Salazar Elementary School teacher Norma Longoria got quite the surprise in her classroom Tuesday morning.

Longoria was paid a visit by H-E-B's mascot, H-E-Buddy, bearing balloons, flowers, cake and cash in honor of Longoria's educational work.

Longoria was presented a $1,000 check, plus a second $1,000 check for her school.

She was also chosen as one of 40 statewide finalists in the 2008 H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards and she will represent the Corpus Christi area for inspiring children to learn and achieve great things.

Longoria will compete at the statewide level in May against four other educators representing other Texas regions. She'll have the opportunity to win a $25,000 cash prize for herself, plus a $25,000 prize for her school.

Longoria was one of eight educators H-E-B surprised with honors in the Gulf Coast region. In total, H-E-B will hand out $19,000 to Gulf Coast educators.

H-E-B launched the Excellence in Education Awards program in 2002 in cooperation with the Texas Association of School Administrators as a way to support public education in Texas.

A major goal of the Excellence in Education Awards is to spotlight the best practices going on in Texas public schools and to celebrate the work of Texas educators.

The program has grown to become the largest monetary program for educators in the state.

In order to find the best teachers, principals and school districts in Texas, H-E-B began by asking customers, employees and community members to submit the names of their favorite educators, administrators and districts.

This year, H-E-B received more than 4,500 nominations. Each nominee was sent an application packet asking them to share their professional experiences, educational philosophies and achievements both in and out of the classroom.

H-E-B received about 1,000 completed applications that were reviewed by a team of judges.

The judges faced the task of narrowing the field to 223 semifinalists who then went on to compete in a regional judging process.

Five regional judging panels comprised of former winners, administrators and university and community leaders selected the 40 individual statewide finalists, which included the Gulf Coast finalists.

All of the finalists will be invited to Houston May 2-4 to compete on a statewide level for larger cash prizes totaling more than $500,000.