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Raise your voices for Memphis Teacher Erica Stephens, winner of $25,000 Milken Educator Award

John P. Freeman Optional School fourth-grade teacher makes positive impact on community and profession

October 25, 2018

SANTA MONICA, Calif., — Erica Stephens lives by the belief that teachers should be equally respected as doctors, lawyers and engineers. Today she saw her dream in action when Milken Family Foundation Chairman and Co-Founder Lowell Milken recognized her with a national Milken Educator Award, which comes with an esteemed $25,000 financial prize.

The Award took Stephens completely by surprise. Along with the whole school, she was told that Tennessee Education Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen would be visiting to commend John P. Freeman Optional's state Reward School status. All this was well and true—except for the announcement of another reward for Stephens' personal achievements.

"Erica Stephens couldn't be more right: Excellent teachers have the most important jobs in our country today. Most doctors, lawyers, engineers and other leaders can point to a teacher who was instrumental to their success," said Lowell Milken, who has been honoring outstanding educators with public fanfare for more than three decades. "Erica is an exemplary leader in the classroom and in the profession, who keeps a keen eye on data and instills the love of learning in all who know her. These qualities put her students on firm footing for the future and elevate the inspirational work teachers do every day."

Stephens is among up to 40 honorees nationwide and the second and final Tennessee recipient to be acknowledged with the prestigious recognition for the 2018-19 season.  

"Our most valuable educators are those who help our students deeply understand content and then share their best practices to help other educators grow, as well," said McQueen. "Erica Stephens is one of these teachers and I am proud to celebrate her knowing that our students, schools, and state are better because of educators like her."

Research shows teacher quality is the number one in-school factor determining how well a student performs. The Milken Educator Awards, named by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching," not only aims to reward great teachers, but also to celebrate, elevate and activate those innovators in the classroom who are guiding America's next generation of leaders. Milken Educators believe, "The future belongs to the educated."

About Milken Educator Erica Stephens 
Erica Stephens, a fourth-grade math teacher at John P. Freeman Optional School (JPF) in Memphis, Tennessee, believes all children deserve a high-quality education, regardless of their zip code. In her classroom, students internalize the standards and understand what is expected of them every day. Stephens, who has also taught kindergarten and second grade, uses innovative approaches that encourage students to explore real-world solutions to real-world problems. Stephens sits on the school's leadership and data teams and uses her deep understanding of data analysis to understand every student's needs and shape her instruction accordingly, tutoring those who need extra help after school. She wants every student to have the opportunity to succeed and become a productive citizen. Stephens delivers positive, lasting results for students, focusing on the foundational skills they will need to succeed in high school and college math classes. Last year, her math classes exceeded projected growth scores on the Shelby County Schools' formative assessment, with 86% of her students testing at the proficient level or higher.

Stephens is equally committed to helping her fellow educators succeed in the classroom. She delivers professional development in her building, for the district and on a national level, including leading discussions on Eureka Math, a curriculum she pioneered in the district. As fourth-grade team leader, Stephens has participated on the principal's advisory team. She helped coordinate and implement District Learning Day, a districtwide initiative for math curriculum and assessment for Shelby County's math teachers. Stephens writes curriculum for the district and mentors both novice and veteran teachers to help them improve pedagogy skills. JPF has captured many of her lessons on video for a library of best practices to share with other teachers.

A passionate advocate for educators, Stephens believes they should be held in the same esteem as doctors, lawyers and engineers. She has pushed local, state and national policymakers for continued investments in education as a Tennessee SCORE (State Collaborative on Reforming Education) Fellow and America Achieves Fellow. Stephens served on JPF's National Blue Ribbon Committee in 2016-17, when the school earned national recognition. A leader in the JPF community, she is active in parent organizations, helped organize Math Family Night, and has worked with the STEM Club, Drama Club and Courtesy Committee. Former students have gone on to careers in STEM fields and education, crediting Stephens with teaching them to love learning and persevere throughout their schooling.

Stephens earned a bachelor's of science in 2002 from Middle Tennessee State University.

More information about Stephens, plus links to photos and video from today's assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at

Stephens was the second Milken Educator who received the honor today. Shelly Gaughan, a kindergarten teacher at East End Prep in Metro Nashville was awarded this morning. More information about her work and Milken Educator Award celebration can be found here:

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

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2018-19 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in New Orleans, Louisiana, March 21-24, 2019. Educators will have the opportunity to network with their new colleagues and hear from state and federal officials about maximizing their leadership roles to advance educator effectiveness.

More than $138 million in funding, including $68 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional learning 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 Award is completely unique: Educators cannot apply for this recognition and do not even know they are under consideration. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then are 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,, and

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

About the Milken Educator Awards
The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation over 30 years ago in 1987. 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
Communications Director
310-570-4774 Office 310-435-9259 Cell