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When Jessica Barnette gathered her kindergarten and first-grade students this morning to walk to Rocky Point Elementary’s multi-purpose room, she thought they were attending a preview of the school’s winter concert. She must have been a bit puzzled by the presence of the district superintendent and several unfamiliar adults. After all, the big event was the following evening.

But the big event, Barnette quickly learned, was right then, and it was for her – and not because today also happened to be her birthday. She was in the limelight herself and being handed an early Christmas gift – a $25,000 check that comes with being named a national Milken Educator Award winner. She is among up to 40 elementary educators across the nation who will receive the Milken award during the 2022-23 school year.

Now in her seventh year of teaching, all at Pender County’s Rocky Point Elementary School, Barnette has established herself at the school as a leader both inside the classroom and out for the strength of her instruction, the relationships she forges with her students and their families and her collaborative support for her fellow educators.

The Milken Family Foundation bestows the award annually to recognize exceptional early-to-mid career education professionals. Candidates for the award are identified through a confidential selection process and then reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the award, with final approval by the Milken Family Foundation.

Milken Educator Awards Vice President Stephanie Bishop was joined by Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt to present Barnette with the prestigious recognition and the unrestricted cash prize to be used however she likes.

“Seeing success in one grade is tremendous, but Jessica’s excellent teaching skills have helped bring growth to her class of early learners in both kindergarten and first grade – a significant feat!” said Bishop, herself a 2001 Virginia Milken Educator. “Celebrating this Award together with a birthday is a special moment for all of us. We are proud of everything Jessica has done in her career and look forward to seeing her reach even greater heights.”

Truitt said that early-grades students at Rocky Point Elementary are very lucky to get Jessica as one of their first – if not very first – teachers as they start school.

“It’s no surprise that she is constantly requested by students and parents to loop to the next grade level with her from one year to the next,” Truitt said. “She starts by creating great relationships with her students and their families and shows true excitement with their learning.

“And learn they do — virtually all of her students last year were above grade level on their mClass reading assessments.”

Dr. Michael Bracy, acting superintendent of Pender County Schools, said that Barnette gives her early grades students the personalized care and strong support needed to succeed as they progress to the next grade and beyond.

“It’s so important that children begin their educational career in an engaging environment, and Ms. Barnette definitely provides that,” Bracy said. “Jessica has said that education is a lifelong journey, and at their onset, she is providing students the tools needed for that journey.”

Even with the school’s youngest students, Barnette is known for her close attention to data, for setting measurable goals and following up with targeted and effective interventions to ensure her students’ success. She provides small group, differentiated learning approaches that prove effective with student growth and achievement. She works hard to challenge her students to believe in their abilities to succeed.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to quickly transition to largely untried remote teaching and learning, Barnette shifted effortlessly from in-person to virtual instruction – and was also instrumental in helping her colleagues do the same.

April Perkins, principal of Rocky Point, said that students thrive in Barnette’s classroom.

“She displays endless energy throughout her daily lessons and excitement when students demonstrate understanding or mastery of concepts,” Perkins said. “She is constantly requested by students and parents to loop to the next grade level.”

One colleague said “her students are eager to demonstrate their knowledge, her students are hungry for more. Her students and parents recognize that she is vested in their academic success.”

Barnette is known also for being vested in the success of her school and her colleagues. She has served as grade-level chair and on various school leadership teams as well as with districtwide committees.

So effective is she as a mentor to new teachers and as a partnership teacher to student-teachers, that other educators have urged her to transition out of the classroom to become an instructional coach. She’s responded that “the classroom is where she wants to be.”

Sometimes more than one classroom.

To accommodate school staffing changes midyear, Barnette jumped in to create engaging standards-aligned lessons for instructional assistants and substitutes in three other classrooms to make sure students’ learning continued without interruption. “She did the planning and instruction successfully all while maintaining her own,” said one colleague.

Barnette earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in elementary education in 2015 and a master’s degree in elementary education in 2017, both from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Along with the $25,000 prize, recipients join the national Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,900 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 honorees will also attend an all-expenses-paid Milken Educator Awards Forum in Los Angeles in April 2023, where they will network with their new colleagues as well as veteran Milken Educators and other education leaders about how to increase their impact on K-12 education.

In addition, they will learn about how to become involved in the Milken Friends Forever (MFF) mentoring program, in which new Milken Educators receive personalized coaching and support from a Milken Educator veteran on ways to elevate their instructional practice and take an active role in educational leadership, policy and practice.

Veteran Milken Educators demonstrate a wide range of leadership roles at state, national and international levels.

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