Astoria resident receives $25K Milken teaching award

Sarah Mae Lagasca, a music teacher at Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey, was named a Milken award-winner during an assembly Friday. (Photo source: milkeneducatorawards.org)

Former Astoria resident Sarah Mae Lagasca was surprised with a $25,000 check and the Milken Educator Award for her outstanding work as a music teacher at Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey, during an assembly on April 1.

Lagasca was honored with the award for connecting her students to the world of professional music through a variety of opportunities. These included performing at Lincoln Center and the Newark Museum of Art, using state-of-the-art technology in her classroom and introducing her students to professional musicians to help inspire a career in the arts.

Lagasca’s genuine reaction to learning she received the Milken award was caught on video and quickly made the rounds online. It even drew national attention from “Good Morning America,” ABC News and Yahoo! News, among others.

Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley and New Jersey Acting Commissioner of Education Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan presented the award to Lagasca in front of a crowd of students, colleagues, state and local officials and the media. Lagasca became one of just over 60 educators across the United States to receive the award for the 2021-22 school year and one of just two in New Jersey.

According to Foley, Lagasca’s experience as an accomplished singer has helped in her teachings.

“She has used her professional network in the arts to introduce her students to a variety of professional musicians, further inspiring and motivating them to pursue their own careers in the arts,” Foley said. “[Lagasca] is an exceptional example of excellence in arts education, and I am proud to welcome her into the national Milken Educator Network.”

Allen-McMillan complemented Lagasca’s devotion to her students.

“Lagasca is as committed to her students as she is to her vocation, which is evident in her classroom,” Allen-McMillan said. “She is a trailblazer who emotes in a variety of ways that translates her passion and energy to her students, her colleagues and the entire community she influences.”

According to Lagasca, she was “definitely surprised” to receive the Milken Award. She said that 10 minutes before receiving the award, she had actually left the assembly to record the school’s choir at the auditorium before being dragged back.

Lagasca has been teaching for nine years. She shifted from the classroom to the music room in 2018. Lagasca said she had long wanted to be a teacher and that her choir conductor at LaGuardia High School inspired her to teach music.

Under Lagasca’s leadership, AHS’s vocal arts program has seen increased proficiency in music theory, composition, sight reading, vocal technique, music history, recording and production technology, marketing and branding and personal artistic growth. When social justice protests occurred across the country, Lagasca, alongside other professionals in the music industry, assembled over 160 singers and instrumentalists from schools across the country for a virtual performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Working with AHS to create a technology-rich learning space for student musicians, Lagasca is now looking into improving the instrumental music programs at the school. Her main focus in achieving this is centered around 21st-century skills and state-of-the-art equipment to ensure students have the opportunity to learn and perform at the highest levels.

Many of Lagasca’s colleagues approached her for advice on how to keep students engaged when all classes were virtual. During that time, she used breakout rooms, emojis, hand signals, recordings and tools like Music First, FlipGrid and Soundtrap in her virtual classrooms to ensure students were still learning.

In addition to her teaching work at AHS, Lagasca still puts on singing performances, provides private coaching and produces recordings. Alongside other professional musicians, she organizes workshops through the VH1: Save the Music Foundation and GRAMMY Museum. She’s also conducted Newark’s All-City Choral Ensemble.

Thanks to her professional-quality admissions promotional video, AHS has been able to attract thousands of potential students and their families. Her professional performances include those with the Berlin Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and on recordings including Arturo O’Farrill’s Four Questions, which won the 2021 GRAMMY award for Best Latin Jazz Album.

Earlier this year, Oprah Winfrey congratulated the winners of the 2021-22 Milken Educator Awards in a video message. A longtime advocate for education, Oprah thanked the educators for the “tireless work” they do.

The Milken Educator Awards often hailed as the Oscars of Teaching, was conceived by Lowell Milken to celebrate, elevate and activate teachers. More than $140 million in funding has been provided by the Milken Family Foundation to the awards over 35 years. This includes $75 million in individual awards to over 2,800 recipients, along with powerful professional learning opportunities and networking with leading education stakeholders.