The surprise was mostly over, but Atholton High School principal Scott Pfeifer seemed no less shocked yesterday when he won a national award and $25,000.
Mr. Pfeifer was one of three local educators who received the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Awards, a program recognizing 150 outstanding administrators and teachers.
The ceremony at the state education department had been planned as a surprise as part of a commission on school funding meeting, to which Mr. Pfeifer had been lured to speak. But the principal, 41, received a letter at his school in the morning informing him he had won an award -- although it did not specify which award.
Like the two other winners -- one from Anne Arundel and one from Prince George's -- he was grinning from ear to ear as State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick handed him an oversized $25,000 check.
"I'm overwhelmed," he said. "I'm rarely at a loss for words."
Before the presentation, he never indicated that he knew he won while talking with Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.
The foundation honored Mr. Pfeifer in part because his school had been designated as a school of excellence in the Department of Education's Blue Ribbon Schools Award -- a prize of which Mr. Pfeifer is most proud.
"That was a rigorous process," he said. "I feel I've seen the school go a long way. Obviously as a principal, you bear some responsibility."
His school also embarked on a four-period-day schedule this fall to enable students to earn more credits, and it boasts a highly regarded school-business partnership with W.R. Grace Co.
"He has been excellent in facilitating that partnership," said Darla Strouse, director of the Milken program in Maryland. "He also came to our attention as an innovative and creative leader. He's known for trying out new things."
Mr. Pfeifer has been principal for six years at Atholton and is president of the Howard County Association of Secondary School Principals. He serves as a member of the Maryland Science Center Scientific Council and the Maryland Science Week Commission, a committee appointed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Mr. Pfeifer credited Director of High Schools Dan Jett with teaching him everything he knew about being a principal. He also credited his success to Atholton's staff, parents and students.
"I have a lot of wonderful resources," he said. "I'm really blessed with a wonderful staff."
Other educators who were awarded the prize yesterday were science teacher Anne Niedhardt of Anne Arundel's Broadneck Senior High School and principal W. Cecil Short of Oxon Hill High School.
They and Mr. Pfeifer will each receive $25,000 as well as an all-expense-paid trip to California in the spring to attend a professional conference with all the winners nationwide.
"I think these three individuals bring honor to our profession and bring visibility to the importance of teaching and shaping the lives of the children in this country," Dr. Grasmick said.
"We are basking in your glory."
The philanthropic California-based Milken Family Foundation sponsors the 6-year-old award given to 150 educators in 25 states.