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Alumna honored for excellence in education

By Correy Hudson

Jessica Cunningham speaking with reporters moments after winning the Milken Educator Award

Photo courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation

Jessica Cunningham, CAS/MAT ’03, was not unlike many college graduates when she completed her undergraduate studies. Unsure of the path that she wanted to follow, the native Washingtonian returned home while contemplating her next steps. After a brief stint working for an energy lobbying firm, she realized that her true passion was actually in service work.

“I was always fascinated with teaching” says Cunningham. As the daughter of a teacher, she’s always had a front row seat to the inner workings of the profession. Cunningham decided to apply for DC Teaching Fellows, a program that recruits career-changers and recent college graduates to teach in “high-need” schools across the country. The decision changed her life.

Thirteen years after completing her Master’s in Teaching at AU, Jessica Cunningham is now a rising star in the KIPP Public Charter Schools system. According to KIPP DC’s website, KIPP is a non-profit network of college-preparatory, public charter schools serving elementary, middle, and high school students. After starting out as a teacher, Cunningham went on to become the founding principal of KIPP DC WILL Academy, the organization’s third established middle school in the city. During her 11 years with the organization, she has opened one school and lead turnarounds at two others.

“One of the many things I love about my job is that I get to do lots of different things” says Cunningham. In her role as principal at KIPP DC College Preparatory, Cunningham does everything from staff recruitment and development, to hosting tours, to one-on-one conferences with students.

“I love my current job. I’m happy being at work right now,” she says.

Jessica’s hard work and dedication has not gone unnoticed. While attending a morning assembly in October, Cunningham’s staff and students thought that the highlight of the program would be the official opening of the renovated high school. That morning, Jessica Cunningham was honored with the Milken Educator Award, which has been described as “the nation’s preeminent teacher recognition program” and “the “Oscars of Teaching” by Teacher magazine. Additionally, she was awarded $25,000. Cunningham was in complete shock.

“You just go to work every day and do the best that you can,” she said. “This not a field that you get into because you think you’re going to get an award.”

Jessica Cunningham has truly found her life’s passion. She says that she is incredibly grateful to the professors she had at AU and mentors who have taught her along the way. Cunningham believes that her quality of life is better because of the experiences with her students and their families. With passion in her voice, she excitedly proclaims, “they have improved my life!”