Newark educator wins teaching 'Oscar' and $25K check

By Laura Herzog | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on December 04, 2015

North Star Academy calculus and AP computer science teacher Allison Cuttler won the prestigious $25,000 Milken Educator Award, also known as the "Oscar" for teachers. The award ceremony surprised students and Cuttler, who though they were at a presentation on college and career readiness.

 

NEWARK— When calculus and AP computer science teacher Allison Cuttler was announced as the recipient of the $25,000 Milken Educator Award — sometimes called the "Oscar" for teaching — students at North Star Academy in Newark stood up and gave her an enthusiastic, standing ovation.

Cuttler, who has a master's from the University of California in applied math, was surprised with the award during an assembly Thursday afternoon on college and career readiness.

"Surreal," the teacher said afterwards. "I love these kids, I love this school, and these students are just phenomenal."

Cuttler, who has been teaching at North Star Academy for five years, was chosen for the award by the Milken Family Foundation, a private foundation focused on education, public health and medical research.

Cuttler's high-performing charter school serves over 4,000 students, 94 percent of whom are African-American or Hispanic, and 87 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced price lunch, according to the foundation.

When officials asked the students at the assembly who was going to college, all hands appeared to go up.

Cuttler was recognized by the foundation for starting the AP computer science program and an after school club, "Girls Who Code," as well as working with teachers to provide professional development, lesson plan feedback and student data analysis. 

Last year, in her second year teaching computer science at North Star, Cuttler said, 100 percent of her 14 students passed the AP exam, getting a 3 or higher.

The national pass rate is 64 percent, school officials said, and 10 of the 39 African-American students from N.J. who passed the AP computer science test last year were from North Star Academy.

What's her teaching "secret"?

"I think when students see you are 100 percent committed to their learning, and you are doing everything necessary to help them improve, they respond by doing their best," Cuttler said. "The first time they'e get the computer to do something they want it to do, it's an amazing moment for me."

Cuttler's computer science students begin their year by getting a computer to do something simple, like typing out "Hello World," she said. Then, they progress to learning Java, and eventually some make "80s style" video games, like Pacman and Pong.

Her no-strings-attached $25,000 check, she said, would probably be going toward the school: "all of the technology and cool gadgets" that can get students excited about the computer science program.

Earlier this year, the Milken Foundation presented its award to a health care teacher at a traditional public high school in Union City. Cuttler is the second N.J. recipient of the national award this year, which will ultimately go to up to only 40 teachers across the U.S., the foundation said.

Michael Mann, the head of the school, said that he believed Cuttler has "changed (her students') life trajectories." 

Among the students who jumped up to clap for Cuttler was junior Steven Hightower, 17, a calculus student who called Cuttler "very supportive and patient."

"She actually fully made me understand it and actually have a passion for understanding calculus," he said. "I love her as a teacher."

Hightower takes advantage of Cuttler's lunch and after-school tutoring, and enjoys her "brownie points"; Cuttler gives the class brownies when it does well, he said. 

"Calculus is never supposed to be easy, you know. It's about not being a math whiz. It's about how hardworking you are... It's rigorous, but if you persevere against all the obstacles, and all the difficulty, then you will be successful," he observed. "(Ms. Cuttler) actually did say that."

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