This story was updated Thursday, May 23, 2019, at 5:31 p.m. with more information.
The Howard School students celebrated the end of another school year with a surprise guest Thursday — Bill Gates.
The billionaire tech mogul surprised students during an awards ceremony celebrating student accomplishments.
"I understand this is the last day of school here, so congratulations on the end of the school year," Gates said. "A special congratulations to the seniors who get to move on to new activities I hope for all of you to find your passion and take advantage of many opportunities."
The Gates Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Gates and wife Melinda Gates' empire, has given more than $750,000 in recent years to education initiatives in the Chattanooga area.
Bill Gates said Thursday was his first visit to Chattanooga, but he has been to Tennessee several times.
"I think education is super special," he told the audience. "Our foundation has been involved [in Tennessee], working in partnership to improve education."
He added that the foundation is committed to increasing high school graduation rates and access to post-secondary education degrees and credentials.
"There's a lot of opportunities out there, so we're just trying to support people doing real work in education," Bill Gates said.
Hamilton County Schools district leaders, school board members, community leaders and several elected officials including Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, Sen. Todd Gardenhire and Sen. Bo Watson also attended the event.
"Today was a tremendous experience for our students and community. It is a testament to the progress being made to prepare children for a bright future that a business leader of Bill Gates' stature invested his time to learn more about the great work happening in our district and community through the implementation of our strategic plan, Future Ready 2023," said Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, in a statement.
Hamilton County Schools last directly received a Gates Foundation grant in 2009 for a math assessment program, but has benefited from partnerships between the Gates Foundation and Chattanooga 2.0, the education coalition organized by the school district, Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Benwood Foundation and the Public Education Foundation.
Beginning with Chattanooga 2.0, the Gates Foundation funded at least $100,000 toward Chattanooga 2.0 initial research and organizing efforts.
Since 2017, the Public Education Foundation of Chattanooga has received two grants from the Gates Foundation, including $500,000 to increase the number of students at Brainerd, East Ridge, Howard and Tyner high schools who will succeed in college and their careers, according to Public Education Foundation President Dan Challener.
The funds helped increase the number of students who could go on college tours, paid for college advisers and increased the number of students who could participate in the PEF's Camp College and Step Up programs.
Now, Chattanooga is in the running for another substantial Gates Foundation grant, with officials expecting to hear whether or not the community has been selected later this summer.
Students were enthusiastic when Bill Gates surprised them in the renovated Howard auditorium. The school had held a contest in recent weeks for students to guess who the surprise guest would be.
Alongside the Howard School's leader — and Hamilton County principal of the year — LeAndrea Ware, Bill Gates presented awards to a student and teacher of the year.
"We are so grateful for you to be back here with us to celebrate this momentous occasion," Ware told students as school leaders began presenting awards Thursday.
Laila Smith, a senior who graduated last week, received the school's top student award: the 2018-2019 Howard High Resilient Student Award.
She will be attending Warren Wilson College in North Carolina this fall to study graphic design.
Sean Brown, who has taught biology at Howard for six years, received the 2018-2019 Howard High Resilient Teacher Award.
Barely able to find words after joining Bill Gates on stage to receive the award, Brown said he was honored.
"It's been a phenomenal year," Brown said. "It's gone by so fast and I'm just blown away right now."
After the awards ceremony, Bill Gates met with elected officials and a small panel of students at Howard. The high school wasn't his only stop in Chattanooga Thursday. He also visited the school district's apprenticeship program at Gestamp.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.