Outgoing Colonial School District Superintendent Dr. Dusty Blakey thought it was a little usual there was a full auditorium at Gunning Bedford Middle School for their monthly school board meeting, but he soon learned why.
After about a half-hour of traditional business including the board approving the 2020 budget and presentations from elementary schools, Board President Joseph Laws called for the lights in the room to be dimmed.
Then a spotlight was aimed to the middle of the room, and a voice began to sing. It was Dr. Blakey's daughter Samara.
"I'm not a stranger to the dark" were the first words of the solo, but then the voices began to grow.
As "This is Me" from the movie "The Greatest Showman" continued, elementary, middle, and high school students slowly appeared from the hallways, eventually filling the stage as the 100-plus students belted out the chorus "I'm not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, this is we," altering the final word to match a district campaign.
Afterwards, Dr. Blakey tearfully took to the stage to thank everyone.
"They really caught me off-guard. When I saw her stand up singing, I knew something was up. I wondered why all of these people were here, but then I figured there were other presentations, but when she stood up and started a solo, it hit me like a ton of bricks."
The performance highlighted an ongoing project in the district called "This is the power of we." The fact it included parts of several schools in the district meant extra to Dr. Blakey.
"I've heard her sing, she sings all the time. It was powerful, and when in combination with all the students from elementary school on through, the whole thing, it just knocked my knees out from under me, it was really powerful."
Samara called it her most memorable performance of her young career.
"To sing for my dad like that was really cool. I hand was shaking the entire time I was holding the mic, so I was really scared. When I went on the stage and saw the rest of my family was there and my dad was crying, I nearly cried myself."
Dr. Blakey is leaving Colonial soon for a similar position in Pennsylvania's Kennett Consolidated School District. He told WDEL his departure was "bittersweet" at the time of the announcement in September.
"Being a part of an organization that is not afraid to think forward and try new things for the benefit of our students will be tough to leave. The Colonial School District is on the cutting edge of systematic change in education, not only in Delaware but nationally as well. It makes me proud to say I was a part of this effort and of the great progress made by our district regarding 21st century education," Blakey said.
Pulling off the surprise required effort, too. Samara said her father has a way of ruining his own celebrations.
"He loves Captain America and Black Panther, and for his birthday we had a surprise party. Because he's so nosy, he found out the day before, and so he had to be 'oh my gosh, you threw a surprise party for me,' and my mom was crying because he found out too early.
With that background, pulling off a far bigger surprise meant more.
"I thought he was going to see me when he was walking down the aisle, because I was hiding and crouching for half an hour. I found a cobweb and hurt my ankle, but it was great."
A memorable mid-January celebration as Blakey's 6-year run leading Colonial is about to come to an end.