Cumberland County teacher chosen for rare national honor

Published 4:52 pm Wednesday, December 14, 2022

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CUMBERLAND – Pamela Stepko was surprised. The math interventionist, who works at Cumberland Elementary, thought she was going into a school rally Wednesday to celebrate literacy. Instead, the Cumberland County teacher was in shock as her name was called and she walked to the middle of the room. Stepko was announced as the recipient of one of this year’s Milken Educator Awards, marking the first time a teacher from Cumberland earned the honor. 

Consider the Milken Educator Awards to be like the Oscars of Education. For the last 35 years, the Milken Family Foundation has honored top educators across the country. The winners get $25,000, to use however they want. They also get lifelong memberships in the Milken Educator Network. That’s a group with more than 2,900 members, each a former Milken award winner. Milken staff members said Pamela made an impression.

“Pamela Stepko’s unique combination of leadership and classroom experience makes her a valuable asset to Cumberland Elementary School and the community at large,” said Milken Awards Vice President Stephanie Bishop. “Through her creativity, compassion and high expectations for excellence, Pamela builds both academic skill and the confidence in her students to become productive young citizens.”

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With both the First Lady of Virginia, Suzanne Youngkin, and the Virginia Secretary of Education on hand, Stepko was honored in front of a crowd of cheering students and colleagues. 

This is a great day for Ms. Stepko, her family and the entire school community,” said Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chip Jones. “Moments and educators like this are what make Cumberland such a special place.” 

A different way to approach math

Stepko approaches math in different ways. She writes problems on the windows, so students can see both the lesson and get a chance to look outdoors. She builds visual projects and encourages students to as well, through opportunities like her Cumberland Elementary Initiatives on YouTube and Twitter. By switching the visual to something students relate to, it helps her engage with them. Stemko also sets math problems to music, led the project to build the school’s “Collaboration Highway” and uses data-driven methods. This way, she can build lessons targeted to all of the students. 

Her efforts are working. Cumberland Elementary’s scores on state math tests have jumped 20% since Stepko came on board. 

“Pamela has an unshakable belief that every child can achieve success in math and this is reflected in the 20-point jump in math performance Cumberland Elementary achieved last year,” Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said. “She scrutinizes data to plot a path forward for every child in her school and is constantly finding creative ways to excite young minds about the wonders and possibilities of mathematics.”

Cumberland County teacher

From left, Stephanie Bishop, vice president of the Milken Educator Awards; Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chip Jones; Cumberland Elementary School Principal Virginia Gills; Milken Award recipient Pamela Stepko; First Lady of Virginia Suzanne S. Youngkin; and Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow all pose with Stepko’s check.

Cumberland County teacher remains

This marks Stepko’s seventh year in the Cumberland school district, a period that she’s spent entirely at Cumberland Elementary. During that time, she’s worked with pre-K students, spent years as a second and third grade teacher, as well as assistant principal. Now she serves third and fourth grade. 

She becomes just the 48th Virginian to receive a Milken Educator Award. Since the launch of the project in 1987, the Milken family has given out $70 million to more than 2,800 educators across the nation. 

“We are very excited and proud of Ms. Stepko for being selected as the Milken Foundation recipient for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Chip Jones. “She is a dedicated educator that works tirelessly for the children of Cumberland County Elementary School and her fellow colleagues. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this award.”