Teacher surprised with $25,000 award

Teacher Jamilla Rice is glad she went to work last Friday at Northside Urban Pathways Charter School, because when she left at the end of the day, she was $25,000 richer.

A Nov. 6 assembly at the school, complete with a student steel drum band playing 1940’s swing jazz, was not part of a visit by state Deputy Education Secretary Michael Walsh, as she’d been led to believe. It was a ruse to surprise her with the Milken Educator Award.

BIG WINNER—Jamila Rice, a teacher at Northside Urban Pathways Charter School, holds her $25,000 check.

Michael Milken, a cancer survivor who paid a $200 million fine and went to jail for securities violations in the early 1990s, established the Milken Family Foundation in 1987 to honor achievements in education and medicine. Since then, the foundation has honored more than 2,400 educators with more than $60 million in cash awards.

“With these awards, we are looking for a person who makes a difference in the life of a child and has a love of learning,” said Milken. “She is a symbol of hope for all of our children, who can show them it’s not where you start that matters.”

Rice, who was initially shocked into speechlessness, is now a member of that special group of awardees. And once she found her voice, she thanked her students for living up to the tough standard she sets, and her mother for being her inspiration.

“I couldn’t have done this without all of you,” she said to her students. “That’s why I’m so hard on you. You can do it if you want it bad enough.”

Rice, 37, talked of growing up in Section 8 housing on Hamilton Avenue in Homewood and watching her mother, Aisha White, a librarian and adjunct teacher at the school, work and attend school to improve their lives. Both fought back tears as they hugged after the announcement.

“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 earned her bachelor’s degree in seven years, kept on going and got her master’s and Ph.D.,” said Rice. “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.”

One of Rice’s students, Aimee Weis of Observatory Hill, said knowing that her teacher is one of the best is “awesome.”

“Miss Rice doesn’t ask for anything more than what we can do. She doesn’t accept anything less than our best,” she said.

A graduate of Schenley High School, Rice earned her bachelor’s degree at Hampton University.

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. She is also working on a master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh.

Though her mother inspired her, Rice said she went into teaching to help children growing up in circumstances like hers. She said she chose working at a charter school because of the autonomy and the small size.

“I chose teaching because she saw inequities. Poor people, people who did not have parents were not being given the same kind of educational opportunities,” she said. “I wanted to be an advocate.”

In addition to the $25,000—which Rice said she hasn’t yet decided how to spend, she will attend the Milken Educator Forum in Los Angeles next year where she will be recognized again with all the 2009 winners.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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