomson's students showed significant growth in all content areas from fall to spring, with 70% ending the year reading on or above grade level and more than 90% mastering most math standards. Because Chapel Hill's population of English language learners (ELLs) has grown in recent years, Thomson has focused on building a toolbox of language development strategies. Her work has paid off—in spring 2022, 89% of her ELLs demonstrated mastery on all priority standards, up from 25% at the beginning of the school year. 

Gracious Mentor and Strategic Community Leader: Thomson serves as facilitator for Chapel Hill’s leadership team, collaborating with administrators to set meeting agendas, leading discussions and ensuring follow-up on school improvement goals and action steps. As a member of the district's strategic plan action team, Thomson collaborated with students, parents, teachers, administrators and business partners to develop recommendations for enhancing learning environments for all grades and redesigning professional collaboration. She mentors new and beginning teachers, modeling lessons, observing, providing feedback and leading professional development during evenings and summers. Thomson serves as a district demonstration teacher for writing, hosting teachers from across the district for lesson observations and sharing of best practices. As Chapel Hill prepared to reopen its building during the pandemic, Thomson led the team focusing on reentry, helping develop safe protocols for conferring with students, meeting in small groups, using classroom libraries and incorporating technology. She volunteered to teach a blended class with both in-person and virtual students, prioritizing keeping online students connected both academically and socially. 

Focus on Community Service for Her Students: Thomson inspires students to embrace community service. After a unit on active citizenship, one child received local news coverage for a necktie drive he organized to support homeless people. The class performs random acts of kindness around the school each spring and has raised funds for a local animal shelter. Thomson leads the school's popular "Pie a Teacher" event, where students raise money for United Way selling pies to throw in teachers' faces. One reminder of the deep bonds Thomson forges: the stack of invitations she receives each year to former students' high school graduations. 

Education: Thomson earned a bachelor's in elementary education in 2008 from William Jewell College and a master's in curriculum and instruction in 2013 from Baker University.

More About the Milken Educator Awards: "The future belongs to the educated."

Along with the financial prize, recipients join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,900 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.

  • The honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles this April, 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 (MFF) mentoring program, in which new 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. 
  • Veteran Milken Educators demonstrate a wide range of 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 receive 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. Created by Lowell Milken, 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 Milken Family Foundation celebrates more than 40 years of elevating education in America and around the world. Learn more at