Two SoCal Teachers Bags Milken National Award

By Joseph Pimentel and Rene Villaroman/

LOS ANGELES – The Milken Family Foundation awarded 75 school teachers nationwide with the prestigious National Educator Award in a star-studded event at the Westin Bonaventure last March 31. Two of the teachers were Asian Americans from Southern California public school districts.

The gala event commenced after the foundation’s National Education Conference and the 8th Annual National Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) Conference.

Dubbed the Oscar’s of Teaching, the award is given annually “to honor and reward outstanding K-12 educators for the quality of their teaching, their professional leadership, their engagement with families and the community, and their potential for even greater contributions to the healthy development of children,” according to the Milken Foundation.

The 75 Milken Educators each received $25,000 cash prizes to do “whatever they wish.”

“It’s not about receiving the award but giving back to the profession they love,” said West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine. He was a Milken National Educator recipient in 1995. “These teachers cultivate seeds of greatness in our children.”

The Milken Educator Award was established in 1985. Since its inception more than 2,100 teachers nationwide have received the award and more than $58 million in cash prizes given.

Marilyn Garza, one of this year’s awardees, said that she plans to use the money to help her family. “They’ve supported me this whole time,” she said. Garza is an eighth-grade science teacher in a Santa Barbara middle school.

“We’re also planning a big Disneyland trip for my three children,” she added.


The highlight of the night was a video montage of how each award recipient received the illustrious National Educator Award. Presenting the award is secretive. The teacher’s themselves do not know if they are a recipient until their name is called during a surprise “School Assembly function.”

Last December, Aaron Chung, 34, a mathematics teacher at Temple Intermediate Academy was unaware up to the last minute that he would be the recipient of the award until it was announced by Milken Family Foundation Chairman and co-founder Lowell Milken.

“You don’t find us. We find you,” said Milken.

“Honestly, I sit up here thinking, $25,000. That’s a lot of money for me,” a beaming Aaron Chung told the convocation. “I couldn’t do it alone. I thank the students for giving up their Saturdays to attend Algebra classes and to learn. You don’t have to be an A student; just set a goal for yourself; believe in yourself.”

Chung, a Vietnamese  sought asylum in the United States with her sister when he was 15 years old. A math whiz, Chung excelled in sciences and was advised by friends and relatives to become a doctor. After graduating from high school in Alhambra, he enrolled at California Polytechnic University in Pomona and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree, major in Biochemistry in 1998. But he ignored the advice of friends and went into a teaching career instead.

“I love working with children, they make me look younger,” Chung told Asian Journal.

“Five years ago, we were known as a gangster’s school,” said Principal, Dr. C.P. Cheung, who nominated Chung. “The parents feared [sending] their kids to this school. Back in 2001, our API test score was 606, the lowest in our district. Today, we have climbed by 131 points to 737 points,” Dr. Cheung declared proudly.

At present, Temple holds a perfect attendance record, the highest score in English learning, the only school in the district with increased enrolment, and one of the few public schools in California that has a 3-hour Saturday academic school attended by more than 200 students and taught by 11 teachers.

“Ever since I was a kid growing up in Vietnam, it has been my dream to become a teacher.”

Just like most immigrants, Chung planned to bring his family to the United States. “I had the American dream to bring my family here, build a house for myself,” Chung said. “Part of my prize will go to completing a house that I am building, and give some to my mother who wishes to visit her uncles in China,” Chung revealed.

“Teachers have the most important job in America,” said Milken, who is himself a product of California’s public school system. “We entrust them with the enormous responsibility of preparing our young people with the skills, knowledge and experiences needed to be successful in a most challenging 21st century.”

Temple Intermediate teacher Chung’s involvement with his school and his exemplary instruction inside the classroom have been instrumental in helping the school go from the district’s lowest-achieving school five years ago to being the top. Temple also has been an enrolment draw in this district.

“It really does take the entire community to provide excellent educational delivery, and that’s exactly what you are doing. Education is really the great equalizer in our society today,” said O’Connell.


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