ST. PETERSBURG — Lukas Hefty almost didn't make it to school on Thursday.
His two young sons were battling the flu. But he heard some VIPs were coming to honor Jamerson Elementary, so Hefty had to be there. Cameron, 6, went with dad to school while Tate, 4, stayed home with grandma.
Dad dressed appropriately — a sharp suit and matching tie. He helped set up the assembly in the cafeteria that morning, wondering who they would recognize.
Turns out they came to recognize Hefty: The 33-year-old educator was stunned to learn he had won the prestigious national Milken Educator Award.
"I kind of felt like I was going to the showcase showdown on the Price Is Right," he said.
Hefty was standing in the back of the cafeteria when Milken Educator Awards senior vice president Jane Foley called out his name. Hundreds of students stood up, clapping and cheering. Hefty high-fived them on his way to the front.
His wife, Kelly Hefty, a third-grade teacher at Jamerson, joined her husband at the front with Cameron, a first-grader. They posed for a photo with a giant check for $25,000.
"We're going to Disney World, guys!" Lukas Hefty said.
Hefty, the school's engineering program coordinator, is one of 35 educators recognized nationwide — and the sole Florida recipient — as a rising star in the field of education in the 2016-17 school year. He can spend the $25,000 however he chooses.
He is the second Pinellas educator to receive the award after Palm Harbor University High teacher Anete Vasquez won it in 2001. The Tampa Bay region has had five winners, two from Hillsborough County and one from Pasco.
The surprise reveal came during a school assembly that included Foley; Brian Dassler, Florida deputy chancellor for educator quality; Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego; four School Board members; and past Milken award recipients.
The Milken Educator Awards, known as the "Oscars of Teaching," is in its 30th year of giving cash to exemplary teachers.
Hefty will be invited to join the Milken Educator Network of more than 2,700 recognized educators and leaders. In March, he will attend a Milken educator forum in New Orleans, where he will network with other winners.
"He has a special year to look forward to," said 2000 Milken winner Vincent Maniscalco, 56, a first- and second-grade gifted teacher at Mitchell Elementary in Tampa. "I always tell people it's like Cinderella."
Winners are discovered through a confidential process.
"You don't find us," Foley said. "We find you."
Eligible educators must demonstrate educational talent evidenced by student learning results, show educational accomplishments beyond the classroom, have an engaging and inspiring presence and be in their early- to mid-career with potential for leadership.
Hefty is credited with the rising number of Jamerson fifth-graders who have passed the state standardized science test in recent years, going from 48 percent in 2011 to 81 percent in 2015. He teaches an after-school STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) lab and has organized two schoolwide engineering fairs.
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And he has become the humble ambassador for STEM at Jamerson, a magnet school with a curriculum that focuses on math and engineering.
"He's like a tack," Jamerson principal Brandie Williams-Macon said. "He's sharp, he's on it."
He also trains teachers by modeling lessons and helping them create teaching plans with standards for innovative and critical thinking. Hefty's passion lies with curriculum. He has applied to three doctoral programs at Johns Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania and North Carolina State University. He aspires to conduct research as a university professor.
"It's been very validating because everyone is genuinely happy for Lukas," Kelly Hefty said. "Everybody loves learning from Lukas."
Her husband said he'll likely use the $25,000 prize money to help relocate his family to his future university.
That means leaving Pinellas, where he grew up and launched his career. Lukas Hefty attended Bay Point Elementary and Middle schools, studying in math and science programs, and graduated from Lakewood High's Center for Advanced Technologies. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Hefty spent 12 out of his 13 years in the district at Jamerson. He started as a second-grade teacher, then taught fifth grade before dabbling in STEM coaching. That evolved into his current, full-time position.
"I wish I could've put this in my resume on my application because it would've helped," he said.
Contact Colleen Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.