Sewell teacher surprised with $100,000 grant win

Brenda Moynihan thought she’d lost.

Standing before TV cameras, community leaders and 800 Sewell Elementary School students in Henderson, the third-grade teacher braced for the official announcement on Friday. She had been briefed the previous day: The school, although a finalist for $100,000 in a national grant competition, had come up short.

“While we didn’t win the big prize, we’re still winners. We were the only finalist in the entire state,” Principal Holli Ratliff said into a microphone at Friday’s ceremony announcing the $2,500 consolation prize awarded to Sewell, located near Lake Mead Parkway and Warm Springs Road.

“Why don’t you come up, Brenda,” said Bob Compan, Farmers Insurance manager of government and industry affairs, ushering Moynihan across the school’s blacktop to accept the oversized check hidden behind a piece of cardboard.

Moynihan led the school’s charge for a $100,000 Farmers Insurance grant. The company called for teachers nationwide to submit the most “visionary programs” that they could devise. Farmers would then do something that schools and districts often can’t afford — fund them.

Moynihan came up with Sewell’s idea and wrote the 30-page grant application with a detailed budget over two weeks of early mornings and late nights. She even took a grant-writing class. But the school fell short in the final vote online, which was done much like “American Idol” with the public acting as judge.

Or so she was told.

“I must apologize. You’re not getting the $2,500. You’re getting the big prize,” said Compan, revealing the true surprise, a $100,000 check.

Moynihan’s students hopped and hollered. A shocked Moynihan clutched her face and cried.

Four other regions also have $100,000 winners, including IT Stoddard Elementary in Blackfoot, Idaho, and Jones Elementary in Springdale, Ark., which were announced Friday. The other winners will be named next week.

Sewell competed against finalists in Glendale, Ariz., and King City, Calif., for the four-state Southwest region grant. The Arizona teacher proposed a solar-powered greenhouse, and a California teacher in rural King City planned for more classroom technology.

It was the underdog – representing the least populated state and a small Henderson community – that won the most votes, Principal Ratliff said. Sewell garnered 19,000 votes.

“You worked so hard to spread the word,” Ratliff told the crowd of mostly staff and students. “We truly are a family here.”

Moynihan requested the microphone to express her gratitude.

“It’s all about you,” Moynihan said to the crowd, which included her daughter, a Sewell pre-kindergartner. “I’m so thankful for all of you.”

Moynihan’s grant proposal will not only benefit Sewell students – three-fourths of whom live in poverty – but the community.

Her plan: Construct a school computer lab, including two mobile carts with computer tablets, to bring technology to students that just don’t have it at school or at home.

The computer lab also will be a community resource available to parents before and after school, offering classes on software programs, such as Microsoft Word, and language acquisition.

“It was such a dream,” Moynihan said. “And it will now come true. As soon as we can get everything purchased, it will be up and running.”

The district has no computer science curriculum for elementary school students, but they need to start learning early as the state’s basic skills tests go fully online and careers require it, Ratliff said. Keyboarding has become a small part of kindergarten at Sewell, one of Clark County School District’s oldest elementary schools that has earned the highest possible five-star rating under the Nevada Department of Education’s school accountability system.

“We’ve seen such a huge change,” said Duncan Lee, a seven-year community sponsor of the school with his wife, Irene Lee. He noted the culture change at Sewell, where staff has taken a risk on programs and funding for the benefit of students.

For the students, Ratliff ended Friday’s surprise with a learning lesson.

“Students, this is an excellent example of what can happen if you work hard and put your mind to it. Who knows what can happen?”

Contact Trevon Milliard at or 702-383-0279. Find him on Twitter: @TrevonMilliard.

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