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Iberia Parish Principal Devon Willis-Jones Named One of Nation's Best with $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Jeanerette Elementary School leader creates environment for teachers and students to thrive


October 25, 2016

SANTA MONICA, CA — Devon Willis-Jones was busy organizing what she thought was a schoolwide assembly to celebrate Jeanerette Elementary School's jump in state ratings from an F to a B school. Halfway into the assembly she was taken completely by surprise when she learned that there was something extra in store — a $25,000 Milken Educator Award to honor her individual leadership.

Willis-Jones accepted the prestigious national recognition from Milken Family Foundation Chairman and Co-Founder Lowell Milken, who traveled from California to present the Award. He was joined by State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) Vice President Dr. Holly Boffy and Iberia Parish School District Superintendent Dale Henderson.

This season marks the 30th year of the Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching." Willis-Jones is among up to 35 educators who will receive the honor for the 2016-17 season.

"Devon Willis-Jones personifies the qualities of an exceptional leader," said Lowell Milken. "She has guided Jeanerette Elementary School to remarkable increases in student achievement growth by creating an environment for teachers and students to thrive. In the process, Devon has garnered the support of families and has served as a strong advocate for the school throughout the community. I congratulate her and am proud to call her a Milken Educator."

"The success Jeanerette Elementary has achieved in the last three years is a testament to Devon's commitment to not only growing her students, but also her faculty and staff," said Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White. "The support structure she has put in place to improve her school under the NIET model is one I hope we can replicate in order to support other struggling schools across our state."

Devon Willis-Jones is a data-driven principal who faces challenges with optimism and determination. When she took over at Jeanerette Elementary School, a high-poverty campus in Iberia Parish, the school had just earned an F rating. Only 40% of students scored at or above grade level on state assessments.

Undeterred, Willis-Jones created a plan rooted in her prior experiences as a classroom, mentor and master teacher. In these roles, she was an integral part of a school team that used models supported by the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) to provide teachers with leadership opportunities, job-embedded professional development and educator evaluation, observation and feedback. 

Focused on renewing Jeanerette Elementary's commitment to these principles to change the school's culture, she enlisted faculty and staff to share in her vision of "Success and Nothing Less," adopting research-based, proven processes focused on improving instruction and student achievement. Willis-Jones asked parents to trust her and keep their children at Jeanerette Elementary, moving her own daughter to the school to reinforce her commitment.

Working with the school's master teacher, she coached weekly professional development meetings, modeled and team-taught high-quality lessons, provided teachers with high-quality feedback, and tracked student data to identify growth. The school's leadership team met often to monitor instruction and student growth and started regular "learning walks" (classroom visitations), which included school, district and state personnel and generated immediate and ongoing feedback for both teachers and school leaders.

Willis-Jones' effort to create a thriving environment at Jeanerette Elementary succeeded: In her first year as principal the school earned a B rating and was labeled a "Top Gains" school by the State, erasing the stigma that had dogged Jeanerette for years. The percentage of students scoring at or above grade level rose to 65% for English Language Arts and 87% for math. Never complacent, Willis-Jones pushed the school to maintain its B rating the following year, despite new assessments.

The improvements are visible in the level of engagement in Jeanerette's classrooms. Students use "accountable talk" to discuss deep, cite-based guiding questions and explain their mathematical thinking. When fifth-graders read a story in which farm workers strike and boycott for better working conditions, they decided to organize their own boycott to "lobby" for more recess. Willis-Jones turned the student action into a win-win opportunity for learning and motivation: She let the students submit their concerns and told them that if academic performance improved on benchmark assessments, she would extend their recess period.

Willis-Jones began her career in special education. When she became the master teacher for Pre-K through second grade at Johnston-Hopkins Elementary School, also in Iberia Parish, Willis-Jones dove into early education with gusto, working hard to ensure she understood developmental abilities in the early grades. She worked collaboratively with the school's leadership team to analyze data, field test, and plan for professional development meetings. Through her teaching of the instructional rubric and conducting action research on literacy strategies, she helped reverse the school's negative trend on the DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills); the research she did at Johnston-Hopkins is still being used by teachers there to improve students' foundational reading skills. Colleagues say she presented her findings so authoritatively in meetings that one would never know early education wasn't her original area of expertise.

Teachers were excited to report the results they were seeing from the new strategies; at the end of the year, the first grade had achieved its highest growth in reading proficiency and met the 80% benchmark target for the first time in the school's history.

Willis is known as a "behind the scenes" educator who insists on instructional excellence and never hesitates to share best practices. She has modeled her feedback practices and the school's method for progress monitoring for district administrators. Teachers are attracted to her school to apply for open positions because they know Willis-Jones has made Jeanerette Elementary a supportive place to learn their craft. Willis-Jones also understands that making a difference in students' lives means contributing to the community. Whether it's a parade, church event or health fair, Willis-Jones ensures that Jeanerette Elementary is represented.

Willis-Jones received a Bachelor of Arts in education with a concentration in special education from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2004 and a Master of Education in administration and supervision from Jones International University in 2012.

More information about Willis-Jones, plus links to photos and a video from today's assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at http://www.milkeneducatorawards.org/educators/view/devon-willis-jones.

Willis-Jones is the second and final Louisiana Milken Educator awarded for the 2016-17 season. Catherine Randall, a third-grade teacher at Joseph J. Davies Elementary in St. Bernard Parish, received her Award yesterday. Learn more about Randall here: http://www.milkeneducatorawards.org/educators/view/catherine-randall.

Milken Educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. In addition to the $25,000 prize and public recognition, Willis-Jones' honor includes membership in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top principals, teachers and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.

More than $138 million in funding, including $68 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards program, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients' careers. Many have gone on to earn advanced degrees and be placed in prominent posts and on state and national education committees.

The Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators. Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards has no formal nomination or application process. Candidates 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.

Past recipients have used their Awards to fund their children's education or their own continuing education. Others have financed dream field trips, established scholarships and even funded the adoption of children.

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Milken Educator Awards tour is on social media at www.facebook.com/milkeneducatorawards, www.twitter.com/milken, www.youtube.com/milkenaward, and http://instagram.com/milkenfamilyfdn.

For more information about the Milken Educator Awards, visit www.MilkenEducatorAwards.org or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.

About the Milken Educator Awards
The Milken Educator Awards, created by the Milken Family Foundation, is in its 30th year. 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.

Jana Rausch
Director of Media and Public Affairs
310-570-4774 (Office)
310-435-9259 (Cell)