Students filled the seats and bleachers in the gymnasium at Hopewell’s Carter G. Woodson Middle School on Wednesday for an academic pep rally with cheerleaders, songs and speakers calling for “deeper learning.”

Assistant Principal Ryan Sykes walked around the back of the room urging some students to quiet down as the event got underway.

Sykes was unaware he would soon be standing behind an oversized check for $25,000 after being picked as one of 40 educators around the country to receive the Milken Educator Award that recognizes excellence in education.

“You cannot be nominated by yourself or probably from anyone you know for this award because we find you,” said Candice McQueen, CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, before announcing Sykes had won. “We find these educators by working with the state Department of Education in your state. We work with folks across the country to give us feedback on excellent educators and then we come find you.”

Officials had kept the fact that Sykes had won under wraps before surprising him with the announcement at the rally.

As McQueen spoke about the award, Sykes said he expected someone else’s name to be called out as the recipient, perhaps one of the teachers he works with who he said are more deserving.

“I didn’t expect for my name to be called,” said Sykes, adding, “I’m speechless, I’m blessed, I’m thankful.”

Sykes received congratulations from Virginia first lady Pamela Northam; James Lane, the state’s superintendent of public instruction; Hopewell Mayor Jasmine Gore; and others who had gathered for the rally.

There are no restrictions on how recipients can use the money, although it has been used in a variety of ways, including paying for the recipient’s continuing education as well as dream field trips and establishing scholarships, according to the Milken Education Foundation.

Asked after the assembly how he will use the money, Sykes noted he has a 2-year-old son he cares for and suggested perhaps he and his wife could take a vacation.

“Ryan Sykes epitomizes the dedicated educators at Woodson and at similar schools across the commonwealth who believe in their students and eagerly accepts the challenge of helping them meet Virginia’s high expectations for learning and achievement,” Lane said in a statement. “He sees each student as an individual with a unique set of needs.

“And he understands that meeting those needs through tailored supports and services is at the core of our commitment to equity.”

Sykes is the only educator in Virginia to receive the award this school year and is the first educator in Hopewell to get the award. He joins more than 2,800 educators who have received the award since it was started in 1987.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to just thank him for all the hard work and dedication he has given to Carter G. Woodson and the city of Hopewell,” said John Shannon Royster, the middle school’s principal, after the rally.

Sykes, 31, started his teaching career in Hopewell in 2011 as a student teacher at Woodson Middle and at Harry E. James Elementary School, according to the state Department of Education. He taught for a year at Indian River Middle School in Chesapeake before coming back to Woodson, where he taught math special education inclusion classes for several years before becoming a dean of students with Richmond Public Schools.

He returned to Woodson in 2017 as one of the school’s three assistant principals.

Sykes, who grew up in Chesapeake and in Richmond, said the award is an example of hard work paying off, noting that he was raised in poverty before attending college.

“I like to inspire my students to be great,” he said. “I tell them almost every day just wake up and try to be better today than you were the day before.”

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