A teacher rewarded for leading the way
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No one was more surprised than Northside Urban Pathways Charter School teacher Jamilla Rice to find out a school assembly was actually a ruse to present her with a $25,000 Milken Educator Award.
But while yesterday's award -- part of the largest teacher recognition program in the United States -- was a surprise, it wasn't surprising to the Advanced Placement students who appreciate how she pushes them at the Downtown school.
"We love her so much," said senior Robyn Hill of McKees Rocks. "No matter how hard she makes the essay, we still love her."
"She doesn't accept anything less than she knows you can do," said Aimee Weis of Observatory Hill.
"She's not going to let you give up, no matter what," said senior Shawnkeela Hawkins of Sheraden.
Only three people at the school even knew that an award would be presented, and they were required to keep it a secret. Others were told that yesterday's event was simply a visit by Michael Walsh, deputy secretary for administration at the State Department of Education.
With Mr. Walsh was Michael Milken, co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, which this year will be presenting 50 or 60 such awards across the country. Since 1987, the foundation has honored more than 2,400 educators with more than $60 million in unrestricted cash awards for their own use.
What makes them so unexpected is educators don't apply for them. The state Department of Education recommends about 10 educators, and the foundation makes its decisions using that input.
Students and staff at Northside Urban Pathways, which has 330 students in grades 6 to 12, gathered in the school cafeteria where the announcement was made.
The room erupted in cheers and applause as Ms. Rice walked to the front.
Ms. Rice initially said she was at a loss for words but then did manage to thank everyone and encourage students to work hard.
She called on her mother, Aisha White, who is a librarian and adjunct instructor in media literacy at the school, to come forward, where they tearfully embraced.
"Like many of you, I come from very humble beginnings," Ms. Rice told the school audience, describing how when she grew up in Homewood and had lived in Section 8 housing and been on welfare when she was younger.
"My mom worked so hard her whole entire life in order to make a better life for me and for my brother. She put herself through school while working at the University of Pittsburgh."
She said her mother earned a bachelor's degree over seven years, kept on going and earned master's and doctoral degrees.
"She was an example to me and my brother, to everybody in my family, to never give up, no matter what the circumstances, and she is the reason why I'm here and I'm doing what I'm doing."
Ms. Rice, 37, of East Liberty, is a 1990 graduate of Schenley High School, earned her bachelor's degree at Hampton University and is working on a master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh.
She began her teaching career in North Carolina and was hired at Northside Urban Pathways in 1998, the first year of the school. She teaches English and a graduation project class and is acting curriculum director.
After the ceremony, Ms. Rice said she decided to work in a charter school because she likes the autonomy and the small size.
She said she chose teaching because she saw inequities.
"People who did not have parents who were education advocates were not being given the same kind of educational opportunities," she said.
"I wanted to be an advocate."
First Published November 7, 2009 12:37 am