A Concordia University Ann Arbor alumnus is the sole Michigan recipient of the prestigious Milken Educator Award, an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize awarded annually for the past 30 years to deserving educators throughout the nation.


A stunned Chad Downs waves to his students and colleagues after he was announced as a 2018-19 Milken Educator Award winner. / Photo courtesy of Milken Educator Awards

Chad Downs, who received his master’s degree in educational leadership from Concordia in 2008, was made aware of the honor Wednesday morning, Dec. 12, during a surprise assembly at his school, Ann Arbor Open School, where he serves as lead teacher. Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley and Interim Michigan State Superintendent of Education Sheila Alles attended the assembly to present the honor.

“Chad Downs demonstrates a commitment to student growth, parental involvement and community outreach which all contribute to making him an outstanding teacher,” Foley said in a news release. “Teaching students to teach themselves, while helping others learn, is a gift to students that will last a lifetime.”

The Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the “Oscars of Teaching,” aims to reward great teachers and to celebrate, elevate, and activate those innovators in the classroom who are guiding America’s next generation of leaders. Up to 40 other educators will receive the award for 2018-19.

In addition to his classroom expertise, Downs is the Ann Arbor School District’s co-curricular director of athletic and academic clubs, leads staff meetings and organizes school events including the popular Open School Conference, which brings together staff, retirees, parents, and former students for brainstorming and input from the broader community. Downs also teaches a course on manners and civility during the school’s biannual Focus study period and encourages students to join him in community service projects.

In Downs’ third- and fourth-grade multi-age classroom at Ann Arbor Open School, students aspire to join the Super Hero Club where students who are advanced in English Language Arts serve as mentors to their peers. Ann Arbor Open School, a public K-8 magnet school, focuses on self-directed exploration and project-based learning, helping students achieve academic and social-emotional goals that exceed grade-level expectations. Students are encouraged to make choices about the direction of their learning, engaging in self-evaluation and taking ownership of their progress.

Chad Downs calls his wife after receiving news he is a 2018-19 Milken Educator Award recipient. / Photo courtesy of Milken Educator Awards

With relationship-building at the core of the Open School philosophy, Downs plays games with his pupils, engages them in conversation, and talks with them about their outside interests. He asks them to write weekly letters home that summarize their accomplishments and keep parents included in the classroom’s educational process. The walls of Downs’ classroom feature work from former students as inspiration for the current class. To bring the classroom to life, he invites guest speakers to talk about their careers and organizes field trips to nearby cities and museums.

Downs has been a social studies and math curriculum instructor, developed curriculum, and led professional development. As the building’s Lead Teacher, he supervised student activity, maintained safety, led staff meetings, sat on the school improvement team, implemented the Crisis Task Force and Diabetic Crisis Team, and organized school-wide celebrations like Field Day. Downs is the Ann Arbor Middle School District’s co-curricular director, responsible for athletic and academic clubs. He has organized the popular Open School Conference, a weekend-long meeting for staff, retirees, former parents and students. Downs is a renowned problem-solver; when a question arises, someone inevitably responds, “Ask Chad.”

Downs’ students are thriving on all fronts, with nearly all hitting their learning benchmarks last year.

“We congratulate Mr. Downs for this very deserving recognition,” Alles said in a news release. “He is exemplary in how Michigan educators are delivering instruction in alternative ways to meet the individual needs of their students. When we attend to the whole child from the classroom to the home and community, as Mr. Downs does on a daily basis, students will overcome their learning barriers and be successful, lifelong learners. Their success will be Michigan’s success on our way to become a Top 10 education state in 10 years.”

Learn more about the Milken Educator Awards at www.MilkenEducatorAwards.org.

— Kali Thiel is director of university communications for Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor. She may be reached at kali.thiel@cuw.edu or 262-243-2149.

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