Paul Wellman

With Assemblymember Pedro Nava, California Superintendent of Public Schools Jack O’Connell and the Santa Barbara School Board looking on, Marilyn Garza, an eighth-grade science teacher at Santa Barbara Junior High School, was surprised at a special, schoolwide assembly with a $25,000 national educator award for her work Thursday.

The award, one of only 80 passed out to teachers around the country, comes from the Milken Family Foundation, a Santa Monica-based charitable trust, and was presented to her Thursday by Lowell Milken.

Garza’s resume is impressive. She is currently the sciences department chair, her students’ exit test scores are the highest in the school and among the highest in the district, she created a staff directory for the school website to keep parents in contact with teachers, and started a student-run video club.

Paul Wellman

The teacher, who’s been at the Santa Barbara Junior High School for 12 years, and has never taught anywhere else, said she never plans to. “This is probably my first and only school I’ll ever teach at,” she said, which principal John Becchio jokingly requested to get Garza’s statement in writing. The essence of teaching is inspiring and connecting with students, Becchio told Garza. “You’ve held that science down,” he said, pun intended. “I’m so proud of you and so thankful.”

After hearing an inspirational speech from football legend Rosey Grier, who serves on the Milken Family Foundation board of trustees, as well addresses frp, District Superintendent Brian Sarvis and O’Connell, Milken took the microphone. Building suspense amongst the students, Milken told the students he had been warned not to tell anyone about the award until Thursday morning, and was excited to share with them the great news he’s been trying hard to keep in. With that, he explained how a teacher at the school was going to win the award, and how a financial prize was part of the award. As he was saying this, the red stage curtains opened behind him to show the dollar amount-$2,500. As students began to gasp, a man bearing a final zero came walking out from the side of the stage and joined the other numbers, making the total $25,000 and forcing the students to really let out a gasp. With a drumroll, Garza’s name was announced.

“You’ve inspired me to keep going everyday,” she told the crowded auditorium of students and faculty gathered. Garza, five minutes after hearing of her prize, said she didn’t know what she was going to do with the money. “I live in Santa Barbara, so that will be part of it right there,” she said, referring to the high cost of living here.

Garza is the first Santa Barbara teacher to win the award since 1994. Candidates are chosen based on strong long-range potential for leadership, exceptional educational talent and exemplary education accomplishments, as well as how they engage and inspire students and colleagues. “I believe teachers and principals have the most important job in the world today,” Milken said.


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