JEANERETTE — She never saw it coming.

Jeanerette Elementary School principal Devon Willis-Jones was surprised Tuesday morning with a $25,000 “no strings attached” award from the Milken Family Foundation.

“I had no idea!” a shocked Willis-Jones gushed as she received her award.

Jones was led to believe that her school was being recognized for becoming a “B” school in state ratings after receiving an “F” rating. The truth, kept secret from Jones for weeks by a select few who were “in the know,” was that she had been selected to receive the Milken Educator Award from an elite list of educators who were nominated for the award.

Students from Pre-K to sixth grade sat on the floor in the cafeteria, watching a PowerPoint presentation and listening to various speakers as the program got underway.

Milken Family Foundation chairman and co-founder Lowell Milken traveled from Los Angeles to make the presentation.

“Do you know how hard it is to keep a secret from a principal?” Milken asked the students.

Milken joked that Jones had unknowingly planned her own party for the event.

“You came to our attention,” Milken said. “You have done extraordinary work. There’s no doubt about it.”

Extraordinary education skills may run in the family. Jones’ aunt, Jacklene Jones, personnel director for the Iberia Parish school system, received the same award in 2001 when she was principal of Bank Avenue Elementary.

“I don’t know how I held that for two weeks, but I did,” Jones said of her knowledge of the award. “It’s so exciting. We’ve got a family tradition now. I’m so proud of Devon. Y’all just don’t know how much passion she has for Jeanerette Elementary. I can’t wait to get on the phone and tell everybody.”

“At first I thought he was going to give them computers. When I realized who he was, I was so excited,” Iberia Parish School Board member Kathleen Rosamond said. “I was so excited. I was so happy for her.”

“I was proud to get the call to come be here today,” State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) vice president Dr. Holly Boffy said.

The award is in its 30th year, and is given to up to 35 educators from the United States each year. Two awards were given to Louisiana educators this year, said Jana Rausch, director of media and public affairs for the Milken Foundation.

Catherine Randall of Joseph J. Davies Elementary School in Meraux was the other Louisiana recipient.

“It speaks to Louisiana’s commitment to teacher quality and its focus on supporting and recognizing outstanding teachers,” Rausch said. “We believe teachers are the drivers of student achievement.”

“What a phenomenal day for Jeanerette Elementary School and Mrs. Jones,” Iberia Parish Superintendent of Schools Dale Henderson said. “She is an extremely deserving recipient of this very prestigious award.”

Willis-Jones plans to reward the 240 hard-working members of the Jeanerette Elementary School student body with food and a dance at the school on Friday.

“We’re gonna party,” she said. “They want nachos.”

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