H-E-B Recognizes Exceptional Educators with Surprise Cash Rewards

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Bekah S. McNeelThis morning at 9:20 am, a secret operation was in full swing at Lopez Middle School. Walkie-talkies buzzed and beeped. Hushed school officials ushered adults in and out of the library door on the side of the school, asking for identification and urging discretion. In the corner of the library, a crowd gathered around an oversized sack of groceries that was waving and smiling.

H-E-Buddy, the grocery store chain's mascot that promotes healthy eating habits for kids, was with a cohort of reporters, H-E-B staff and NEISD Superintendent Brian G. Gottardy. The secret mission: to deliver a surprise announcement to Principal Barry Lanford that he is one of five regional finalists for HEB's Excellence in Education Award in the Administrative category. (H-E-B is a sponsor of the Rivard Report.)

The plan hinged on getting 1,500 middle school students together in the gymnasium, under the pretense of unveiling a "lip dub" video that had become a school-wide undertaking. The hovering press were attributed to the video "going viral." No one outside a select group of teachers and administrators knew about the surprise interruption planned.

The Lopez MS Choir entertains the crowd at the pep-rally, completely unaware of the surprises to come.

The Lopez MS Choir entertains the crowd at the pep-rally, completely unaware of the surprises to come.

Throughout today and tomorrow, this balloon-wielding troop will surprise administrators and teachers around the city to inform them of their finalist status. (Stay tuned to the Rivard Report for an update to this story that will share the finalists' names and respective schools.)

Each finalist automatically receives $1,000 for themselves and $2,500 for their school. The winner, announced in May, will receive $10,000 for themselves and $25,000 for their school. More than $500,000 will be awarded to select Texas school districts, campuses, administrators and teachers, and early childhood education providers through the award program this year.

In the gym, the din of middle school chatter was deafening, until Assistant Principal Kelli Skok instilled order with a call-and-response clap. A Glee-esque show choir performed, followed by marching and symphonic bands.

Then came the big moment, when Dr. Lanford stepped up to the microphone and explained the lip-dub project, providing a glimpse why he is a finalist for the award in the first place.

"When we have an idea here at Lopez Middle School, you make it happen," he said, congratulating the kids on their efforts with the video project.

He praised the student body as the H-E-Buddy brigade snuck into the back of the gym. Sensing an occasion for squealing, the children erupted with applause when they saw the oversized check for $1,000.

The HEB Buddy and Kimberly Harle present a check to  Dr. Barry Lanford while Superintendent Brian Gottardy expresses his appreciation. A see of middle school students await another chance to cheer.

The HEB Buddy and Kimberly Harle present a check to Dr. Barry Lanford while Superintendent Brian Gottardy expresses his appreciation. A sea of middle school students await another chance to cheer.

Aware of the covert operation around him, Dr. Lanford expressed gratitude, delight, and continued praise for the students.

"I am humbled ... words cannot begin to describe what this means and what you mean," Lanford said. "This is yours. I'm accepting it, but I'm accepting it on your behalf." The students cheered.

The surprise cake stashed in the library.

The surprise cake stashed in the library.

After that, with a handshake to H-E-B spokeswoman Kimberly Harle, and Superintendent Gottardy, Dr. Lanford was back to engaging with the students as they waited to watch the video.

The H-E-B crew moved on to their next destination, but we'll all have to wait to learn the details. It's a surprise, of course.

Since the award program’s inception in 2002, the San Antonio-based grocery chain and its partner, the Texas Association of School Administrators, has awarded nearly $6 million to various exemplary educational institutions and individuals in education.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

H-E-B’s Annual Education Awards: A Big Bet on Quality Public Education February 2013

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