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Milken and Mariachi

A word of caution to those of you about to read this article. Unless you are teachers, parents who want only the very best mentors for their children, or groupies who follow the top instructors around like they're rock stars, you probably have no idea of what a Milken is and what it can mean. In the interest of painlessly letting you in on a very well kept secret, let's let the Milken folks themselves tell their story.

"Film has the Oscar™, music has the Grammy™, science has the Nobel and sports has its gold medals, but what about the true unsung heroes on the frontlines of shaping our future? Where is the recognition for our nation’s educators? Enter Lowell Milken and the Milken Educator Awards. Founded in 1985 as an initiative of the Milken Family Foundation, the Milken Educator Awards program rewards and inspires excellence in the world of education by honoring top educators around the country with $25,000 unrestricted awards. Not an accolade for “lifetime achievement” or the proverbial gold watch at the exit door, the Milken Educator Awards targets early-to-mid career education professionals for their already impressive achievements and, more significantly, for the promise of what they will accomplish in the future.

To date, nearly 2,600 Awards have been given out, totaling over $64 million. The one-time award is just the beginning. Milken Educators are given access to powerful networking and development tools throughout their careers in education. When combined, more than $136 million has been devoted to the overall program.

Recipients are caught by surprise when their names are announced at emotional all-school assemblies in front of cheering students, proud colleagues, distinguished officials and the media. There’s a reason why Teacher magazine called it the “Oscars of Teaching”—new Milken Educators have even been asked for autographs by admiring students! And while the celebrity treatment is well-deserved, the Awards aren’t about the glitz and glamour. They’re about bringing attention to these classroom heroes; serving at once as validation, motivation and inspiration to current and future quality educators. The message: We recognize you. We value you. We thank you."

We're going to be talking about one Milken National Educator in particular: Keith Ballard, who after a very successful 1st career as a pharmaceutical rep, decided to follow his real muse and teach music. In 2003, he was awarded his Milken and, to this day, continues to spread his knowledge with his young, ethnically diverse, students in one of the largest school districts (Chula Vista) in California. Since many of his classes were made up of predominantly Mexican-Americans, he focused on teaching mariachi, which was awarded the coveted Patrimonio by UNESCO (the United Nations' Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in 2011 as Mexico's premier cultural contribution to the world of music.

Fast forward to 2014. Keith now runs one of the largest mariachi programs in the U.S; because of his work, his district has expanded the program to 13 schools, and now more than 800 students are involved in the program. many of whom never played an instrument previously. He has received more than 30 teaching awards in his career, including the aforementioned 2003 Milken National Educator Award as well as the Cesar Chavez Human Rights Award. Many of Keith's students have family members in Mexico who cannot travel to the U.S. because of documentation issues. Once a year, Keith takes his students to perform a large concert in Tijuana, Mexico, where they are able to see their families for the first time. Keith says that many of the family members "cry with tears of happiness" to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Ballard teaches more than scales and chords. His students learn about self-esteem, cultural sensitivity and the importance of academics. They must maintain good grades to remain part of the program. Over the years, his groups has traveled the country to perform on the Today Show and for Presidents Bill Clinton & George Bush. They have also been featured on national TV six times and over 30 times on local television. Their fearless leader has been published 4 times in professional education / music journals. Most importantly, his music programs reflect the school's rich ethnic diversity with Hispanic, African-American, Caucasian and Filipino students performing together. He has a degree in music education and is currently pursuing his master's degree in education administration.

Now that we have solidly established our Milken-winning teacher's bonafides, let's get to the crucible in which he recently found himself immersed. As unfortunately happens all too often these days, the controversy over where funds are to be spent finds the arts (definitely including music) the primary target of the hatchet wielding administrators at the top of the food chain.

Keith's take on the situation was succinct. "As some of you are aware, the principal (Lee Romero) at my school tried to cut the mariachi program last week. I decided to help the school district's administration team remember that the parents pay their salaries. I converged hundreds of students and their parents in support of the program at the school board's meeting last Wednesday. Representatives of the print and broadcast media…reporters and cameramen from KUSI-TV, ABC 10 TV, the San Diego Union Tribune, Enlace, and El Latino…were also invited and were in attendance. This was also the first board meeting attended by four new members who replaced members of the former board who were convicted of crimes and had to resign."

" Guess what? They are no longer cutting the program and are actually adding more music classes, Go figure! In fact, the mariachi program is getting new uniforms, more lockers for instrument storage, and more appropriate computerized technology for the classrooms. All the administrators now seem to 'love mariachi music' after the protest at the meeting. Or maybe they love their jobs?"

"I bet they will think twice the next time they want to cut the mariachi program. I would call this a win-win for music!"

The coda to the story was penned by Pablo Sainz, the award-winning columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune and La Prensa San Diego, in his inimitable, no-holds-barred fashion: "During the board meeting, the governing board accepted Superintendent Ed Brand's resignation, something that when announced caused many in the room to clap in excitement."

Got Milk-en? No problem!

Viva Keith Ballard, viva mariachi!!!


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