MEA member Chad Downs almost left the field of education before he started.
During his pre-student teaching at Eastern Michigan University, Downs said he couldn’t find a school or program that fit with his beliefs about education and creativity. Then an EMU advisor intervened and introduced him to Ann Arbor Open School, and the rest is history.
“I fell in love with this place,” he said of the K-8 magnet school where he’s taught in a 3-4 multi-age classroom for 15 years.
Now Downs has been selected as one of 40 national winners of the 2018-19 Milken Educator Award, considered “the Oscars of teaching,” bestowed on early- to mid-career educators for their accomplishments and promise.
Asked about why he won, Downs speaks as much about Ann Arbor Open School (AAOS)—its progressive student-driven, child-centered philosophy—as he does about himself.
Admitted by lottery, students at the school are encouraged to embrace their interests and follow their curiosity. Social-emotional learning is woven into the culture, and learning is individualized. Students have freedom to pursue projects and research that interest them.
Student strengths are valued, he said. When his third or fourth graders reach mastery of sixth-grade vocabulary words, they join “Goof Troop”—a purposely silly name for peer helpers who work with others on spelling while completing advanced research projects of their own.
Other students become go-to experts in other subjects or skills. “When students feel like they’re playing an important role in the classroom or within the school, they feel strong—and it grows.”
Downs has played several leadership roles at the school, including co-curricular director and athletic director. He works on a committee that plans an annual professional development conference, an overnight event held offsite every March for the past 37 years.
The conference by educators for educators offers presentations by experts on topics of interest and provides opportunity for conversation about struggles and successes. Last year’s topic—youth suicide—led to the AAOS counselor position being bumped up to full-time from part-time.
In addition, from that conference the school is launching a new student program in partnership with the University of Michigan Depression Center—Peer to Peer Leaders—which will train a group of students to recognize students in need of extra help for anxiety or depression.
Downs and counselor Kelly Maveal are co-facilitators of the program which now is training seven peer leaders. “I’ve waited my whole career to get a program like this, so we can really teach those soft skills.”
The Milken Educator Award comes with a $25,000 unrestricted cash prize and the opportunity to connect with a network of other education leaders. The Milken Family Foundation encourages winners to exercise their voices in the public arena.
In addition, Downs said he looks forward to meeting his assigned Milken mentor—a previous winner who will help him learn how to use his new platform, most likely to advocate for the open school concept he loves so much and believes in so deeply.
“I can’t wait to see what other people are doing out there to make an impact for children and what else I can do to help.”