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PHM’s Walt Disney Elementary School principal wins $25,000 national educator award

Ryan Towner, third from right, reacts after learning he is receiving the $25,000 cash award. Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner is second from right.
Jakob Lazzaro
Ryan Towner, third from right, reacts after learning he is receiving the $25,000 cash award. Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner is second from right.

Ryan Towner, the principal of Penn-Harris-Madison’s Walt Disney Elementary School, was recognized Wednesday with the $25,000 Milken Educator Award.

The yearly award has been given out by the Milken Family Foundation since 1987. Hailed as the “Oscars of Teaching,” it celebrates and recognizes early to mid-career educators across the United States.

“Greatness in education should be recognized,” Milken Educator Awards senior vice president Dr. Jane Foley said. “There are many great teachers and principals in this country, but one of the best educators in the entire country is here.”

Towner is one of 60 educators nationwide, but the only one in Indiana, to win the award during the 2021-22 school year.

And the award came as a complete surprise — Towner said he thought Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner and other officials were visiting Walt Disney on Wednesday because it was recently included on U.S. News and World Report’s list of best Indiana elementary schools.

He said it’s an honor, but also that a school is a “powerful community” and thanked Walt Disney’s students, staff and teachers for all their hard work.

“Every day I see it, harder than you’ve ever worked before,” Towner said. “I learn from you, I’m inspired by you, and I hope in some way that I’m returning my inspiration to you.”

Towner, who has been principal at Walt Disney since 2017, created the school’s popular annual Culture Night and often greets students by name while playing piano or ukulele at arrival and dismissal.

He also helped create a three-week STEM camp, and Walt Disney has seen gains in student achievement and exceeded state averages under his leadership.

The $25,000 cash award is unrestricted, so it can be used for anything — Towner said he’s not sure what he’s going to do yet, but he definitely wants to show thanks to his school and his church, and maybe take a vacation with his wife.

“We’ve got a four-year-old and a two-year-old, so that hasn’t been easy these past few years,” he said. “The money’s such a kind gesture, and I hope to use it in a way that helps people.”

In addition, Towner has been invited to an all-expenses-paid forum of other award winners.

Contact Jakob at or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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Corrected: March 16, 2022 at 5:28 PM EDT
A previous version of the story contained incorrect information about the forum award winners attend. WVPE regrets the error.
Jakob Lazzaro came to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.