Raisa Eady never saw it coming — which was by design.
The biology teacher at Pinson Valley High School knew something big was happening when officials from the Alabama State Department of Education, Jefferson County Schools, local governments and the Milken Family Foundation showed up for an assembly in the school auditorium. Some teacher was about to receive a big award.
But when her name was announced as the winner of the Milken Educator Award, she sat in disbelief.
“When it (the announcement) happened, everyone looked around and I said, ‘Oh, it is me?’ They said yes and I said, ‘No way!’” Eady told reporters afterward. “I’m so honored and overwhelmed today. I definitely had no idea this was happening. … I have not even grasped what’s happened yet. I feel extremely blessed, grateful — and overwhelmed.”
She did have a literal grasp on a big check, though. The award, given by the Milken Family Foundation, comes with a prize of $25,000, and no restrictions on how it may be used.
Shortly after the ceremony, Eady took time out to call her mother with the good news. Mom’s reaction came loud and clear through the speakerphone: “I love you, baby!”
Dubbed by Teacher magazine as “the Oscars of Education,” the Milken Awards are given to teachers who are in the early or middle stages of their careers, based not only on their work to date but also on the promise they show for the future. The foundation, founded by education philanthropist Lowell Milken and his brother, former financier-turned-philanthropist Michael Milken, started giving the awards in 1987. So far, more than 2,800 educators like Eady have received more than $70 million through the program.
Eady said she knew she wanted to be a teacher early in life. “I had excellent educators when I was growing up in Jefferson County, from kindergarten up to high school. And I knew I wanted to be an educator to do the same thing for my kids that they did for me,” she said. “I was always blessed to have a strong educational foundation, and my grandmother was a pre-school teacher as well.”
Eady is the second teacher in the Jefferson County School System to receive a Milken Award. Jennifer Edwards, then a teacher at Hillview Elementary School in Forestdale, won in 2010.
Eady is a product of JefCoEd, graduating in 2007 from Minor High School in Adamsville. She has taught at Pinson Valley for six years, after two years at Hueytown High.
When principal Michael Turner arrived at Pinson Valley in 2015, Eady “immediately caught my eye of having a heart for children and a heart for education. Regardless of what grade level I assigned her, she taught those kids at the level where they were … and provided great rigor and application,” he said. “I was astounded by her. I thought, ‘This teacher’s really got things figured out.’”
The Milken team receives suggestions about possible awardees from state education departments; teachers are not nominated by others in the traditional sense. Indeed, there’s a bit of an air of secrecy around the awards, which are almost always presented in a surprise ceremony with only principals and a handful of administrators knowing the recipient’s name until the presentation.
State Superintendent Eric Mackey was on hand for Wednesday’s event, along with JefCoEd Interim Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin, Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight, Pinson Mayor Hoyt Sanders and members of the Pinson City Council.
Eady is the third winner from metro Birmingham in as many years. Vincent Chiaramonte from Hoover’s Bumpus Middle School won in 2017, and Heather Hurt from Vestavia Hills Elementary received the award last year.
Eady’s award marks a milestone in the recent comeback of Pinson Valley High, which was marked as a failing school by the State Department of Education just three years ago. The testing numbers have improved markedly during that time, moving PVHS well out of the failing-school category. The school also has gained attention thanks to its recent success in sports, as the Indians have won back-to-back state Class 6A championships in football plus a title last year in boys’ basketball.
“Pinson Valley’s had one piece of big news after another for the past few years now,” Mackey said.