West L.A. teacher’s class act earns a Milken award


Jackie Bonilla knew there would be a special presentation at Clover Avenue Elementary in West Los Angeles on Friday morning.

She didn’t know it would be for her.

The second-grade teacher was surprised by the announcement of the Milken Educator Award, an honor given to 40 teachers nationwide this year. Each recipient gets a $25,000 prize, no strings attached.

The honor is given by the Milken Family Foundation, which created the award in 1987 to motivate gifted teachers in a field in which financial gifts are rare.


Bonilla, who was awarded the prize by foundation Chairman Lowell Milken at an assembly also attended by L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy and State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, is a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo graduate. She was the only California teacher so recognized this year.

Bonilla thought the event she would be attending was organized to recognize her school’s new status as a National Blue Ribbon School. Then Milken took the microphone and asked the assembled students, “Have you seen a teacher get an A?” He then asked her to rise.

Bonilla, visibly moved, paused to compose herself before thanking her principal and colleagues and accepting the award.

“I am extremely honored and humbled,” she said. “Teaching is truly is my passion; I don’t look at it as a job.”

With the help of each state’s board of education, the awards are made based on a confidential process that takes into account teachers’ methods, leadership outside the classroom and their students’ test scores.

Bonilla, who switched to second grade this year, is rated among the “most effective” of district teachers in math and English, according to The Times’ value-added analysis. During the 2011-12 school year, 87% of her third-grade students scored proficient or above in English language arts on the California Standards Test.

She now joins “a great network of teachers” who have won the award, said Shannon Garrison, a fourth-grade teacher at Solano Elementary who received the award in 2008.

The Milken Foundation nominated Garrison for her position on the National Assessment Governing Board — the committee that sets policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, test — and she carried the Olympic torch in Edinburgh, Scotland, before the 2012 Summer Olympics.

“That award changed my life. It created an immediate support system of people that think you’re going to do great things,” Garrison said.

Back in Bonilla’s colorful classroom, each of her students recited Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I have a Dream” speech.

“She makes math fun,” said one student. “And she’s the only teacher to laugh at all our jokes.”