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Free State’s Sam Rabiola wins $10,000 excellence in teaching prize from Lawrence Schools Foundation

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Article updated at 2:33 p.m. Tuesday, May 24:

Sam Rabiola, English teacher at Free State High School, has won the 2022 Special Award for Excellence in Teaching, also known as the Bobs award.

The Lawrence Schools Foundation on Tuesday presented the annual honor during a surprise ceremony attended by Rabiola’s family members, peers, friends, foundation board members and school district leaders.

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Rabiola told colleagues they, too, were worthy of recognition. “All of you deserve this as much as I, it’s just that I’ve been fortunate enough to be here for 35 years.”

Featured this week in a school district video on social media, Rabiola’s award was announced as he retires from the district after a career that began at Lawrence High School in 1987 right after college graduation.

Rabiola thanked parents for sending “their best students to us. Because that’s what they do every day. It is a team effort, folks. It is not just me. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.”

A video featuring current and former students and educators who have worked with Rabiola played during the ceremony. Rabiola’s wife, Lori-Kay Rabiola, choked up when asked how she felt after learning her husband had won. She said he had been devoted to schools and education throughout their 35-year marriage. The couple grew up together in Omaha, Nebraska, and moved to Lawrence to start their careers because it was the only place that could offer both of them a job.

“This award could not go to anyone I think is more well-deserving. He has devoted 35 years of his life not just to teaching kids, but mentoring other teachers, leading the school district as president who headed (Lawrence Education Association) negotiations. And he still managed to be so involved in our daughter’s lives — PTA president and everything at Schwegler when they went to elementary school.”

Rabiola’s wife teaches history at Southwest Middle School. The pair’s daughters, who attended Lawrence Public Schools, followed in their parents’ footsteps as educators: Natalie is a library media specialist at Deerfield Elementary, and Alyssa is a social studies and recovery credit teacher at Shawnee Heights High School.

Tricia Masenthin / The Lawrence Times Sam Rabiola, at center, gets a hug from family members celebrating his selection as the 2022 winner of the Bobs Award.

“I actually nominated him last year, and I was super disappointed that he didn’t get it,” Natalie said. “What a wonderful way to end 35 years of devotion to the school district.”

Alyssa said she remembered going shopping with her dad and running into former students who thanked him for helping them. She said it felt nice to see her dad receive recognition for his dedication. “He was doing so much for his students and the faculty and then he was still coming home and helping us with homework.”

Dena Johnston, executive director of Lawrence Schools Foundation, said “a record number of nominations” were received this year. Nominations for Rabiola alone numbered 22 pages.

Outgoing Free State Principal Myron Graber described Rabiola as “just an incredible teacher.” He said every year Rabiola is voted one of the top teachers by graduating seniors. “So it’s a well-deserved award for a great career, and he will definitely be missed as an educator, especially at Free State.”

Tricia Masenthin / The Lawrence Times Free State High School Principal Myron Graber hands Sam Rabiola a certificate to commemorate Rabiola’s selection for the Bobs Award, May 24, 2022.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis said the memories shared about Rabiola at a recent retirement ceremony he attended served as a “true testament” to the relationships he had built with young people.

“We had some students speak amazing things about him. Thirty-five years in education is a long time. He’s seen it all. It’s almost like he’s won the Super Bowl winning this Bobs Award. I really can’t think of anyone more deserving than Mr. Rabiola. I heard it from my own kids and their friends when they were here.”

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A news release from the foundation said a group of Lawrence businessmen and educators – all named Bob – approached the Lawrence school district with a plan to annually recognize an educator with “a special gift for teaching and turning kids on to learning” and the Special Award for Teaching Excellence was born.

“The recipients of this award all have one thing in common — their classrooms are fun, they inspire creativity, and learning is infectious.”

Members of the Bobs group have chosen to remain anonymous dating back to the first award in 1997 so recipients can have the spotlight to themselves.

Nominations may be submitted by students, staff, peers, alumni and community members, but teachers may not self-nominate, according to the foundation’s website. The $10,000 award is fully donated and does not include any public funds.

Today there are 15 Bobs — including the original Bobs’ sons and daughters — as well as a $5,000 Dedication to Education Award for a certified teacher or paraprofessional “who goes the extra mile to help those kids who need it the most.”

Here are previous recipients of the Excellence in Teaching Award:
1997 – Val Howland (Broken Arrow Elementary School)
1998 – Gary Webber (Southwest Junior High School)
1999 – Sue Siegfried (Woodlawn Elementary School)
2000 – Dr. Victoria Beals (South Junior High School)
2001 – Pamela Bushouse (Free State High School)
2002 – Brian “Chip” Anderson (Lawrence High School)
2003 – Kathy Rathbun (Langston Hughes Elementary School)
2004 – Paula Barr (Hillcrest Elementary School)
2005 – Kathleen Wagner (West Junior High School)
2006 – Mary Chapman (Free State High School)
2007 – Sherry Vratil (Wakarusa Valley)
2008 – Deb Engstrom (Lawrence High School)
2009 – Paulette Breithaupt (Sunset Hill Elementary School)
2010 – Christy Kelly (Cordley Elementary School)
2011 – Renee Babin (Schwegler Elementary School)
2012 – Michael Carriger (Lawrence High School)
2013 – Ryan McAdoo (Hillcrest Elementary School)
2014 – Jordan Rose (Free State High School)
2015 – Mike Jones and Rachel Dirks (Lawrence High School)
2016 – Scott Forkenbrock (Liberty Memorial Central Middle School)
2017 – Stu Strecker (Free State High School)
2018 – Michele Duncan (Sunset Hill Elementary School)
2019 – Susan Lomshek (Schwegler Elementary School)
2020 – Kaitlin Shulman (Quail Run Elementary School)
2021 – Susan Mička, (Lawrence High School)

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