Ann Arbor Open teacher Chad Downs wins $25,000 national Milken Educator Award

Story, photos and video by Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

It was billed as a Wednesday morning all-school assembly for the Ann Arbor Open community to meet and greet Michigan’s Interim Superintendent Sheila Alles.

That’s what third/fourth grade teacher Chad Downs thought, anyhow.

In fact, it was better. So much better.

Downs learned that he has been named a 2018-19 Milken Educator—an honor that comes with an unrestricted $25,000 award to be used any way he wishes.

“I had no idea—I’m still in shock!” Downs told reporters after the announcement. “I’ve wanted to be a teacher since eighth grade. A lot of my family are teachers, so going to family get-togethers, there’s a lot of talking shop. I spend a lot of time thinking about school and really making a difference and impacting students.”

He said he has no idea what he’ll do with the $25,000.

The Milken Educator Awards recognize teaching excellence, targeting early-to-mid career education professionals for their impressive achievements and for the promise of what they will accomplish in the future.

This is the only Milken Educator Award to be given in Michigan this season, and the first AAPS teacher to ever receive the award.

Alles said Downs is exemplary in how Michigan educators are delivering instruction in alternative ways to meet the individual needs of their students.

“When we attend to the whole child from the classroom to the home and community, as Mr. Downs does on a daily basis, students will overcome their learning barriers and be successful, lifelong learners,” she said. “Their success will be Michigan’s success on our way to becoming a Top 10 education state in 10 years.”

Milken Education Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley presents Chad Downs with the award. Interim Michigan State Superintendent of Education Sheila Alles (in green) looks on.

Downs teaches a third- and fourth-grade classroom that focuses on project-based learning with individually tailored instruction. He encourages students to follow their passions as they direct their own studies and track their progress. He brings in guest speakers to talk about their careers and organizes field trips to nearby cities and museums.

In his multi-age classroom, students aspire to join the Super Hero Club for those advanced in English and language arts who earn the coveted position of mentor, helping classmates with spelling and vocabulary.

His fellow teachers say Downs brings out the best in his students, who take ownership of their progress.  He plays games with his pupils, asks them to write weekly letters home that summarize their achievement and keep parents informed. The walls of his classroom feature work from former students to inspire his current class.

Principal Karen Siegel noted that Downs was instrumental in getting Ann Arbor Open school involved with the SEMIS coalition which facilitates school-community partnerships to develop students as citizen-stewards of healthy ecological-social systems

As Ann Arbor Open’s lead teacher, he supervised student activity, maintained safety, led staff meetings, sat on the school improvement team, implemented the Crisis Task Force and Diabetic Crisis Team, and organized school-wide celebrations such as Field Day.

This is Downs’ 15th year teaching in the district.  He is Ann Arbor Middle School District co-curricular director responsible for athletic and academic clubs.  He has organized the popular Open School Conference, a weekend-long meeting for staff, retirees, former parents, and students.

Downs and his wife, Marisa Downs, a teacher at New Morning School in Plymouth, have two children, Mariana and Cameron. He earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 2003 from Eastern Michigan University and a master’s in educational leadership in 2008 from Concordia University.

In addition to his classroom expertise, Downs is the district’s co-curricular director of athletic and academic clubs, leads staff meetings and organizes school events, including the Open School Conference, which brings together staff, retirees, parents and former students for brainstorming and input from the broader community.

He also teaches a course on manners and civility during the school’s twice-yearly Focus Study period and encourages students to join him in community service projects.

Trustee Jessica Kelly congratulates Chad Downs.

“Chad Downs demonstrates a commitment to student, growth, parental involvement and community outreach which all contribute to making him an outstanding teacher,” said Foley. “Teaching students to teach themselves, while helping others learn, is a gift to students that will last a lifetime.”

Created by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987, the honor will be presented this 2018-19 season at up to 40 schools across the nation.  To date, more than 2,700 Awards have been given out, totaling $68 million.

According to the Milken Educator Awards website, the criteria for the selection of outstanding elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and other education professionals as Milken Educators include all of the following:

  • Exceptional educational talent as evidenced by effective instructional practices and student learning results in the classroom and school;
  • Exemplary educational accomplishments beyond the classroom that provide models of excellence for the profession;
  • Individuals whose contributions to education are largely unheralded yet worthy of the spotlight;
  • Early- to mid-career educators who offer strong long-range potential for professional and policy leadership; and
  • Engaging and inspiring presence that motivates and impacts students, colleagues and the community.
  • Candidates for the Milken Educator Award are sourced through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the Award, with final approval by the Milken Family Foundation.

Click here for a list of Michigan’s past 87 recipients since the state joined the awards program began in 1990.

Downs is the first recipient Milken Educator Award from Ann Arbor Public Schools.

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