Susan Mills: The science teacher who founded the first women’s college in California

American history offers many examples of extraordinary educators. This blog spotlights just a few of them. Today’s focus is on Susan Tolman Mills, a secondary school teacher who established the first women’s college in California.

Susan Tolman was born in Enosburg, Vermont, on November 18, 1825. One of eight children, she was the daughter of homesteaders who operated a thriving business. Her father owned a tannery and her mother was a homemaker. Susan’s mother was especially insistent that her six daughters become educated, and after the family relocated to Ware, Massachusettes, all the daughters attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Following her graduation, Susan taught classes in science and theology there for three years.

In 1848, the young educator married Cyrus Taggart Mills, a Presbyterian missionary. The adventurous newlyweds traveled to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. Cyrus became the principal of a seminary for boys, while Susan taught domestic skills to girls in the local schools.

In 1860, the couple moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where they took charge of the Punahou School. There Susan taught geography, geology, chemistry, and botany. She introduced physical education to the female students. She also dedicated her energy to improving the food choices and other amenities provided by the school.

In 1864, Susan and Cyrus relocated to California, with ambitions of establishing a school of their own. Their goal was to provide equal education and opportunities for women. The year after their arrival in the state they purchased a girls’ seminary in Benicia, just east of Vallejo in Solano County. They named their institution Mills Seminary. The couple spent several years improving their school by expanding the number of course offerings and recruiting qualified teachers. In 1871, they sold this property and moved their school to Oakland, on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay. This new facility, with four-story buildings, dining halls, and a high central observatory named Mills Hall, was long considered the most beautiful education building in California. Eventually the girls’ school established by the Mills was transformed into Mills College, the first women’s college in the state. The college still serves young women as a liberal arts college to this day. After Susan’s beloved husband passed away, Susan continued to serve as the principal of Mills College, expertly performing her administrative duties.

In 1901, Susan was awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Mount Holyoke, recognizing her extraordinary contributions to education. At the time, the trustees of Punahou commented that Susan, “met and overcame obstacles with equanimity; she accomplished great work with poor facilities; she drew her inspiration from the dull routine of a busy life.”

Susan Mills retired in 1909 at the age of 84. She passed away three years later, on December 12, 1912, in her home, the Vermont cape house she and her husband had built on the Mills campus. This talented and industrious educator was interred at Sunnyside Cemetery, located on the college grounds.

The 2016 Rose Parade: Talented High School Music Directors Present Their Students

Happy New Year, one and all! One of my favorite activities on New Year’s Day is to watch the annual Tournament of Roses Parade, whether in person or on television. I was born in Pasadena, and this unique, flower-inspired parade has always been very special to me. I have many happy childhood memories of standing on the curb on Colorado Boulevard to watch the spectacular floats, outstanding bands, and marvelous equestrian groups go marching by. This year, the theme of the parade is “Find Your Adventure.” I was especially impressed with the many talented high school bands from all over the country that participated in this marvelous parade today. Let’s pay tribute to them!

Launching the parade was the Etiwanda High School Band, which hails from Etiwanda, California. The 200-member Marching Eagle Regiment performed under the direction of Jeremy Hackworth. Jeremy’s students were teamed with Corporate Magic to present the opening act for this year’s parade, performing a drill team sequence and original music composed specifically for the event. “These kids work so hard — not just on the field, but also behind the scenes with their academics and their work schedules,” praises Mr. Hackworth. This talented music director earned his bachelor’s degree from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, and he is currently working on his master’s degree.

Next, parade-watchers were treated to selections of Western-style music performed by the Wyoming All-State Marching Band, directed by Mr. Dan Holroyd. This accomplished composite band, based in Cheyenne, featured 301 students from 32 communities and 27 high schools from around the state. This was the thirteenth appearance of the band in the Tournament of Roses Parade. The students played popular compositions including “The Magnificent Seven,” “Ghostriders in the Sky,” and the theme from the movie “Blazing Saddles.” Mr. Holroyd graduated from the University of Wyoming, and is employed as the Director of Bands at East High School in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

To continue, Director of Bands Blane Hinton led the brilliant Allen Eagle Escadrille hailing from Allen, Texas. The Escadrille claims to be the largest high school marching band in the United States, boasting a whopping 782 members. “Our philosophy here (at Allen) is we try to make sure that every student of ours gets the opportunity to participate in the marching program,” explained Mr. Hinton. “Plus, the kids are just phenomenal.” This amazing music director earned his degree at Texas Technical University.

