Press Releases

Desert Thunder School in Arizona Surprised with NIET Founder’s Award and $50,000 Grand Prize

April 17, 2023

Indianapolis, Ind. (March 23, 2023) - The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) announced today that Desert Thunder School in Avondale Elementary School District, Arizona was named the recipient of the 2023 NIET Founder's Award and its $50,000 grand prize. NIET Founder and Chairman Lowell Milken and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Joshua Barnett surprised the school during the 2023 NIET National Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Created by Lowell Milken in 2008, the Founder’s Award honors one school in the United States each year for exceptional implementation of NIET’s principles: to build educator excellence and advance student success. Desert Thunder School was just one of five schools across the country selected as finalists for the $50,000 grand prize. Founder’s Award recipients are selected based on several factors, including their efforts to make instructional excellence the cornerstone of school improvement, plans for regular professional learning focused on real-time needs of teachers and students, creating a culture of collaboration and reflection, and leveraging teacher leaders to drive student growth.

"Desert Thunder is a model for creating meaningful and sustained structures that advance educator effectiveness, promote teacher leadership and propel student learning," said NIET Founder Lowell Milken. "The dedication of Dr. Ryan LoMonaco and his staff represents the excellence shown across the Avondale Elementary School District, led by Superintendent Dr. Betsy Hargrove. Their work changes lives."

Desert Thunder School received the Founder’s Award because it exemplifies NIET’s work with schools to develop teacher leaders, collaborate on successful instructional practices and provide feedback and support to address teacher and student needs. The implementation of these effective strategies – boosted by the support of Avondale Elementary School District under Superintendent Dr. Betsy Hargrove – earned the school an “A” rating for several years under Arizona’s A-F school letter grade system – including most recently in 2022. From 2021 to 2022, student performance on state assessments improved in English Language Arts and math. In 2022, 44% of Desert Thunder’s students passed the math state assessment, compared to 30% in 2021. With these student achievement results, Desert Thunder School students have outperformed students statewide on state assessments.

NIET’s partner schools have shown success in improving educator, student and school outcomes. Desert Thunder School has continuously elevated its educators through the use of NIET’s tools and resources to support instructional excellence and create career pathways. 

"Educators at Desert Thunder School are closing achievement gaps and creating more equitable learning opportunities for students. Their commitment to advancing every student, every day is guided by their strong instructional leadership team." said NIET CEO Dr. Joshua Barnett. "By tapping into the expertise and experience of exemplary teacher leaders, the team at Desert Thunder is opening the doors of opportunity and success for all its students."

What Makes Desert Thunder School Unique?

Located outside of Phoenix, Arizona, Desert Thunder is one of 11 schools in Avondale Elementary School District and serves more than 900 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. More than 58% of students are Hispanic and half of the school’s students are in a dual-language program. 72% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Over the last several years, the student population has grown in number and diversity. A commitment to the best practices and structures of NIET has allowed the school to continue meeting the needs of all students. Principal Ryan LoMonaco and his leadership team are building the capacity of teachers through dedicated time for collaboration and school-based professional learning, creating a positive learning environment for teachers and students alike.  

"As a result of investing time, effort, and resources into developing the professional capital of the staff and the distributed leadership at Desert Thunder, I have had the privilege of learning alongside my staff as we grow together.” said LoMonaco. "I can have an idea, but without a team – it’s not the best idea and it won’t be implemented as well. With this team, we get to the best ideas, best implementation, and best outcomes for our students."

Desert Thunder School adopted a distributed leadership approach in which the principal and a dedicated instructional leadership team (ILT) provide school-based professional learning for teachers. The ILT is composed of school and teacher leaders who analyze student data, coach teachers and provide professional learning on instructional strategies. Distributed leadership, and the inclusion of teacher leaders, has strengthened the support provided to teachers and created a career pathway in the school. 

Using the NIET Teaching and Learning Standards Rubric, Desert Thunder creates a common language that ensures consistency in the support and feedback provided to teachers. Specifically, leadership team members have used the rubric to transform professional learning meetings to focus on student action ownership of learning. This transformation has changed the coaching conversations between the ILT and teachers during professional learning, as well as those between teachers and students. 

Desert Thunder School was selected from among five finalists throughout the U.S., each receiving $10,000: William Henry Burkhart Elementary (Perry Township Schools, Indiana); Slaughter Elementary School (East Feliciana Public Schools, Louisiana); Forest Acres Elementary School (School District of Pickens County, South Carolina); and Dr. Lonnie Green Elementary (San Felipe Del Rio CISD, Texas).

About the NIET Founder's Award

Desert Thunder School was selected among five finalists throughout the U.S., with each receiving $10,000: Dr. Lonnie Green Elementary (San Felipe Del Rio CISD, Texas); Forest Acres Elementary School (School District of Pickens County, South Carolina); Slaughter Elementary School (East Feliciana Public Schools, Louisiana); and William Henry Burkhart Elementary (Perry Township Schools, Indiana). 

Founder's Award recipients are selected by NIET based on their efforts to make instructional excellence the cornerstone of school improvement; plan for regular professional learning focused on real-time needs of teachers and students; create a culture of collaboration and reflection; and leverage teacher leaders and administrators to drive student growth.

For more information about NIET, visit the NIET newsroom. For interviews, please contact Kristan Van Hook at Learn more about the conference at Follow conference news – including the Founder's Award – on Facebook and Twitter @NIETteach or via #NIET2023.