Foundation surprises DZ principal with $25,000 award

Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School principal Molly Yerkes has been honored with the national Milken Family Foundation Educator Award. Yerkes received the award before 430 students during a school assembly.

Since 1987, the foundation has honored outstanding educators throughout the nation. This year up to 40 educators will be presented with awards; Yerkes is the only one in Alaska.

Thursday morning’s event was billed as a typical assembly, but it wasn’t.

Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School principal Molly Yerkes convened the assembly that was scheduled to feature state education commissioner Mike Hanley.

Hanley talked about respecting others. He told the students not to laugh when someone was being teased or bullied, and how that would discourage unacceptable behavior.

A few special guests sat in the audience – Juneau representatives Beth Kerttula and Cathy Munoz, district superintendent Glen Gelbrich, and a few school board members.

The assembly took a turn when Dr. Jane Foley announced, “The Milken Educator Award goes to Molly Yerkes.” Foley is a senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation

The award caught Yerkes off guard.

“I was incredibly surprised and so appreciative. I just – I still am in shock,” Yerkes says laughing.


Yerkes has spent thirteen years in education including five years as a teacher at Floyd Dryden Middle School and six years as assistant and interim principal at Dzantik’i Heeni.

As a principal, Yerkes practices shared leadership

“I really value the staff at Dzantik’i Heeni,” she says. “They work with our students one-on-one, so the more that I can include the voices of our staff in decision making, I really find that our decisions are much stronger.”

The rapport with staff is part of the reason why Yerkes was given the award.

“She’s had educators that say if she moved to another school, they would follow her and they delayed their retirement to stay here because she was their leader now,” Foley says.

Dzantik’i Heeni middle school students have similar sentiments. Eighth grader Selma Houck says Yerkes is often in the classrooms, “One time last year I was struggling a lot in math and I actually raised my hand and asked a question and the teacher answered me but I was still a little confused.”

At that point, Yerkes went over to Houck and helped her figure out the math problem. Houck says those are the kinds of things that the students really notice.

“I felt really happy and kind of proud that she would come over and help me with that and thankful that we have such a great principal to come and do things like this,” Houck says. “I’ve moved a lot and have gone to a bunch of different schools and not all principals are this nice.”

Eighth grader Josef Monsef says he’s really excited that his principal got the Educator Award, “She’s just a role model to everyone here. You’d just be joking around with your friends laughing, having a good time, and then you see her come and it’s like – ‘Oh, Ms. Yerkes’s coming. Straighten up,’ something like that. But, yeah, we really just want to make her proud.”

The Milken Educator Award includes a financial element revealed at the assembly just before the big announcement. Standing next to Foley, five students held up placards displaying a dollar sign and the number 2,500.

Foley asked, “Commissioner Hanley, could you find one more zero?”

Hanley pulled the last zero from under his chair to reveal the total amount – $25,000.

Yerkes says she doesn’t know what she’ll do with the money, but she’s sure she’ll have fun coming up with ideas.

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