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Called ‘the Oscar of Teaching,’ two NC educators win national Milken Educator Award

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Last week, two North Carolina educators received what is known as “the Oscar of Teaching.”

Pitt County’s Ainsley VanBuskirk, a first grade teacher at Pactolus Global School, and Durham County’s Aisa Cunningham, principal of Pearsontown Elementary School, were named national Milken Educator Award winners, each receiving a $25,000 prize.

Both educators were surprised on Friday as the awards were presented under the guise of school assemblies, according to this press release.

Meet Ainsley VanBuskirk, a teacher at Pactolus Global School in Pitt County Schools

Friday’s excitement began in Pitt County, where nine-year veteran teacher Ainsley VanBuskirk was honored as North Carolina’s first Milken Educator award winner of the day in front of Pactolus Global School students and staff, said the press release from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

“I have one of the greatest jobs in the world,” VanBuskirk said. “My students are my reason.”

Courtesy of Milken Family Foundation

“As our world continues to become more interconnected, Ms. VanBuskirk inspires the next generation of global learners and leaders through best practices and dual language instruction,” state Superintendent Catherine Truitt said. “As a facilitating teacher at Pactolus, she helps support bilingual literacy instruction to increase students’ growth and proficiency with some of the youngest learners in our state. The skills Ms. VanBuskirk fosters in her classroom set her students up for success in their journey.”

According to DPI’s press release, through the implementation of engaging, hands-on activities, real-world examples, and multimedia resources to enhance learning, VanBuskirk creates a tailored curriculum to accommodate various learning styles while taking special care to ensure every student has the opportunity to succeed. With an emphasis on creating an environment that promotes trust, empathy, and mutual understanding, she places value on effective and respectful communication, which prompts further academic and social growth for her students.

As a grade-level chair and facilitating teacher, VanBuskirk collaborates with international colleagues to determine how best to support biliteracy instruction and bridge languages to increase dual-language learners’ growth and proficiency. She mentors new teachers by helping them acclimate to the culture of their school and the district, and has implemented development programs like Reading Horizons and Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS), aimed at providing a tailored approach to match academic, social-emotional behavior assessment, and instructional resources to each student’s needs.

VanBuskirk earned an associate of arts from Pitt Community College in 2011 and a bachelor of science from East Carolina University in 2013.

Here is more information about VanBuskirk and the Milken Educator Award.

Meet Aisa Cunningham, a principal at Pearsontown Elementary School in Durham Public Schools

Continuing the day’s celebrations, the Milken Educator team traveled to Durham County to honor Aisa Cunningham, a seven-year veteran administrator, in front of her students and staff at Pearsontown Elementary School. Cunningham is the first Milken Educator award winner from Durham Public Schools, according to DPI’s press release.

“I decided to become an educator because I wanted to make sure that people 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.”

Courtesy of Milken Family Foundation

“It’s widely known the impact a principal makes on their school, and Ms. Cunningham has made a tremendous impact to say the least,” Truitt said. “She leads her staff by keeping students at the center of her work, creating a community of learners and leaders at Pearsontown. Her clear goals, collaboration and accountability with her staff translates into student success for the whole child.”

According to DPI’s press release, with a focus on data, Cunningham collaborates with the leadership team to monitor, analyze, and develop a clear, strategic instructional plan for each student at her school. Her guidance and support for her staff is established and effective as she seeks professional development in order for teachers to execute effective instructional practices with a focus on student achievement.

Cunningham’s leadership style centers on the whole child, as she believes investing in her students’ social and emotional needs will further bolster their academic achievement. Her approach garners positive results as Pearsontown was recognized as a 2021 National Blue Ribbon School, a National PTA School of Excellence, and a Magnet School of America.

Cunningham’s leadership reaches outside of Pearsontown to the district and beyond, where she is actively involved in the community and passionate about building a strong foundation for students and future leaders. She serves on multiple panels that support teachers from various universities in the greater region, is a district principal mentor, a regular speaker at leadership conferences, and has helped write and develop curriculum for Durham Public Schools.

Cunningham received a bachelor of science in criminal justice in 2007 from North Carolina Central University, a master of arts in teaching from Walden University in 2015, and a master of school administration from North Carolina Central University in 2017.

Here is more information about Cunningham and the Milken Educator Award.

The Milken Educator Award

According to DPI’s press release, the Milken Family Foundation bestows the award annually to recognize exceptional early-to-mid career education professionals. Candidates for the award are identified through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the award, with final approval by the Milken Family Foundation.

Along with the $25,000 prize, recipients join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of nearly 3,000 top teachers, principals, and specialists. The network serves as a rich resource for fellow educators, legislators, school boards, and others dedicated to excellence in education.

The honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles in June 2024, where they will network with their new colleagues, as well as with veteran Milken Educators and other education leaders about how to increase their impact on K-12 education.

In addition, they will learn about how to become involved in the Milken Friends Forever (MFF) mentoring program, in which new Milken Educators receive personalized coaching and support from a Milken Educator veteran on ways to elevate their instructional practice and take an active role in educational leadership, policy, and practice.

Veteran Milken Educators demonstrate a wide range of leadership roles at state, national, and international levels. The Milken Educator 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.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.