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Milton math teacher wins national honor and $25K

James Moonan (center) is congratulated by Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation National Educator awards, and Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester after he was honored Thursday with a Milken  Award and a $25,000 prize at a pep rally at the Pierce Middle School, where he teaches math.
James Moonan (center) is congratulated by Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Family Foundation National Educator awards, and Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester after he was honored Thursday with a Milken Award and a $25,000 prize at a pep rally at the Pierce Middle School, where he teaches math.Photos by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Students at Charles S. Pierce Middle School in Milton had gathered in the gym Thursday thinking they were there for a pep rally to welcome Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester.

As it turned out, they saw one of their teachers receive a national honor.

James Moonan, a former student at Pierce and now a sixth-grade math teacher, received a Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award and a $25,000 prize. Moonan is the 41st Milken award winner from this state, and the only Massachusetts teacher to win the award out of the 40 chosen nationwide this year.

“James Moonan is one of the most dynamic and effective, yet humble educators I have had the privilege and pleasure to work with and observe during my 40 years in public education,” said Superintendent Mary Gormley, who was Moonan’s principal during his elementary school years. “Jimmy not only understands the process of how to teach, but he also is able to connect with his students on a personal level that is unparalleled.”

An independent review committee at the state level found candidates through a confidential collection process, and chose Moonan, who received the unrestricted $25,000 grant along with the recognition.

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The announcement came as a surprise to Moonan, whose name was announced after a pep rally featuring the high school marching band.

“What sets James and other outstanding educators apart is their commitment to their own professional growth to ensure that they and their students alike continuously improve,” Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in a press release.

A YouTube video captured Moonan’s shock, and hundreds of students watching in the school’s gym and auditorium erupted into applause at the announcement.

“The best part of my job is being able to visit schools and meet with teachers who motivate and inspire their students to achieve at the highest levels,” Education Secretary Matthew Malone said in a statement. “James is one of those teachers, and we are lucky to have him teaching here in Massachusetts.”

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Moonan received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and a master’s of secondary education from Emmanuel College. Since he began teaching at Pierce in 2007, Moonan has founded the school’s Community Leadership Club, which helps promote antibullying and community service; has had a key role in curriculum development at Milton Public Schools; and has helped ensure special education students receive the support they need.

One of three sixth-grade math teachers at Pierce, Moonan has contributed to significant MCAS success in the last five years, Milken organizers said. The percentage of the school’s sixth-graders scoring “proficient” or higher on the statewide test increased from 66 percent in 2009 to 83 percent in 2013. In 2013, sixth-graders at Pierce scored in the 89th percentile in mathematics, surpassing similar groups throughout the state.

“I am proud to include Jimmy as one of Milton Public Schools’ finest examples of what a teacher should be,” Gormley said.


Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com.