Driggers Elementary Principal Mary Helen Cover walks, surprised, to the front of the school gym as her students chant her name. Photo by Camille Garcia.

Two local principals and one teacher received huge checks on Monday when teams from H-E-B threw surprise ceremonies that recognized them as three of eight local finalists for the 2016 Excellence in Education Awards. H-E-B will be surprising 40 finalists across the state this week.

Mary Helen Cover, principal of Rita Kay Driggers Elementary School of the Northside Independent School District (NISD), walked into the school gym Monday morning completely unaware of the celebration that would ensue in her honor as one of four principal finalists.

Driggers Elementary Principal Mary Helen Cover hugs her husband, Terry, after being surprised by a school-wide assembly in her honor. Photo by Camille Garcia.
Driggers Elementary School Principal Mary Helen Cover hugs her husband, Terry, after being surprised by a school-wide assembly in her honor. Photo by Camille Garcia.

Her popularity among her students, administration, and staff members was apparent when she entered the gym to deafening applause and cheers. Cover has been an educator in NISD for 39 years, the last nine of which as principal at Driggers.

Colonies North Elementary School (of NISD) teacher Sarah Aguirre and Young Women’s Leadership Academy (of SAISD) Principal Delia McLerran were surprised with similar fanfare on Monday afternoon.

Teacher finalists receive a $1,000 check for themselves and a $1,000 check for their school while principal finalists receive a $1,000 check for themselves and $2,500 check for their school. All finalists receive cake, flowers, and balloons as an extra touch.

Driggers Elementary students await Principal Mary Helen Cover in the school gym to surprise her. Photo by Camille Garcia.
Driggers Elementary students await Principal Mary Helen Cover in the school gym to surprise her. Photo by Camille Garcia.

The awards highlight the commitment, creativity, and passion found in some of the state’s best public school educators who are nominated by their communities, students, or colleagues. Since the program’s start in 2002, H-E-B has awarded $8 million to educators throughout Texas, making it the largest monetary award program for educators in the state.

Awards are given in five different categories: teacher, principal, school district, school board/leadership, and early childhood. The school district, school board/leadership, and early childhood category finalists were announced last month. The remaining five finalists in the teacher and principal categories will be notified with surprise announcements over the coming days.

NISD Superintendent Brian Woods, members of Cover’s family, and even the school’s namesake Rita Driggers joined in on the festivities.

“Mary Helen Cover is an outstanding representative of what it means to be a true teacher in the state of Texas,” Woods said. “We’re so pleased to honor her.”

Cover tearfully accepted her award check as the student choir sang the school’s song.

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Cover has always been a “big advocate for the students,” Driggers Vice Principal Rhapsody Quintero said, and she continually strives to do what’s best for them and their education.

“I never in a million years expected this, but I’m so proud of each and every one of you and I’m so grateful to my wonderful staff,” Cover said after receiving her gifts. “It takes a village to raise a child and I’m just so humbled by this.”

Cover is excited to use her winnings to improve her students’ learning experiences with new teaching equipment, she said.

“What a great way to be able to give back to the community.”

Kimberly Harle, H-E-B manager of public affairs, said the Excellence in Education awards are just one small way to honor the great impact teachers have on their communities.

“Teachers really are everyday heroes,” she said. “They’re inspiring the next generation and this is our way of showing our gratitude for the amazing work they do each and everyday.”

A statewide panel of judges with no affiliation with H-E-B will conduct personal interviews with the teacher and principal finalists to determine winners.

H-E-B will announce the winners of the Excellence in Education Awards – two principals, six teachers, two school districts (one large, one small), one public school board, and one early childhood facility – at a ceremony on Friday, May 13 at the La Cantera Hill Country Resort.

The two winning principals will include one elementary and one secondary principal who will each receive $10,000 in cash for themselves and a $25,000 grant for their schools. The winning large school district will receive a $100,000 cash prize and the winning small school district will receive $50,000. The early childhood facility winner will receive $25,000 and a school board could be awarded up to $25,000.

The six winning teachers will include one elementary and one secondary teacher in each of three categories:

The Rising Star Award — honors exceptionally promising teachers with less than 10 years of experience. These winners will each receive a $5,000 check for themselves and a $5,000 grant for their schools.

The Leadership Award — honors teachers with 10 to 20 years in the classroom. These winners will each receive a $10,000 check for themselves and a $10,000 grant for their schools.

The Lifetime Achievement Award — honors teachers with more than 20 years of experience. These teachers will each receive $25,000 in cash for themselves and a $25,000 grant for their schools.

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*Top image: Driggers Elementary Principal Mary Helen Cover walks, surprised, to the front of the school gym as her students chant her name. Photo by Camille Garcia.

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H-E-B Puts the Spotlight on Excellence in Education

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Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com