Middle school teacher at top-performing Chicago school receives $25,000 prize

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Comfort Agboola was considering her upcoming math lesson while supervising her middle school students during a gathering this morning to commemorate her school’s recent achievement as one of only five majority-Black Chicago schools to receive an “Exemplary” designation from the state.

At least, that’s what she believed the gathering was for.

Until one of the attendees at the gathering stepped forward to announce a $25,000 prize to one of Poe Classical Elementary School’s teachers. It was Agboola.

The gymnasium exploded with applause and cheers as Poe students waved light blue Poe Classical flags and paper signs with Agboola’s face on them. The sparkling Poe cheer team burst into dance, and colleagues rushed to embrace a shocked Agboola.

The event attracted some notable guests – including Congresswoman Robin Kelly, State Superintendent of Education Tony Sanders, and Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Pedro Martinez – to the selective enrollment school in the city’s Pullman neighborhood.

Jane Foley, the senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards, announced the prize, which is given to up to 75 educators across the U.S.

Agboola is the sole Illinois educator to receive the prize this year and the first Chicago Public Schools district teacher to receive the award since 2010.

The Milken Educator Award was established by Lowell Milken in 1987 to commend early- to mid-career education professionals based on their accomplishments and “the promise of what they will achieve,” according to a press release from the Milken Family Foundation.

“I was just in shock,” Agboola said afterwards. “It motivates me to do more in the classroom.”

Martinez stated in a release that Agboola’s “exceptional efforts” for her students “demonstrate what we as a District can accomplish if we continue to focus on core instruction and welcoming, supportive school communities.”

In addition to the cash prize, awardees attend an all-expenses-paid forum with Milken in Los Angeles, receive mentorship opportunities, and become lifetime members of the Milken Educator Network, a nationwide group of educators and education professionals that includes past award recipients.

“They never let you go,” said Mark Jordan, who won the award in 1989 when he taught music at Gompers Fine Arts Option School in Chicago.

“It’s the Oscars of education. I don’t see anyone saying I do it for the accolades,” he said after helping to present the award to Agboola Friday. “So, if I see another educator being honored, I want to be there.”

The $25,000 prize is unrestricted, and recipients have used the money in diverse ways, including spending funds on their children’s or their own education, establishing scholarships, or taking a dream vacation, according to the press release.

Agboola teaches reading, English language arts, and math at Poe. Her passion, however, is writing, and she brings that passion into the class. In her classroom, for example, students have a living room, library, and publishing area where they can practice spelling and respond to writing prompts on a collection of typewriters, while also learning about typewriter mechanics.

Outside of the classroom, Agboola expands student learning with opportunities like spelling bees, a podcast club, debate, and Model UN. She has earned several other distinctions including a Pulitzer Center Teacher Fellowship, the 2020-21 Network 13 Teacher of the Year Award, and the State of Illinois’ 2023 Meritorious Service Award in the Teacher Category.

“I like her teaching style,” said Jayson Ridgell, one of Agboola’s sixth grade students. “She doesn’t yell and she’s patient.”

He said Ms. A, as her students call her, visits every table in the classroom to work with individual students.

Agboola joined Poe in 2020 during the pandemic and spent her first year there teaching virtually, but that wasn’t the first challenge she’s faced in her teaching career.

In her first teaching job at the now-closed St. Hyacinth Basilica School in Avondale more than a decade ago, she worked with a young student who was non-verbal. When the student spoke for the first time in Agboola’s presence, she knew teaching was her calling – just as it was her mother’s.

“Parents are sending their most valuable thing to us,” she said. “I know that anything they do they are still growing and learning. They need our support.”

When the celebration subsided and most students returned to their classes, Agboola remained surrounded by cameras as she called another important educator in her life: her mother.

“I just want to thank you too, mom,” she said over the phone. “Because you inspired me in your career as an educator.”