DeMille Middle School teacher James Orihuela received a $25,000 surprise award recently from the Milken Family Foundation during a school assembly. The announcement drew wild cheers from hundreds of students.
Dubbed the "Oscars of Teaching" by Teacher Magazine, the Milken National Educator Awards recognize America’s best teachers and principals.
"The first thing I did when I got up out of my chair was to make sure my legs would hold me up," Orihuela told the audience. "There are so many teachers I’ve learned from here at DeMille, so I’m trying to figure out, why me? I sure enjoy what I do, and I’m lucky to have the kids I work with."
The Spanish and language arts teacher earned the national honor as a highly talented, inspirational educator whose classroom practices are among the best in the U.S. He may spend the cash prize as he pleases.
Orihuela’s colleagues describe him as the heart and soul of the school’s Dual Immersion instruction. He facilitates Spanish language instruction of math, history and science for five sections of sixth, seventh and eighth graders at DeMille, while teaching five sections of Spanish Language Arts at all grade levels. He has taught at the school for ten years.
"He’s a great teacher," said eighth grader Sheridan Riley. "He makes learning fun. Everyone’s vocabulary in Spanish and English has improved so much because of the way he teaches and reaches out to every student based on their individual needs."
Milken Family Foundation Chairman Lowell Milken announced the prize at DeMille.
"I believe that teachers have the most important job in our country," Milken said. "Every successful person will tell you there’s a special teacher or two who helped them get to where they are."
Milken described Orihuela as "a teacher who characterizes intelligence, compassion and an unwavering belief that every child can learn."
Orihuela teaches literature from Latin America and Spain. His students write and perform plays about the stories they read. All of his students passed the Golden State Spanish Language exam for the three years it was administered, and 96 percent passed with high honors last year. His students were the only middle school students in the district to take this exam.
The DeMille teacher also serves as Dual Immersion Department Head and is visited by educators from throughout the state who want to learn more about his students’ success.
Also attending the award presentation were State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and actor/writer/producer Robert Townsend.
"Anything is possible if you work hard," Townsend told the students. "Believe in yourself, and everything is possible."
Orihuela is the third district employee to win the Milken National Educator Award in the Long Beach Unified School District. Millikan High School teacher Nader Twal won the prize in 2003. Former City of Lakewood Mayor Wayne Piercy, now retired, won the award in 1990 when he was principal at Poly High School.
The Milken National Educator Awards were created in 1985 to celebrate the highest caliber teachers in American schools. This fall, up to 100 unsuspecting educators throughout the nation are receiving the $25,000 prizes. The awards have become the largest national teacher recognition effort in the U.S., awarding more than $54 million since the program started. Prize winners join a network of 2,100 of the nation’s best teachers, sharing expertise and expanding innovative programs in classrooms.
The criteria for selection include the following:
• Exceptional educational talent as evidenced by outstanding instructional practices in the classroom, school and profession;
• Outstanding accomplishment and strong long-range potential for professional and policy leadership; and
• Engaging and inspiring presence that motivates and impacts students, colleagues and the community.
For more information about the Milken Educator Awards, visit www.mff.org.