It was like a visit from a publishers' sweepstakes prize patrol--but without the magazine subscription come-ons and all those annoying "you're a finalist" letters.
Rosemead schoolteacher Robert Bruesch was discussing a writing assignment with sixth-graders when a man knocked on his classroom door and told him he had won $25,000, no strings attached.
La Puente school principal Victoria Fisher was explaining the concept of thematic teaching to visitors at a fourth-grade classroom when the man interrupted and told her she was a $25,000 winner, too.
The teachers' sweepstakes prize patrol was in town Wednesday, handing out shares of a $3.75-million jackpot being awarded by a private foundation this year to top educators in 30 states.
The man with the money was 45-year-old Lowell Milken, brother of former junk bond king Michael Milken and president of the philanthropic Milken Family Foundation.
The foundation has been rewarding teachers with its National Educator Awards since 1987--long before Michael Milken, now 48, was sentenced in 1990 to a two-year prison term and $600 million in fines and restitution for securities fraud.
In 1991, both brothers consented to a settlement barring them from participating in the securities industry except as customers. Their teachers' awards come from a foundation endowment financed by various family investments.
The nearly 900 educators who have divided $18.3 million over the past eight years were secretly chosen by anonymous committees set up by each state's department of education.
California's panel cited Bruesch's innovative vocabulary teaching techniques and an outdoor education project he started that has spread to other schools in the Garvey Elementary School District. Fisher was praised for her hands-on approach to instruction, using things like colored M & M candies to teach mathematical ratios.
Teachers do not apply for the prizes and are not told they are being considered for them.
Bruesch, 50, gasped and clutched his chest when Milken told him he was a winner. "He can do anything he wants with it. If any of you need a loan for a new bike, see him," Lowell Milken told the excited children in his Willard Elementary School classroom.
"It's unbelievable. For the first time in my life, I'm speechless," said Bruesch--a two-term Rosemead City Council member who is the city's mayor.
The Milken prize patrol earlier visited Tehama County to reward a teacher there. On Tuesday it was in Santa Maria. Today it is scheduled to be in Irvine.
Foundation representatives traveled Wednesday in a caravan behind Milken's black, chauffeur-driven Mercedes from Rosemead to La Puente's Rorimer Elementary School. Fisher had been told there were fellow educators interested in touring her campus.
She was escorting them through a computer lab and explaining how geography and other subjects can be weaved into a common curriculum when Milken interrupted. As bewildered fourth-graders looked on, he revealed that their principal was a $25,000 winner.
"I love it!" exclaimed Fisher, an educator for 29 years who lives in Walnut. "I think I'll get a new car! I hope nobody noticed that dirty old van of mine in the parking lot."
Foundation officials say about two-thirds of the winners spend the money in such ways. The rest channel it back into the classroom.
That is what Bruesch said he intends to do. Moments after Milken left, Bruesch was discussing ways of using the money with his sixth-graders.
Twelve-year-old Jenny Chou suggested using it to pay for next spring's outdoor education class camp-out. Kyle Velasquez, 11, proposed spending it on new playground equipment: "We need better tetherballs," he said earnestly.
Bruesch asked the children to do some serious thinking on the subject.
"We could invest it. We could set up a scholarship to help boys and girls go to college," he said.
"I want you guys to help me come up with ideas to benefit as many kids as possible."