Asia Cunningham, the principal of Pearsontown Elementary School in southwest Durham, arranged a celebration on Friday without knowing that she was the surprise guest of honor.
In front of a crowd of cheering students, State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and Durham Superintendent Pascal Mubenga, Cunningham learned that she had won the prestigious Milken Educator Award. She became the first Durham educator to win the national award, which has been called the “Oscars of Teaching.” It brings a $25,000 cash prize.
“Ms. Cunningham, it is no surprise to anyone in this room why you are the recipient of this honor,” Truitt said in between cheers in the school’s gym. “Great principals do amazing things every day and great principals are what make great teachers and great principals make great kids and great schools.
“You have a gift for creating a student-centered environment, and for that reason you are joining a very elite group of educators across the country.”
Award given at surprise ceremony
The California-based Milken Family Foundation has been giving the award since 1987. By the end of this school year, the foundation will have given $75 million in individual financial prizes to more than 3,000 educators.
Up to 75 educators will win the award this school year. The only other North Carolina educator to be recognized this school year was also honored on Friday. Ainsley VanBuskirk, a first-grade teacher at Pactolus Global School in Greenville received the Milken Award in a surprise ceremony.
Cunningham was told to arrange a program to show off the year-round magnet school to Truitt and district leaders.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been completely without words,” Cunningham told the audience after getting the award. “I was invited to a party that I hadn’t planned that’s for me. I did not have a clue.”
The foundation says the award is not a lifetime achievement honor. Recipients are sought out while early to mid-career for what they have achieved — and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities afforded by the award.
‘Your mommy is smiling up there’
Cunningham told the crowd her parents had died when she was young, forcing her to raise her two younger siblings. Between the ages of 16 and 19, Cunningham said she lost her mother, father and stepfather.
“I decided to become an educator because I wanted to make sure that people that were in charge of changing their tomorrow gave their best,” Cunningham said. “I didn’t decide to become a principal. It chose me.”
Cunningham’s aunt and uncle, who are also her godparents, took care of her after her parents died. After the ceremony, Cunningham called her aunt, Lynda Pickett, to share the news of the award.
“I’m so proud of you,” Pickett told Cunningham. “I know your mommy is smiling up there. She’s doing a jig.”
“Thanks for always having my back, auntie,” Cunningham replied in between tears.
Switching from juvenile justice to teaching
Cunningham, 37, has been an educator for 15 years. But she graduated from N.C. Central University in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
She initially worked in group homes helping juvenile offenders. Cunningham decided, though, that she’d rather work with young people on the preventive side.
“I wanted to see what would happen if I nurtured students, if I got to know them before they became system offenders and they migrate through a system that’s not designed for them,” Cunningham said in an interview after the ceremony.
“I wanted to make a difference on the front side, and so I took a pay cut and a leap of faith to try something different and became a teacher assistant.”
Cunningham started as a teacher assistant at Pearsontown in 2008. She stayed at the school through 2016, where she later served as a teacher and testing coordinator.
Cunningham left to work in Wake County. But she returned to Durham and eventually was named principal of Pearsontown in 2021.
“I continue to choose Durham Public Schools to serve the kids because of the work that we’re doing in our urban district,” Cunningham said. “We’re doing a lot of work for our students.”