Milken Award Winner Says Arkansas Academy for Educational Equity Has Honed Her Teaching Skills

Shalisha Thomas with students at an Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas exhibit.
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Shalisha Thomas with students at an Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas exhibit.

Shalisha Thomas was stunned to receive the prestigious Milken Educator Award at a school assembly recently.

The Pine Bluff High School art teacher, an Arkansas Academy for Educational Equity Fellow through the University of Arkansas, is the sole recipient in the state for the 2019-20 school year. Only 40 teachers in the nation earned the title.

The award is given to teachers new to the profession or mid-career, commending them on what they have achieved so far — and for their potential. Thomas' list of accomplishments keeps growing.

She's committed to students and fellow educators in the Pine Bluff School District. She also promotes art awareness beyond her school walls. It's surprising now, but Thomas didn't know art was where her teaching career would lead.

"For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a teacher. But I didn't decide to become an art teacher until I graduated high school," she said.

Thomas, who graduated from Pine Bluff High in 2002, said she had always enjoyed drawing and creating. Now, her artistic dreams are expanding.

"My ultimate dream is to create an after-school or summer art program for young people that includes visual arts, dance and music," she said. "I want them to continue learning, exploring and creating even when they're not in school."

Thomas is a lifelong learner. She's one of 59 Equity Fellows working in over 20 districts and 30 schools across the state. Her Fellowship is supported by the Arkansas Academy for Educational Equity at the U of A.

The academy was made possible by a collaboration between the College of Education and Health Professions at the U of A and the Walton Family Foundation through a $10 million gift. It focuses on recruiting talented and motivated teachers to relocate to the state. It helps support and develop early-career teachers who have committed to teaching in Arkansas' most under-resourced districts.

Thomas said being a Fellow has made her a better teacher.

"It has changed the way I plan for my students, and it has reminded me of the importance of giving my best daily," she said. "As a Fellow, I'm provided with valuable information I can use to teach my students. I receive ongoing support to help me through this process of becoming a better educator, a vigilant listener, a proactive advocate and a more well-rounded, open-minded person. I am truly grateful for this opportunity." 

Her diligence has not gone unnoticed, most recently with the Milken Award.

Thomas received a $25,000 cash prize as the state's winner. The money is not all spoken for, but she plans to learn more about graphic design and consider it as a class option at Pine Bluff High.

This story is the latest in a series called the Dean's Spotlight, featuring outstanding students in the College of Education and Health Professions.Visit COEHP's online magazine, the Colleague for more news from the six units that make up the College. Visit the Arkansas Academy for Educational Equity website for more information about the Fellowship program.

About the College of Education and Health Professions: The College of Education and Health Professions offers advanced academic degrees as well as professional development opportunities and learning communities in service to the education and health systems of Arkansas and beyond. The college provides the education and experiences for a variety of professional roles, ranging from community mental health counselors to school teachers and leaders. Programs in adult and higher education, along with educational technology and sport management, offer a broad range of options. In addition to education-related opportunities, the college prepares nurses, speech-language pathologists, health educators and administrators, recreation professionals, rehabilitation counselors and human performance researchers.


Shannon G. Magsam, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions


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