High school principal Maggie Carrillo Mejia arrived at work early Tuesday for a routine meeting but got a surprise instead when Michael Milken--ex-junk bond king and ex-convict--walked into her office and handed her a $25,000 check.
Carrillo Mejia, principal of Savanna High School, is the first California educator to receive this year's Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award. Six more state educators will receive awards within the next week.
She was recognized for her efforts to increase understanding of cultural diversity among students and her acceptance of physically and mentally disabled students in the classroom.
"She's a risk-taker and shows initiative," said Anaheim Union High School District Supt. Cynthia F. Grennan.
Milken award winners are selected by the state Department of Education in conjunction with a committee of education and business leaders. The award is funded by the Milken Family Foundation, formed in 1982 by Michael Milken and his brother Lowell.
Michael Milken is currently serving three years of court-ordered community service. He was released from prison in January after serving 22 months for violating securities laws during his career as head of Drexel Burnham Lambert's junk-bond division.
Award recipients can spend their prize money as they wish and candidates are unaware they are being considered for the award.
"I'm so honored," Carrillo Mejia said as she received her prize and dabbed tears from her eyes.
"The recognition is good for public schools," she said.
The award is intended to elevate the education profession and encourage bright kids to become teachers.
"I admire her," said 15-year-old sophomore Laury Booi, pointing to a wall in Carrillo Mejia's office covered with plaques and awards.
Carrillo Mejia has been an educator for 19 years and a principal with the Anaheim district for nine years. One of the areas where she has won acclaim is "mainstreaming" special education students with the rest of the student body.
Savanna High School has the largest special education program in the district, with approximately 120 special-education students, 15 of whom use wheelchairs, she said. Some students have multiple handicaps ranging from emotional problems to cerebral palsy, spina bifida and muscular dystrophy.
Milken agreed with her philosophy, saying that "all kids are better off if they go to school together."
Carrillo Mejia also has worked to make students appreciate the 41 different cultures represented in the student body. She has created a school calendar that reflects the holidays and culture of Vietnam, Mexico, the Philippines and other countries.
Although she is not certain how she will spend the money, the effervescent principal said she will probably invest the money and use the interest for "something that will continue to promote education"--perhaps a scholarship.
"I believe education can make a difference. I live for that," she said.