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The "Oscar of Teaching" for South Carolina Goes to … Leslie Sullivan of North Charleston

Palmetto Scholars Academy teacher earns Milken Educator Award for bringing history to life

February 11, 2020

Santa Monica, Calif.,  — The 2020 Oscars season may have ended, but the Milken Family Foundation's "Oscars of Teaching" celebrations are in full swing. Today's stop was North Charleston, South Carolina, where social studies teacher Leslie Sullivan was surprised at Palmetto Scholars Academy with a $25,000 Milken Educator Award that she can use however she wishes. 

National Institute for Excellence in Teaching CEO Dr. Candice McQueen and South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman bestowed the honor upon Sullivan before an all-school assembly of cheering students, colleagues, local and state dignitaries, and the media. 

Sullivan is the only South Carolina recipient of the Award for the 2019-20 school year and among up to 40 educators nationwide to receive the recognition this season. 

Hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching," the Milken Educator Awards celebrate, elevate and activate the American teaching profession and inspire young, capable people to join it.

"Leslie Sullivan takes her students on historical journeys where they dig deeply into rich text, make connections between past and present, think and question, and discover more about themselves and their place in the world," said Dr. McQueen. "We are proud to welcome her into the national Milken Educator Network and proud of her service to students in South Carolina's public schools. We know she will write her own rich history of accomplishments for years to come." 

The Milken Educator Award is not designated for lifetime achievement. Recipients are heralded while early to mid-career for what they have achieved — and for the promise of what they will accomplish given the resources and opportunities inherent in the Award. 

"Being named a Milken Educator Award winner is one of the highest honors an educator can receive," said Superintendent Spearman. "Leslie's passion for teaching and her ability to engage students and deepen their understanding of history uniquely qualify her for this prestigious honor. I want to thank the Milken Family Foundation for the partnership we share in recognizing outstanding educators like Leslie and look forward to future efforts to showcase and uplift the teaching profession." 

More About Leslie Sullivan 

Innovation: Leslie Sullivan is a master of content for her honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes, including U.S. history, government and economics. In her class students recreate Revolutionary War battlefields out of dough, participate in Socratic seminars, and engage in sophisticated discussions of historical and current events, exploring political and cultural dynamics. In one project, Sullivan asks students and parents to recall two historical events that were significant in their lives, leading to meaningful discussions and high engagement as the generations participate together in the learning process. Sullivan designs every activity, from mock trial and writing to researching primary sources, to foster inquiry-based learning, deepen students’ understanding, connect history to the present, and encourage them to think and question. 

Dedication and Classroom Impact: Palmetto Scholars Academy is in its 10th year; Sullivan has been there for seven and has personally taught every member of the school's first five graduating classes. She has served as a grade-level chair and leads the social studies department, as well as advising student government and senior capstone projects. Sullivan focuses on her students' social-emotional learning and creates opportunities to get to know them so she can meet their needs. She helps her AP U.S. History students prepare for the AP exams before school and on weekends, with notable results: 73% of her students earn passing scores, compared with the state average of 57%. More than three-quarters of Palmetto's graduates are enrolled in college or have earned degrees, and alumni say that Sullivan's high expectations have helped them in their postsecondary studies. 

Leadership Beyond the Classroom Walls: A role model to her peers, Sullivan has mentored new teachers, led professional development for Palmetto faculty and contributes lesson plans to an online network for AP U.S. History teachers. Each summer she attends intensive social studies courses, including sessions at Stanford University and the Library of Congress. Sullivan has presented at national, state and regional conferences about her work on National History Day (NHD), a program she helped establish at Palmetto and has advised, judged and coached. Sullivan has taken groups to the national finals in Washington, D.C., for the past four years; in 2018, two of her students placed second in the country for their documentary about the role The Coca-Cola Company played in Atlanta's civil rights movement.

Education: Sullivan earned a Bachelor of Arts in history in 2005 from Ohio State University and a Master of Arts in Teaching in social studies from The Citadel in 2011. She is working on a second master's in history through the Gilder Lehrman Institute and Pace University. 

More information about Sullivan, plus links to photos and video from today's assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at   

More About the Milken Educator Awards: "The future belongs to the educated."

The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987. The Awards, created by Lowell Milken, 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. 

Along with the $25,000 financial prize, recipients join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,800 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 2019-20 honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Forum in Indianapolis March 26-28, 2020, where they will network with their new colleagues and exchange ideas with state and federal leaders on the future of education. In addition, the Milken Educator Awards' "Why Not Us" program will pair each 2019-2020 recipient with a veteran Milken Educator mentor to explore and prepare for expanded leadership roles that strengthen education practice and policy.

  • Over the years, more than $140 million in funding, including $70 million for the individual cash awards, has been devoted to the overall Milken Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients' careers. 
  • The Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators; this season honors secondary school teachers. 
  • Veteran Milken Educators frequently go on to leadership roles at state, national and international levels. 
  • Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Awards has no formal nomination or application process. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels in each state. Those most exceptional are recommended for the Award, with final selection made by the Milken Family Foundation. 
  • The cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways; for instance, on their children's or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even on the adoption of children.   

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Everyone is encouraged to watch the tour at, and

For more information, visit or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.