Next came the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park Band. Directors David Armbruster and Jonathan Thomann led this accomplished band from Wayne County, Michigan. The band represents three comprehensive high schools: Salem, Canton, and Plymouth, which employs 350 teachers to serve 6,500 students in grades 9-12. This fabulous band has won over 500 awards in the past 16 years, and has performed before Presidents Ronald Reagan, H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Director of Bands Mr. Armbruster earned his bachelor’s degree in music education in 2000 and his master’s degree in 2005, both from Western Michigan University.

The Los Angeles Unified Schools All-District High School Honor Band. This 380-member noncompetitive band is comprised of distinguished student musicians from high schools throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District. The group has been marching in the Rose Parade since 1973. For the past three decades, this group has been marching under the able direction of Director Mr. Tony White. Mr. White worked as a music educator at John C. Fremont High School for ten years. Although he currently works as a professional jazz musician playing the saxophone and clarinet, he is still heavily involved with music and arts education, serving as the music and entertainment coordinator in the LA Unified School District. “The  challenge for me is maintaining both,” he asserts. This chalkboard champion earned his bachelor’s degree from University of California, Riverside, his teaching credential at Cal State Dominguez Hills, and his master’s degree in educational leadership from Pepperdine University.

Hailing from Saratoga High School in the Silicon Valley in California, the 400-member Saratoga High School Marching Band and Color Guard performed under the direction of Michael Boitz. When Michael accepted his position as Music Department Chair at Saratoga High in 1997, there were only eleven students in the entire orchestra program. Fourteen years later, the department has expanded to hundreds of students, as you can see below. “I think it’s an incredible testament to the dedication the community has in our kids,” expressed Michael. “It’s a testament to the support the community gives to the kids and the school as a whole.” Named the 2013 Music Educator of the Year by the California Music Educators Association, Michael graduated magna cum laude from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and earned his master’s degree at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

The next band to perform was the magnificent Jenks High School Trojan Pride Band from Jenks, Oklahoma, under the direction of Director of Bands Scott Hillock. “The program has grown and improved in the last five years,” informed Scott. “Five years ago it had 112 band members and 12 color guard members. This year, it has a record 240 band members and 45 students in color guard,” he said. Mr. Hillock earned his bachelor’s degree from Southwestern Oklahoma State University and his master’s degree from Southern Methodist University. He has been in charge of bands at Jenks since 2006.

Next, parade-watchers were treated to a performance by the Franklin Regional High School Panther Band. Led by Director Kevin Pollock, this amazing band from Murraysville, Pennsylvania, performed “Walking on Sunshine.” The band this year has approximately 200 musicians, Pantherette dancers, majorettes, silks, and honor guard. “We are excited. We are proud to represent Pennsylvania in ‘America’s New Year Celebration,’ ” Mr. Pollock expressed. “We have a talented group of students who are looking forward to sharing their performance with the huge audience in Pasadena and the television audience around the world,” he said. This talented educator earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has been the music director at Franklin for 28 years.

 The 192 members of the Punahou Marching Band from Honolulu, Hawaii, marched under the direction of Mark Falzarano. Punahou serves students from kindergarten through grade 12, including alumni President Barack Obama, dancer Carrie Ann Inaba, and professional golfer Michelle Wie. Mark earned two master’s degrees from Northern Arizona University and worked as a high school band director in Arizona before moving to Hawaii. Advice for aspiring music directors? Mark urges, “You need to make sure that this is something you need to do, not something that you want to do,” he says. “To be good at being a music teacher is not a responsibility that you can take lightly. If you merely like something, you should not be responsible for the lives of young people,” he advises.
Next came the acclaimed 330-member William Mason High School Marching Band from Mason, Ohio, led by Director Robert Bass. Mr. Bass has had a long career, teaching for an impressive 29 years, 15 of them as Director of Bands at Mason High School. Bands under his direction have performed in Carnegie Hall, Chicago Orchestra Hall, and the Bands of America National Concert Band Festival. A graduate of a small rural high school in Greensburg, Ohio, he earned his bachelor’s degree in music education and performance at the University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music, and his master’s degree in music education at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago. Mr. Bass takes his job as a music educator very seriously. “It is important to me to show students how music is involved in our everyday lives and the positive effects it can have on us,” he says. “I enjoy working with students,” Robert confesses. “In my opinion, it is the most rewarding job on the planet.”
The final high school band to march down Colorado Blvd. was the spectacular Mira Mesa High School Sapphire Sound, under the direction of band leader Ms. Jeanne Christensen, the only woman Director of Bands featured in the parade. This fabulous 210-member composite band represents the entire San Diego Unified School District. The ensemble performed “Ode to Joy” and “America the Beautiful” along the five-and-a-half-mile parade route. “This is the Super Bowl of parades,” says Ms. Christensen. “I couldn’t be more proud of these students.” This talented music educator earned her bachelor’s degree at University of California, San Diego, and her master’s degree at National University.

