Sherrie Gahn never expected to be a principal. For years, she was happy as a teacher. She even met her husband at her first teaching assignment in Oracle, Arizona—a town so small that the elevation is higher than the population. But like the song says, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
After graduating from Arizona State University, Gahn worked in Oracle with her husband, commuting from Tucson. With two young boys, then ages 3 and 18 months, the couple moved to Las Vegas in 1992, which was in the throes of the early boom years and, like today, desperately needed more teachers.
Gahn spent several years working as a teacher at elementary schools including John S. Park, Jim Thorpe and Roberta C. Cartwright, but her friends and husband kept urging her to apply for open administrator positions. She received her master’s degree in educational leadership from UNLV while teaching at Cartwright. “I actually loved that experience [of being a vice principal]. I realized this was my calling,” she says.
Gahn interviewed for a principal position with the Clark County School District and was called immediately to a school that was in desperate need of a principal, having already gone through three that school year.
“I literally went from classroom to classroom and just scrubbed. We cleaned everything up. I needed the students to see that. They deserved a clean school.” – Sherrie Gahn
“This was a school with potential, but it needed a lot of work,” Gahn says of Whitney Elementary School, which had one of the highest rates of truancy, homelessness, failing students and dropouts. When Gahn arrived in February 2004, 75 percent of students were failing.
Early on, Gahn was called to a classroom because a student was throwing chairs. As she entered, the boy was getting ready to throw a desk. She tried to talk him down, but he threw the desk right at her. She and other teachers subdued the child and took him down to the office.
“That was a defining moment because he was one of the biggest kids on campus,” Gahn remembers. “Almost immediately, there was a hush on campus. All the kids knew about it. You could hear a pin drop in the halls. Everything shifted.”
While the new principal set about changing the culture of the school—instilling a sense of personal responsibility and respect for students and teachers—she also knew she had to clean house, both figuratively and literally.
“I literally went from classroom to classroom and just scrubbed. We cleaned everything up. I needed the students to see that. They deserved a clean school,” Gahn says.
Still, it was going to take more than clean classrooms and renewed vigor by teachers to turn Whitney around. One day as she went to her office, she noticed that the students waiting to see her were sitting on the floor.
“If they’re not respecting the kids enough to even give them a chair while they wait, that says a lot about how people feel about their worth,” Gahn says. “They were worth more than sitting on the floor. They were worth more than someone throwing a desk.”
So she asked a friend to make a bench for her students. And even as she worked to help students see they deserved to be treated with dignity, she relished that the kids were also talking about how tough she was. “I heard one of the kids saying, ‘If you don’t behave, she’ll take you down.’ And I was like, yes!”
Then she met with teachers and told them in no uncertain terms that things were changing. “Every teacher deserves to be teaching next to a teacher who’s just as good as them. I told them that transfer season was coming up and anyone who didn’t like it could leave.”
As Gahn continued to work with the school’s staff and students, she started to see that the root problems of the school, from discipline to absences to test scores, were about what was happening outside the school. Many of the students were homeless and going hungry. Some took ketchup packets to make “ketchup soup” to eat for dinner.
“Normally, I would stop kids from stealing from the school. But something stopped me,” she says. “I decided we needed a food pantry on campus.”
Gahn, who had come up in humble circumstances while being raised by a single mother in Buffalo, New York, says fixing problems like hunger was a “no-brainer” because it would lead to students’ success.
Gahn’s food pantry was up and running within her first year, but every day she was seeing more problems that needed fixes. She got a van to drive families to the doctor, opened shower facilities to not just students but entire families who had no access to running water. Gahn focused in on whatever the problem was.
One day a teacher took Gahn out to drive “the zone” around the school and she saw where her students were living – in the projects, in rent-by-the-week motels, and even in tents in Pittman Wash.
“I saw that the way these kids were living—there was no hope,” she says, her voice cracking. “Our families are truly destitute. We had to give these kids hope, or they were going to have no chance.”
“What kind of world are we living in that poor kids become national news? I still have a real hard time because we shouldn’t be newsworthy.” – Sherrie Gahn
It was a reporter who visited the campus one day for an unrelated reason who pushed Gahn to start sharing the heartbreaking stories of her students to help raise money and donations for food, clothing and more.
So Gahn started talking to the media about the gut-wrenching everyday stories of her students. She told of the day a student ran into her office crying because her mom was locked in a cabinet trying to stay safe from her knife-wielding dad. She talked about the second-grader who met his father for the first time when he got out of prison—just before his mother went into prison.
Soon, Hollywood came calling in the form of The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Gahn was invited on the show five years ago and as a surprise, the talk show host gave the school $100,000. During a commercial break, Gahn says DeGeneres leaned over and told her, “We’re not done.” And indeed, DeGeneres had Gahn on several more times to highlight needs in the education system and get updates from Whitney, including a surprise visit by Justin Bieber. While Gahn is grateful to Ellen for her contributions—including a new library and Kindles for the students— the educator struggles with the limelight.
“What kind of world are we living in that poor kids become national news?” she asks with tears in her eyes. “I still have a real hard time because we shouldn’t be newsworthy.”
In 2011, Gahn started a community center at the school called Village of Hope Las Vegas to give students access to more services and a safe place to hang out after school. It’s open all summer and has caseworkers as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner available to anyone who wants it.
And she has success stories, such as the mom of another third-grade boy, who worked with a caseworker and earned her GED. Now his mom is in college, working to become a preschool teacher.
Still, all of this doesn’t come cheap or easy. Gahn says she’s stretched the Ellen money as long as she could but as she gears up for the new school year, they “are literally counting pennies.” The high-profile attention brought some new donors, but it also meant others went away, assuming the school and the neighborhood problems were solved. Gahn hopes that the community will continue to be generous to the students and families of Whitney Elementary.
“It used to be that our kids came to school to be safe, but now they come to school to learn,” she says.
To learn more about how to help Whitney Elementary School, call the school at 702-799-7790.