POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 27, 2010
When Yuuko Arikawa was announced as Hawaii's 2010 Milken Family Foundation National Educator in a surprise ceremony yesterday at Kaala Elementary School, she was certain of one thing: "They said the wrong name."
For a few seconds, as the Wahiawa school's cafeteria erupted in applause and shouts of encouragement, Arikawa sat stunned. Her eyes went wide.
Then the tears started.
Beatrice Okamoto, the school's math coach and the teacher for whom Arikawa thought the assembly had been called -- Arikawa was led to believe the school was honoring Okamoto -- had to urge the 33-year-old to get to her feet and walked/pushed her to the front of the cafeteria.
All the while, Arikawa was shaking her head in disbelief.
"I don't know if I can speak," she told the gathered students, teachers and Department of Education administrators, around tears. "I just love my job. Thank you."
Arikawa, a reading coach at Kaala, was praised widely yesterday for her dedication to students and her sizable role in helping the once-struggling school meet adequate yearly progress goals under the No Child Left Behind law.
As a Milken Award winner, she gets $25,000 to spend as she sees fit. And she joins the ranks of some of the nation's best teachers -- people who exemplify the profession and inspire their students, peers and communities.
Hawaii has been part of the Milken Educator Awards program since 1990. Over the last 20 years, 69 Hawaii educators have received awards totaling $1.7 million.
Kaala administrators and teachers said they couldn't be more sure that Arikawa deserved the prestigious award.
And judging by the reaction of Arikawa's students, the kids couldn't have agreed more, either.
Once given the OK by the school's principal, students rushed to the front of the cafeteria to give Arikawa hugs and lei they had made. They oohed and aahed at the number of zeros on the big presentation check Arikawa posed for photos with alongside DOE administrators.
Arikawa, who has four children, said she already has ideas on how to spend her award money: Some of it will go to help cover her 13-year-old daughter's class trip to Europe this summer. And a chunk will probably go to Arikawa's car, which has recently been acting up, she joked.
This is Arikawa's 11th year at Kaala.
Since Arikawa became the school's reading coach four years ago, reading scores at Kaala have jumped from 46 percent of students testing proficient in reading to 65 percent testing proficient.
Arikawa is also credited with bolstering parent involvement by spearheading fundraising initiatives and generally helping the campus and its students in any way she can.
"She is the epitome of what we want a teacher to be," said Kaala Principal Ted Fisher. "She is the standard."
Arikawa, who once considered being a hairdresser, said she went into education after seeing her brother struggle at school.
"When my brother went to school, he was one of those often overlooked," Arikawa said after the announcement, lei stacked to her chin. "I said, 'I'm going to fix that for other students.'"
Arikawa got her bachelor's and master's degrees in education from the University of Hawaii.
In addition to teaching, she has taken on a host of duties at Kaala and in the DOE -- from after-school tutoring to serving on the department's language arts content panel.
She is also active in the community -- as a precinct official during elections and a volunteer at her church.
Okamoto, the math coach, said Arikawa is always ready to lend a hand to anyone -- from students to fellow teachers -- and is long overdue for recognition.
"She is absolutely fantastic," Okamoto said. "She's always there to help someone."