Thurgood Marshall Academy students cheer as their physics teacher, Kena Allison, is surprised with a $25,000 award from the Milken Family Foundation. (Milken Family Foundation)

The students of Anacostia’s Thurgood Marshall Academy filed into the school gym Thursday morning for a pep rally to celebrate their academic accomplishments over the past year.

Only after a school cheer and several speeches did they discover the second, secret reason they’d been called together: to witness physics teacher Kena Allison receiving a surprise $25,000 check for her exemplary work as an educator.

The news triggered an outpouring from students, who jumped to their feet and broke into a spontaneous chant — “Allison! Allison!” — in celebration of their teacher.

“I don’t know what to say, because I’m caught off guard. But thank you,” said Allison, who spent a year in medical school before deciding nearly a decade ago to devote herself to teaching.

“I’ve been able to make choices in my life because of the education that I was given, and that is what we want for you,” Allison said, speaking past a bank of television cameras to the students of Thurgood Marshall, a charter high school known for its success preparing children — many of whom come from the District’s poorest neighborhoods — for college.

The award was delivered by Michael Milken on behalf of the Milken Family Foundation, which has recognized nearly 2,600 teachers and principals across the country since 1987.

Milken told students that he hopes the sizable cash prize and media attention send a message about the value of teachers, who have “the most important jobs in America” but are rarely heralded publicly.

“As a society, we are quick to recognize greatness in so many things,” said Milken, pointing to headlines about Olympic medalists and Grammy Award winners. “We cannot thank our teachers and principals enough.

“They could have gone into many other fields, but they chose education because it’s the most important thing for our future,” added Milken, who became infamous for helping develop the junk-bond market in the 1980s before pleading guilty to felony securities and reporting violations. His philanthropic efforts have focused on education and medicine.

Thurgood Marshall students know Allison as a creative and dedicated teacher. She stays after school as late as necessary to help anyone who’s struggling, they say, and she creates lessons that keep class engaging, among them a project on the physics of sports and a field trip to the roller coasters at Paramount’s Kings Dominion, near Richmond.

“She shows us she cares by all the time and effort she puts in,” said Malik Goins, 17, a senior. “She’s there regardless of what you need.” Asked about Allison’s award, he didn’t hesitate: “She deserves it.”

Allison’s colleagues know her as a cornerstone at Thurgood Marshall. She helped design a mentoring system to help orient freshmen to the school’s rigorous demands. Many students enter the school several years behind in math and reading.

She also runs the orientation for new teachers, coaches fellow teachers throughout the year and has received the school’s “Dr. Phil” award, a sign of her reputation for giving good advice.

“Kena believes in all children. The energy she has for students and possibilities is contagious,” said Alexandra Pardo, Thurgood Marshall’s executive director. “She pushes students more than anyone else in our building.”