WAHIAWA, Hawaii (KHON2) — National recognition for a local educator was what an assistant principal at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School received on Tuesday, Jan. 31 in front of more than 600 students.

She was not expecting it when she woke up, however.

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The Milken Educator Award recognizes dedication to excellence in education. It can go to teachers, specialists or principals — but they do not know about it beforehand.

“You can’t apply, you can’t be nominated,” said Dr. Jane Foley, Milken Family Foundation senior vice president.

“It intentionally goes to people who haven’t applied because these educators haven’t sought accolades or recognition. We know the good work they’re doing. We want to come here and say, ‘Thank you, we want you to stay in education and do this valuable work for decades to come.'”

Dr. Jane Foley, Milken Family Foundation senior vice president

Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School’s assistant principal Esther Kwon received the prestigious award, which comes with $25,000 to spend however she likes.

She said the first thing she will buy is a couple of basketballs for a fifth grade tournament.

“But, then, I think my husband and I are planning to go to Europe this summer as soon as school’s out for a quick vacation; so perhaps that will go toward a nice vacation after my first year here of being a vice principal,” Kwon said.

Kwon first arrived to Oahu from Virginia about 10 years ago through Teach for America — a non-profit that recruits members to teach for two years in low-income communities. She said her coworkers and keiki are what made her stay.

“And, I never left because I had just loved all the people here. I’m constantly learning and growing and that’s why I’m choosing to stay here,” Kwon said.

The Milken Family Foundation said there are three goals of the award. The first goal is to recognize the educator and incentivize them to stay in their profession. The second goal is to bring public recognition to the important impact that educators have.

“And, the third goal is to influence young people,” Dr. Foley said. “That’s why 600 students were in the gym today. because we want to tell them how much we value educators. We want them to go home tonight and say, ‘I want to be an educator!’ Some of ’em will say, ‘I’m going to be an educator, just like Mrs. Kwon.'”

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Kwon joined an alumni network of more than 2,900 Milken Educators across the country and became the 80th Hawaii Milken Educator. A total of 40 awards were given out for the 2022-2023 school year — Kwon was the sole representative from Hawaii.