Miki Cacace (pronounced kuh-kay-see), a math teacher at ‘Ewa Makai Middle School known for her coding classes, has become the latest recipient of the coveted Milken Educator Award. Regarded as the "Oscar Award of Teaching," the award honors outstanding excellence in education and comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. Cacace is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Hawai‘i this year and is among just 40 nationwide honorees for 2019-20.
Cacace’s achievements were celebrated today in a surprise ceremony before students, faculty and community leaders at ‘Ewa Makai Middle. Joining Superintendent Dr. Christina Kishimoto in presenting the award were Gov. David Ige, First Lady Dawn Amano-Ige, and 30 past Milken award recipients.
In her yearlong coding class, Cacace's students learn the basics of coding while building games and apps that are test-driven and rated by their peers. Leading a new generation of digital code warriors by keeping the fun in computer fundamentals, Cacace gives students hands-on experience in technology and a window into digital career opportunities of the future.
“Miki’s innovative coding classes have empowered her students to dream big in their pursuit of 21st century STEM careers,” Superintendent Kishimoto said. “The Department thanks Miki for her passion and dedication to nurturing Hawai‘i’s next generation of computer scientists.”
“All of us are so proud of Miki for earning this well-deserved award,” ‘Ewa Makai Middle School Principal Kim Sanders said. “And I know she wants to share this with everyone, as we’re all about teamwork and collaboration here at ‘Ewa Makai.”
Formerly a graphic designer at an advertising agency, Cacace knew before long that she wanted to be in a profession that would allow her to have a direct and positive impact on her community.
“I became a teacher because I wanted to make a difference,” Cacace said. “In middle school, we get to make that difference because our students are learning who they are and what they are about — we’re able to instill a growth mindset.”
In Miki’s coding class, students learn by doing rather than watching. They create games and apps, wire their own micro:bits (pocket-sized computers) and troubleshoot device issues, building foundational skills they will need for 21st century careers. Cacace volunteered to expand her math curriculum with the coding class. Students had already chosen their electives, but Cacace promoted the new class during lunchtime, selling it as a fun and exciting alternative. Students signed up in droves, knowing that whatever Cacace was teaching, they were in good hands. Many of Cacace’s students start the year unsure of how their studies connect to their future lives and careers; Cacace bridges that gap.
Cacace’s students invite friends to try out their apps, offer constructive suggestions, and vote for their favorites. Cacace showcases the group’s work at Coding Night, where parents and siblings check out students’ creations.
With her upbeat attitude and focus on creating positive relationships, Cacace also helps students who struggle to persevere, while pushing those who generally succeed to go above and beyond their capabilities. A member of the school’s social-emotional learning (SEL) leadership team, she started a weekly habit of eating lunch with students who were sitting alone and encouraged her colleagues to follow her lead. To better understand the way students experience their school, Cacace shadowed a student for an entire day and challenged SEL committee members to do the same. She developed an SEL website with lessons on empathy and creating a caring culture for her peers to use during their advisory classes. Cacace is unafraid to share her personal challenges if she thinks it will help students believe they can overcome their own hurdles.
Cacace earned her bachelor’s degree in 2007 from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a master’s in elementary education in 2010 from the University of Phoenix.
The Milken Educator Awards program, which was launched by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987, has been described as "the Oscars of Teaching" by Teacher magazine. Cacace is the 78th Hawai‘i teacher to receive the award since Hawai‘i joined the program in 1990. The 78 Hawai‘i recipients have received awards along with a total of $1.9 million in prize monies.