Two Louisiana educators received unexpected accolades — and a $25,000 cash prize each — when officials with the Milken Family Foundation showed up Wednesday at surprise school assemblies in West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes, honoring the two with the coveted Milken Educator Awards.
Jessica Major gasped and then fought back tears after her name was called in front of a room full of students, faculty and staff from Port Allen Middle School.
“This is truly one of the best days of my life,” Major, the school’s master teacher instructional coach, said to the boisterous crowd of supporters gathered Wednesday morning.
Plaquemine High Principal Chandler Smith could only blush and hang in his head in awe after learning later that day he was being honored with a Milken Educator Award for his leadership role in the school’s improvement over the last four years.
“Y’all got me really good on this one; I had no idea,” Smith told the gymnasium full of students, teachers and officials from Iberville Parish. “I was told we were being recognized for our college and career readiness programs.”
Major and Smith join Shreveport history teacher John Lary as the trio of Louisiana educators receiving Milken awards this year. They are among the 40 being honored across the nation for their work in local schools.
State Education Superintendent John White described the recognitions as a signal the great work Louisiana teachers and educators are doing isn’t going unnoticed.
White attended Major’s assembly as part of the ruse of Department of Education officials showing up at both campuses to talk about career readiness.
Milken award recipients are selected by the foundation each year with help from state education departments, which highlight academic achievements in their local schools.
“You don’t find us, we find you,” Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, said in both assemblies honoring Major and Smith. “Good teachers make a difference. Every successful person … will tell you there was one or two teachers that helped them along the way accomplish their goals.”
Major, a Brusly native, has worked at Port Allen Middle since she graduated college nine years ago. The school had been placed on the Education Department’s Academic Watch List when she joined the staff as a master teacher. Major was credited with serving as an integral leader of the school’s team of teachers and administrators helping decrease the school’s disciplinary problems, and increasing student test scores by nearly 22 points in 2013.
Major, who has a nine-month-old daughter, was also recognized for being able to quickly adapt her own planning initiatives amidst the state’s evolving assessments and curriculum upgrades, which Milken officials said helped make Port Allen Middle one of the Education Department’s Top Gains Schools in 2013.
White took notice of her accomplishments and even sent 15 of his department members to observe and videotape her performance to benefit other teachers in Louisiana.
Major credits the local school system’s support in helping her achieve what she has so far.
“I come with ideas, and the school system says, ‘let’s run with it,’ ” Major said. “This school system is very invested in the kids. They give us the opportunity to grow.”
Smith was honored by Milken for taking the leadership role in Plaquemine High’s improvement in academic performance, graduation rates, student performance scores on the ACT and in implementing the campus’ now vast offerings of college readiness and industrial certification programs during his four years as principal.
Plaquemine High was ranked among the top 20 percent of schools in the state that saw the most growth in overall student proficiency during the 2011-12 school year, and it ranked in the top 15 percent the following two years.
Under Smith’s tenure, the school inched up from a D to a C grade in the Education Department’s annual school performance reports and saw its graduation rates rise from 55 percent in 2011 to 75 percent in 2014.
Smith, who is also an ordained minister, credits his success to his leadership team, which helped him identify the school’s needs and prioritize how they would tackle them.
“We just tried to look at what was working and what wasn’t,” the former St. Helena Parish teacher said. “We knew the goal was bigger than just us.”
As for their $25,000 cash prize, which they can spend however they want, Smith hadn’t made up his mind on how he will use it.
“I just don’t know. Maybe I’ll use it to pay for the loans I took out to get my master’s degree,” he joked shortly after the assembly.
Major, on the other hand, has a vacation spot on her mind.
“I have to talk to my family, but Disney World does sound wonderful,” she said.
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.