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Port Allen's Dereka Duncan Receives a $25,000 Milken Educator Award for Empowering Students in STEM

Cohn Elementary fifth grade teacher helps lead students — and teachers — to new heights

January 24, 2023

Santa Monica, Calif., — At Cohn (pronounced "CAH-n") Elementary School in Port Allen, Louisiana, fifth graders are already dreaming of careers in engineering, science and technology. Their confidence is in large part thanks to science teacher Dereka Duncan, whose engaging lessons have challenged them to rise above expectations. A former Cohn student herself, Duncan's dedication to supporting a new generation is both professional and personal: She teaches in the same classroom where she was once a fourth grader. And today, in the familiar school gym where she witnessed top school milestones, she experienced her own: national recognition as a 2022 Milken Educator Award recipient. Bestowed upon by the Milken Family Foundation, the Award includes an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize and lifetime membership to a national network of educator excellence.

Milken Educator Awards Founder Lowell Milken and Louisiana Superintendent of Education Dr. Cade Brumley surprised Duncan before cheering students, colleagues, state and local officials, and media. Duncan will join a national network of more than 2,900 Milken Educator Award recipients and other leaders from across the country dedicated to strengthening K-12 education. 

"The Milken Educator Awards were created under the strong belief that the future belongs to the educated. Dereka Duncan lives this principle every day, ensuring that her fifth graders have the skills, knowledge and experiences to lead bright futures," said Lowell Milken. "I commend Dereka's commitment to establishing meaningful connections with students and fellow teachers that have contributed to a nurturing educational environment for all." 

Hailed as the "Oscars of Teaching," Milken Educator Awards inspire and uplift with the unique stories of educators making a profound difference for students, colleagues and communities. The specific states and schools on this season's winners' list remain a closely guarded secret until each Award is announced. Recipients are heralded while early to mid-career for what they have achieved — and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities inherent in the Award.

Since 1987, more than $140 million in funding, including more than $73 million in individual Awards, has been devoted to the overall Milken Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients' careers.  

"Students do more than learn science in Dereka Duncan's class, they participate in experiences that allow them to see themselves as scientists, engineers, and researchers," said Dr. Brumley. "She is the type of transformational educator who will help move our state forward." 

Duncan is the second recipient from Louisiana's 2022 Milken Educator Award class. First grade teacher Elise Frederic from Prairieville's Lakeside Primary School was awarded this morning. Duncan and Frederic are among up to 40 elementary educators nationwide to be recognized this school year. 

More About Dereka Duncan 

Fostering Well-Rounded, Young Scientists: Science teacher Dereka Duncan uses every opportunity to expose students to new ideas. The fifth grade science teacher at Cohn Elementary School in Louisiana's West Baton Rouge Parish leads hands-on investigations of coastal erosion, where students research invasive plant species, explore local ecosystems and experiment with variables that affect plant growth. Students wear white lab coats and safety goggles as they record their scientific data on clipboards or digital notebooks and use content-specific vocabulary to explain their thinking, debate which method will yield the best results and predict outcomes. Duncan has taught many subjects and weaves math and ELA into her science curriculum with ease. 

Building Student Confidence: Cohn serves a high-need community, in which a quarter of students have identified disabilities. To address their needs, Duncan sets the bar high and delivers high-quality curriculum, supporting all students in reaching and rising above her expectations. Students who enter her class lacking confidence leave wanting to be engineers, researchers and scientists – STEM careers they had not believed to be within reach. Due in part to Duncan's work revamping the fifth grade reading curriculum to align with Louisiana ELA standards, Cohn has reached an all-time high progress index of 90%, resulting in an A on the growth index score for the first time. 

Leadership at Cohn and Beyond: Duncan mentors new Cohn teachers, as well as pre-service and student teachers from Louisiana State University. She was selected to participate in West Baton Rouge Parish's LEAD West, a district "grow your own" program to help educators develop leadership and administrative skills. Duncan chairs Cohn's Parental Involvement Committee, serves on the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) team, and created the PAWS (Positive, Affirming, Well-Balanced and Successful) Club to help parents become active partners in their children's education. At the Math and Science Night she coordinates, students lead parents from station to station as they explain the concepts underlying each activity, while Glow Day features lessons delivered in dark classrooms as students work to the light of glow sticks. 

Community Connections: Duncan creates a family atmosphere in her classroom and the community. She has helped organize Cohn's "Grits and Grandparents" breakfast and served on the Black History Month committee. She serves as a positive role model and can often be found deep in conversation or recording a TikTok dance with groups of students during lunch. Duncan sponsored Cohn's first Junior Beta Club, singing holiday songs with students at a local nursing home and introducing them to other community service opportunities. 

Education: Duncan earned a bachelor's in elementary education in 2012 and a master's in educational leadership in 2015 from Southern University and A&M College.

More About the Milken Educator Awards: "The future belongs to the educated."

Along with the financial prize, recipients join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,900 top teachers, principals and specialists. The network serves as a rich resource for fellow educators, legislators, school boards and others dedicated to excellence in education. 

  • The honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles this April, where they will network with their new colleagues as well as veteran Milken Educators and other education leaders about how to increase their impact on K-12 education. 
  • In addition, they will learn about how to become involved in the Milken Friends Forever (MFF) mentoring program, in which new Milken Educators receive personalized coaching and support from a Milken Educator veteran on ways to elevate their instructional practice and take an active role in educational leadership, policy and practice. 
  • Veteran Milken Educators demonstrate a wide range of leadership roles at state, national and international levels. 
  • "We find you. You don't find us!" Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards initiative has no formal nomination or application process. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels in each state. The most exceptional candidates are recommended for the Award, with final selection made by the Milken Family Foundation. 
  • The $25,000 cash Award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways. For instance, some have spent the funds on their children's or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even adopting children.   

To receive regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events or to watch the Award events unfold, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook (@MilkenEducatorAwards), Twitter (@Milken), YouTube (/MilkenAward), Instagram (MilkenFamilyFdn), and TikTok (@MilkenAward). 

For more information, visit or call the Milken Family Foundation at (310) 570-4772. 

About the Milken Educator Awards
The first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987. Created by Lowell Milken, 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. The Milken Family Foundation celebrates more than 40 years of elevating education in America and around the world. Learn more at