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Hamlin Park's 'spud launcher' teacher surprised by national award

All Andrew Franz, his fellow teachers and the students at Hamlin Park School 74 knew was there would be an assembly Monday afternoon with some invited guests.

As the dignitaries spoke, one introducing the next, it became clear something special was afoot.

The drama built when a representative from the Milken Family Foundation said she had come from California to honor a teacher in Buffalo – and to give him $25,000.

The winner was Franz – better known as the teacher behind the three "spud launchers," the middle-school girls whose science project got onto the International Space Station.

Franz is one of two teachers in New York State to win the Milken Educator Award, described as the "Oscars of Teaching." Just 45 from around the country won the award for 2017-18.

"I'm a little bit in shock, still. This is a huge honor, and it's definitely unexpected," Franz said after the assembly.

Franz, who wore a polo T-shirt and khakis to the assembly, added, "I would have dressed nicer."

The educators who spoke in the Hamlin Park auditorium said they hope Franz's award inspires students. Hamlin Park serves students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Three Hamlin Park middle school students – Gabriella Melendez, Shaniylah Welch and Toriana Cornwell – started working on the potato farming project in 2015. Franz served as their adviser.

The students wanted to investigate whether space travel affects a potato’s ability to grow, and they worked hours after school on their project with Franz offering guidance.

As one of 21 experiments selected in a national science competition, the “spud launchers” got their chance when, in February, their project was sent to the Space Station before it was returned to Earth for planting in a greenhouse at the University at Buffalo.

The state Education Department nominated Franz for the Milken award.

Once the Milken Family Foundation determined the award winners in September, only the winners' principals and superintendents are informed to allow for scheduling of the award ceremony.

Hamlin Park Principal Patrick Cook did call Franz's wife, Rosemary, to invite her to the school to see Franz get recognized for excellence in education.

On Monday, Buffalo School Superintendent Kriner Cash finally introduced Jane Foley, the foundation's senior vice president.

She said she was giving a teacher a special honor, along with some money. She had some students stand up, each holding a green square with a "$," "2," "5," "0" and "0," spelling out "$2,500." The students applauded. Then Foley said that wasn't enough for this award.

"So could we find one more zero?" she asked. And a foundation staffer stood up with a "0" on a green square, prompting wilder cheering.

Foley finally announced Franz's name into the microphone and pointed at Franz, strategically placed along the central aisle in the second row. The room burst into sustained applause. Franz sat there for a moment, before he pushed himself out of the chair and slowly walked up claim his prize.

Cash later held up Franz's arm like the winner in a boxing match.

"Look at his face," Cash said. "He did not know."

Franz told the students, "You are my children, you know."

He said the school could hold its own with the district's best.

Rosemary Franz walked down the aisle and hugged and  kissed her husband, drawing two big "awwws" from students.

Andrew Franz hugs his wife, Rosemary, as students at Hamlin Park School 74 give the couple a big "awwww."

Rosemary Franz said she had planned to make fun of her husband for shedding a tear. But she couldn't because she teared up as well.

Gabriella, in ninth grade now, also attended the assembly.

"He didn't give up on us," she said. "That's exactly why I feel like he deserved this."

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