By Alexa Durante
On Monday, Feb. 28, Michelle Le Iwasaki, an academic coach at Kalihi Kai Elementary School, was awarded the Milken Educator Award. Also known as the “Oscar Award of Teaching,” the award honors those who show a formidable performance in education along with a $25,000 cash prize. Iwasaki is Hawai‘i’s exclusive recipient of the Milken Educator Award and is among 60 nationwide honorees for 2021-2022.
The surprise award was given in an outdoor assembly in front of the school’s students, staff members and peers. Iwasaki joined the event, unaware that the program was for her. Kalihi Kai Elementary Principal Marc Kawahara kicked off the special program by welcoming all those in attendance. After some students performed a choreographed routine, Hawai‘i Interim Superintendent of Education Keith Hayashi spoke to praise the school’s arts integration program before introducing Dr. Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards, who then revealed that Kalihi Kai has one of the best teachers in the country. As Dr. Foley handed the mic over to a student who explains what a Milken Educator Award is, students stood up one-by-one while holding numbers that reveal $25,000, causing assembly members to buzz with excitement for the winner. Governor David Ige then spoke next to the crowd and revealed that the Milken Educator Award goes to “Michelle Iwasaki!” The crowd cheered in raucous applause as Iwasaki covered her face mask with her hand in disbelief.
“I was shocked,” said Iwasaki during a recent Zoom call from her classroom at Kalihi Kai Elementary School. It took her a moment to collect herself before being able to continue receiving the award. “I didn’t know what was happening right away. I heard my name and was in disbelief. My vision blurred and suddenly I saw all my friends and colleagues running up to give me a lei, then I started to process what was happening.”
Iwasaki helps support and fulfill students’ needs as the academic coach for kindergarten, first and fifth grade students. When Kalihi Kai became partnered with Turnaround Arts in 2015, she led the procedure of incorporating the program’s strategies into the school’s curriculum. This integration stirred a positive movement within the students’ performance at the school and helped them improve in various topics such as math, language arts, and science.
Iwasaki said her award is in dedication to the teachers of Kalihi Kai and other schools presenting the use of art integration strategies. She said it has been a team effort in the success and implementation of the program within Kalihi Kai.
“It takes a village in order to have a positive influence and to create change,” said Iwasaki who asserts she would not have received the award had she worked at any other school. “Kalihi Kai Elementary is so special. The staff, administrators, students and parents … all of us as a collective come together to transform the school and help them achieve.”
As a former classroom teacher, Iwasaki mentors and trains other educators in the use of Guided Language Acquisition Design strategies for English language learners. Iwasaki developed a schoolwide Response to Intervention-Academic (RTI-A) system with diagnostic assessments, progress monitoring and evidence-based interventions. She also conducts bimonthly classroom observations for her grade levels, shares data with teachers to help them elevate their instructional practice, and prepares new teachers for walk-throughs and observations. Iwasaki has presented at ECET2, a teacher-led community focused on teacher leadership and collaboration, as well as conferences like Read to Me and School of the Future. Iwasaki helps share the importance of building capacity within others in the profession by expanding their understanding and strengthening their practice. She also seeks out community resources such as the University of Hawai‘i’s Sound Partners, an evidence-based early reading intervention, to help close the achievement gap at Kalihi Kai. She serves on the school’s academic review, arts leadership and literacy grant teams, and helped Kalihi Kai through its Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation process in 2018-2019.
“Michelle is a shining example among our many teachers who inspire our students to achieve new heights by giving them vibrant new perspectives and the motivation to succeed,” said Hayashi in a press release. “Her work not only improves student outcomes but also advances teacher development for her colleagues around her and at other schools and we congratulate her on this well-deserved award and recognition.”
Iwasaki is the 79th Hawai‘i teacher to receive the Milken Educator Award since Hawai‘i joined the program in 1990. Hawai‘i recipients have receive awards with a total of $1.9 million in prize monies.
When asked how she feels about being a Milken Educator Award recipient, Iwasaki said she’s humbled to accept the honor and is thankful to all those within the community who’ve supported Kalihi Kai Elementary.
“The pandemic has been hard on everyone,” reflected Iwasaki. “It was so nice to pause and to celebrate the reward that day with everyone. Sometimes you don’t really take the time to reflect so it was a great day to soak it all in and enjoy this school’s journey together.”