Jessica Cunningham accepts 2015 Milken Educators Award. (Photo by courtesy of Milken Family Foundation.)

America’s true unsung heroes work daily to educate youth who shape the future. This is the belief of Lowell Milken, who established the Milken Educator Awards program in 1987 to recognize the outstanding work of early-to-mid career education professionals across the country.

Jessica Cunningham, principal of KIPP DC College Preparatory, received this recognition and $25,000 at a ceremony in the school’s newly renovated building in Northeast D.C., on Oct 8. Over the years, much has been said about the woman known as “a franchise quarterback” in the KIPP national network of schools. KIPP stands for Knowledge is Power Program.

“She is one of our most incredible school leaders in our KIPP network. She’s been with us since 2003 and has done incredible things for our students as a teacher, as founding principal of KIPP DC Will Academy for our middle schoolers and as the principal of College Prep,” Lindsay Kelly, KIPP DC director of communications and marketing told the AFRO.

Under the guise of a ribbon cutting, Cunningham assembled in the school’s gymnasium along with students, teachers, and leaders including D.C. State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang and KIPP DC Founder and CEO Susan Schaeffler. After learning the ceremony was in her honor, Cunningham was floored. “I don’t know what to say,” she told the crowd.

KIPP Prep is the highest performing open enrollment high school in Washington, D.C. It boasts D.C. CAS (Comprehensive Assessment System) proficiency rates that increased by 19 points in math and reading during her tenure, with 20 percent of students enrolled in the special education program. Prep’s graduation rate is 99 percent and the college matriculation rate was 89 percent in 2013 and 2014.

An Aspen Scholar, Cunningham develops curriculum and delivers professional development courses as part of the KIPP Foundation’s School Leadership Program. She informally mentors several school leaders around the country and coaches KIPP national administrators.

Not only has she garnered respect from colleagues, but from students as she’s known for speaking the truth, instilling accountability, and providing productive feedback. “She spoke to me about expectations,” says Andrew Kingsbury, a first year transfer student at Prep. “I already see a difference in my grades.”

While Cunningham’s work is quite extensive, the award is not an accolade for “lifetime achievement,” said Milken. Instead, it is for the promise of what she will accomplish in the future.