$25K, national recognition for Philly teacher

Jayda Pugliese, a fifth-grade math and science teacher, gets a big hug from student David Perez at Jackson Elementary in South Philadelphia.

Jayda Pugliese's life shifted at 10:42 a.m. Wednesday, when a very wealthy man standing in a Philadelphia school gym announced that of all the teachers in the country, she was among the very best.

People were shouting. The fifth graders she teaches at Andrew Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia enveloped her in massive hugs.

The 29-year-old educator covered her face and began to cry.

Pugliese had won a Milken Educator Award, a prize touted as the "Oscars of Teaching" and given to just 35 teachers around the country each year.

There is no application process - "we find you," Milken Family Foundation cofounder Lowell Milken said - and the process is cloaked in secrecy. The entire school had been called to a fake assembly that had really been called in her honor.

It came down to this: Pugliese's parents didn't finish high school but wanted better for their daughter, and now, Mayor Kenney, School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., and state Education Secretary Pedro A. Rivera were standing in front of her, holding an oversize check for $25,000 with her name on it.

Eventually, someone handed her the microphone to say a few words to the 500 children gathered on the gym floor.

"You can change your life, and you can change everything that your family may or may not provide for you," Pugliese said. "Take your education seriously and when you get older, something like this can happen to you, too."

Milken himself was on hand to announce Pugliese's prize. His foundation has been rewarding teachers for 30 years, and the thrill never gets old, he said.

"A teacher can make a profound difference in the life of a child," Milken said.

Pugliese already has done so in the nine years she's been an educator, those who know her said.

"She's very kind and a good teacher," said Jacqueline Tan, one of Pugliese's students this year.

Pugliese has worked in the charter sector, at Community Academy of Philadelphia and in the ASPIRA network. She is now in her second year teaching science and math to fifth graders at Jackson, a vibrant neighborhood school where more than a dozen languages are spoken.

She's certified in regular and special education, and trains other teachers in integrating technology into their classrooms.

That Pugliese works close to the place where she grew up - at Sixth and Fitzwater Streets - is especially meaningful to her.

"I've been dedicated to the schools in Philadelphia for a long time," she said.

The daughter of an auto mechanic and a homemaker who worked at a McDonald's to help support her daughter's education, Pugliese attended St. Mary Interparochial School in Center City, then St. Maria Goretti High School.

Pugliese knows exactly what she's going to do with the money: finish her doctoral studies. She had begun work toward a degree at Holy Family, where she also earned her bachelor's and master's degrees, but had to stop.

"I recently had to take some time off because I couldn't afford to go to school anymore," she said.

Eventually, Pugliese said, she sees herself as a principal, a superintendent.

"I believe I know what it takes to change the world," she said. "I just need the opportunity to do it."

kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146@newskag

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