Congratulations to all these remarkable music educators, their hard-working students, and their supportive families and communities! A Happy New Year to all of them!

Hawaii’s chalkboard champion Takashi Ohno: Teacher and legislator


Often talented educators go on to serve their communities in the political arena. This is the case with Takashi Ohno, a third grade teacher from Kalihi, Hawaii, who is currently serving in the Hawaii House of Representatives.

Takashi was born on Kodiak Island, Alaska. His father was originally from Japan, and was employed in Alaska’s fishing industry. After graduation from high school, Takashi attended  Linfield College, a small liberal arts institution located in McMinnville, Oregon, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in education. He earned his master’s degree from Chaminade University, a private university in Honolulu, Hawaii.

After completing his education Takashi accepted a position as a third grade teacher at Mayor Joseph J. Fern Elementary in Kalihi, Hawaii. As an educator connected with Teach for America, Takashi is a firm believer in education. “Education is life’s equalizer,” he once said, “and we need to compensate and retain master teachers that excel in their profession.”

In 2012, Takashi was elected to the Hawaii State House of Representatives representing District 27. He is currently serving his second term there. He is a part of several legislative committees, including Agriculture; Economic Development and Business; Tourism; Veterans, Military, and International Affairs; and Culture and the Arts; Education; and Higher Education. “I work so that all children one day will receive an excellent education,” Takashi once expounded.

Takashi Ohono: a true chalkboard champion.

Gladys Kamakuokalani Brandt: A Chalkboard Champion for Native Hawaiian Culture

brandtThis beautiful lady is teacher Gladys Kamakuokalani Brandt, a Native Hawaiian old enough to have attended the funeral services in 1917 of Queen Liliuokalani, the last reining monarch of Hawaii, and still young enough to witness the unprovoked attack upon Pearl Harbor in 1941 which precipitated World War II. Gladys began her career as a teacher, working in public schools and eventually becoming an instructor at the prestigious Kamehameha Schools, a private institution set up to educate Native Hawaiian students.

As a youngster, Gladys was deeply ashamed of her Hawaiian heritage, so much so that she rubbed her face with lemon juice to lighten her complexion. By the time she became the principal of Kamehameha Schools, however, she had resolved to fight tirelessly for the inclusion of courses to preserve Native Hawaiian culture. She supported instruction in Hawaiian language, song, and the controversial standing hula dance which had been forbidden by the school’s trustees. The story of her work is an inspirational one.

Equally inspirational is the story of the dedication and sacrifice of Hawaii’s teachers in the days and weeks following the bombing. From serving as ambulance drivers, setting up shelters for survivors, teaching their students how to use gas masks, taking their students into the sugar cane fields to harvest the crops, and re-establishing some semblance of order for their students when school resumed, their deeds are truly remarkable. You can read about Gladys and her fellow Hawaiian teachers in my first book, Chalkboard Champions: Twelve Remarkable Teachers Who Educated America’s Disenfranchised Students.

Nicole E. Lowen: The Teacher Who Was Elected to Hawaii’s House of Representatives

web1_Nicole-Lowen_5There are many fine examples of talented educators who also become successful politicians. Such is certainly the case with Nicole E. Lowen, a Montessori teacher and a Democrat who currently serves as a member of the House of Representatives in Hawaii. Nicole has represented Hawaii’s District 6 since January 16, 2013. District 6 serves Kailua-Kona, Holualoa, Kalaoa, and Honokohau.

Nicole earned her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania, and her master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Hawaii. She has also earned a graduate certificate in disaster management from the University of Hawaii.

Her teaching experience includes teaching at Hawaii Montessori School from 1996-2007, working as a teaching assistant at the University of Hawaii Department of Urban and Regional Planning during 2011, and working as an admissions director for Hawaii Montessori School in 2012. She is obviously a strong supporter of quality education. “All children deserve access to a quality education,” she has said, “… and our schools must be given the resources they need to shrink classroom sizes and get the job done.”

In the House of Representatives, Nicole serves on the committees for Energy and Environmental Protection; Ocean, Marine Resources, and Hawaiian Affairs; Finance; and Water and Land.

In her spare time, Nicole is active with the Sierra Club. She has been a volunteer for the organization during 2011-2012 and served as a member of the Sierra Club’s executive committee during 2012.