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Durham Principal Asia Cunningham First in District to Be Honored with North Carolina Milken Educator Award and $25,000 Cash Prize

During coast-to-coast tour, Cunningham of Pearsontown Elementary was surprised with national Award recognizing innovation and outstanding leadership in education

November 03, 2023

DURHAM, N.C.   Principal Asia Cunningham of Pearsontown Elementary received the surprise of a lifetime today when she was presented with a national Milken Educator Award from the Milken Family Foundation at a schoolwide assembly in front of cheering students, colleagues, dignitaries and media. The Award honors outstanding educators across the country for their innovation, achievements and exemplary leadership and includes a cash prize of $25,000 that the recipients may use however they choose. 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.  

Milken Educator Awards Vice President Stephanie Bishop, joined by North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, presented the Award —the first in Durham Public Schools since the Awards’ creation in 1987. 

"A committed, passionate leader can facilitate positive change, and this is evident at Pearsontown Elementary under the direction of Principal Asia Cunningham," said Bishop, who is a 2001 Milken Educator herself from Virginia. "Her effective leadership style and dedication to academic growth for all are ensuring limitless opportunities for success among student body and staff. Welcome to our national Milken Educator Network and congratulations!" 

Hailed as the "Oscars of Teaching," the Awards will honor up to 75 recipients across the country this school year as part of the Milken Family Foundation's Journey to the 3,000th Milken Educator. This season will reach $75 million in individual financial prizes spanning the length of the initiative and more than $144 million invested in the Milken Educator Award national network overall, empowering recipients to "Celebrate, Elevate, and Activate" the K-12 profession and inspiring young, capable people to pursue teaching as a career.  

"It's widely known the impact a principal makes on their school, and Ms. Cunningham has made a tremendous impact to say the least," Superintendent 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."  
More About Asia Cunningham  

Using Data to Drive Instruction: Principal Cunningham focuses on data-based strategies where she collaborates with the leadership team to monitor, analyze and develop instructional plans for each student. She sets clear expectations for staff and students and emphasizes the importance of strategic professional development centered around student data and academic growth. Cunningham believes in a whole-child approach, investing in her students' social and emotional needs to help bolster academic achievement. Under Cunningham’s leadership, Pearsontown Elementary has been recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, a National PTA School of Excellence, and a Magnet School of America. 

Prioritizes Fun and Family Engagement to Improve Learning: Cunningham places value on involving families in their children's academic careers and creates opportunities that allow them to engage in the school community socially and academically, such as "Schoolwide Kid Talk" community discussions, "We are Kings and We are Queens," a program that empowers young girls and boys to advocate for more equitable practices in schools and become agents of change, and the creation of a Parent Night pep rally for parents and teachers before state testing. Her positive leadership approach has included hosting teacher groups, establishing a support system and connection with the school community for new families as well as creating fun, morale-boosting activities. For example, her 'Taking Flight' theme at the start of the new year involved herself as the pilot, along with flight attendants, boarding passes and snack cards to board the airplane – symbolizing togetherness and cohesion of mission on their journey to success.   

Communitywide Leadership Evident to All: 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 is a North Carolina Principal Fellow and collaborates with the Central Carolina Regional Education Service Alliance to mentor aspiring principals. 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. 

Education: 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. 

More about the Milken Educator Award Journey: "The Future Belongs to the Educated" 

  • The honorees 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 veteran Milken Educators and other education leaders about how to broaden their impact on K-12 education. 
  • Honorees receive powerful mentorship opportunities for expanded leadership roles that strengthen education practice and policy. Milken Friends Forever (MFF) pairs a new recipient with a veteran Milken Educator mentor; the Expanding MFF Resource and Explorer Program fosters individual veteran Milken Educator partnerships around a specific topic area; and Activating Milken Educators (AME) promotes group collaboration in and across states to tackle pressing educational needs.
  • Veteran Milken Educators demonstrate a wide range of leadership roles at state, national and international levels. 
  • The $25,000 cash Award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways. Some recipients have spent the funds on their children's or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even adopting children. 

Follow the Milken Educator Awards tour and use the #MEA3K and #MilkenAward hashtags on: Facebook (MilkenEducatorAwards | X (Milken) | YouTube (MilkenAward) | Instagram (MilkenFamilyFdn) | LinkedIn (MilkenFamilyFdn) | TikTok (MilkenAward).   

Visit or call the Milken Family Foundation at (310) 570-4772 for more information.  

About the Milken Educator Awards  
The first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987. Created by Lowell Milken, the Awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals, and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. The Milken Family Foundation celebrates more than 40 years of elevating education in America and around the world. Learn more at