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Milken foundation honors Andrew Jackson Elementary teacher with surprise assembly and $25,000

Darryl Murphy

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This morning, students and faculty at Andrew Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia gathered for a surprise, courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation.

Sometimes called the “Oscar of teaching,” the Milken Educator Award is presented to teachers from across the country who are doing exceptional work. The ideal candidates are in the early to middle stages of their careers, showing great potential for the future.

The first Milken Educator Award presented in 2016-17 went to … 5th-grade science and math teacher Jayda Pugliese.

Candidates aren’t nominated, nor do they apply for the award. They’re chosen through a secret process, then reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by the state Departments of Education. Once the finalists are selected, the Milken Family Foundation makes the final choices.

After the winner is selected, his or her name is kept a secret until the moment it is announced during a surprise assembly.

“All of my students kept looking at me, saying to me, ‘You know, you’re probably the one,’” said Pugliese. “And I’m just like trying to hush them. Trying to focus on the assembly. I thought it could be me, but I guess you never imagine your dream being realized.”

Mayor Kenney, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, and District Superintendent William Hite were among the guests who joined Milken Foundation chairman Lowell Milken in announcing that Pugliese was the winner and presenting her an unrestricted $25,000 check from the foundation.

“This teacher is an outstanding instructional leader,” Milken said. “This teacher is a great mentor for other teachers, and this teacher is invested in this community in a whole range of activities that complement her good work at the school. So all of those factors together sum up a shining star.”

Pugliese, 29, was born and raised in South Philadelphia, near Sixth and Fitzwater Streets, blocks away from Andrew Jackson Elementary, 1213 S. 12th St. She graduated from Saints John Neumann & Maria Goretti Catholic High School in 2005 before earning her bachelor of arts degree in special education and elementary education in 2009 from Holy Family University. She went on to earn her master’s degree in education, teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), and literacy in 2014.

Pugliese is the first in her family to graduate from high school. Her father, who is deceased, worked as a mechanic, and her mother worked various jobs in the food-service industry.

“I had to put in a lot of hard work,” she said, “because my mom and my dad weren’t able to help me a lot with my homework, [which is] a lot of the issues that the students currently face in the schools.

“A lot of parents don’t know how to support the children, and a lot of my goals as a teacher [are to] try to help parents. Show them it’s OK not to know how to do something. Let me be a resource for your child, let me help them after school, because I was that child and I know how hard it is not to get that support from home.”

Pugliese is still attending Holy Family University, pursuing a doctorate in education leadership and administration. She had to take a break for financial reasons, but with the $25,000 she received from Milken, she could finish her studies. Her ultimate goals are to become a principal and possibly a superintendent, she said.

“I would really love to become a principal within Philadelphia,” she said. “I can’t see myself outside of Philadelphia. I’ve been dedicated to the students in Philadelphia for so long.”

Today’s event not only celebrated a milestone for Pugliese, but also for the MIlken Family Foundation, because this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Milken Educator Awards. Up to 35 educators will be honored this school year by the foundation.

“Every one has its own excitement, because you’re always in a different environment,” said Milken, who started the foundation to bring honor and recognition to teaching.

“Of course, when you’re with the kids, the kids have never seen one before, so it’s new to them and you always feed off of that.”

This is the second time in about a week that the Philadelphia education community received national recognition. Last Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Education named Penn Alexander School and Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School as National Blue Ribbon Schools for their work in closing the achievement gap among their students.

Hite said the Milken award represents not only Pugliese and Andrew Jackson Elementary School, but other teachers in the city who are committed to education.

“I think that the individual who is being recognized today is representative of many of the educators who teach here in Philadelphia,” Hite said. “And the commitments that they’ve made, the passion with which they teach, I think is really important.”

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