SPRINGDALE -- Hellstern Middle School students erupted in cheers when math teacher and robotics team coach Michael Tapee won a Milken Educator Award in a surprise announcement at a school assembly Tuesday. The national award comes with a $25,000 prize.
"Any teacher in this building could have won this," Tapee said after receiving the award. He thanked his fellow teachers and the school's administration for mentoring him. He also thanked his students "past, present and future" and his own teachers while growing up.
Originally from the Dallas area, Tapee went to college at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
"I fell in love with the area," he said, and decided to stay in Northwest Arkansas. He has taught at Hellstern in the Springdale district his whole career to date, eight years. He teaches sixth- and seventh-grade math there.
"No one person does this alone," Tapee said.
First thing he'll do with any of the money is probably "buy some doughnuts for my students," he said. The award comes with no restrictions on how he spends it.
Lowell Milken, the philanthropist who created the awards for public school educators in 1987, presented the award to Tapee in person. Awards staff research prospects thoroughly, but seeing students respond like they did Tuesday is gratifying, Milken said after watching Tapee and his students during a classroom tour after the ceremony.
"When you see how these kids love him, you know we were right," he said. "This teacher is idolized by those kids."
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva were among those who spoke at the assembly, which was attended by state legislators, state Board of Education members, district Superintendent Jared Cleveland and past recipients of the award from Arkansas.
"This is not a lifetime achievement award," Milken told Tapee while presenting the award. "There's no question you've distinguished yourself greatly in your career up to this time. But we are giving you this award because we are anticipating lifetime achievement. We believe you have the potential to do even greater things in the future on behalf of young people."
Milken demanded a change in the award's selection process 10 years into the program after learning one of the recipients that year planned to retire the next year, he said in an interview. He wants the award to go to teachers who will go on to enrich the field and be leaders in education, he said.
The award will be given to about 75 teachers nationwide this school year, according to a news release from the Milken Family Foundation. Tapee is the first recipient announced this year, according to the release.
"I can tell you Mr. Tapee is made for middle school," said Hellstern Principal Allison Byford. Tapee is known for his co-creation and development of Hellstern's Herobotics program, a competitive robotics team designed to help students pursue STEM outside the classroom. The school's mascot is the Heroes.
"His growing team regularly qualifies for state competitions and has won several championships," the release states. "He has fostered a supportive learning environment by taking on various leadership roles: team-leading Hellstern's guiding coalition, organizing back-to-school adult learning exercises, leading professional development seminars, speaking at education conferences, contributing to student success podcasts and building Hellstern's Year in Review for families and community members."
This year's Milken honorees will attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles in June, where they will network with their new colleagues as well as veteran Milken Educators and other education leaders about how to broaden their impact on K-12 education, the release states.
Tapee earned a bachelor's degree in history and a mathematics minor in 2015 from the University of Arkansas, as well as a master's degree in teaching in 2016. This year he completed an education specialist program with a concentration in educational leadership and principalship from Arkansas State University, according to the release.
"I have the best job in the world," Tapee said.
There have now been 16 winners of the Milken Educator Award from Northwest Arkansas schools:
2023: Michael Tapee, Hellstern Middle School (Springdale)
2022: Kamisha Burlingame, Jefferson Elementary School (Bentonville)
2016: Kara Davis, Mathias Elementary School (Rogers)
2011: Andrea McKenna, Kelly Middle School (Springdale)
2007: Margaret McClure, Lingle Middle School (Rogers)
2006: Justin Minkel, Jones Elementary School (Springdale)
2003: Melissa Miller, Lynch Middle School (Farmington)
2001: Steven Long, Rogers High School
2001: Gary Stark, Tyson Middle School (Springdale)
1997: Sara Ford, Kelly Middle School (Springdale)
1996: Kimberly Mason, Tillery Elementary School (Rogers)
1993: Rosemary Faucette, Woodland Junior High School (Fayetteville)
1993: Don Love, Springdale High School
1992: Linda Childers Knapp, Smith Elementary School (Springdale)
1992: Silas Granderson, Elmwood Middle School (Rogers)
1991: Thomas Williams, Fayetteville High School