Music teacher Zachary Morita was named today as the winner of a $100,000 grant to create a statewide Niu Valley Music Olympic Invitational, thanks to a surge of online votes in the Dream Big Teacher Challenge competition.
Morita, 33, is one of five winners in the national contest sponsored by Farmers Insurance. He has been teaching at Niu Valley Middle School for 11 years, his entire career.
A school assembly erupted in cheers at the surprise announcement this morning, as a Farmers Insurance representative stepped on stage with an oversized check and Morita’s colleagues draped lei after lei around his neck.
“This is truly a dream come true for me, my students, our school,” Morita said. “We’re so thankful to Farmers Insurance for providing this opportunity for us.”
“Hopefully by this program and the publicity that we’re getting, which is absolutely amazing, more people will start to support music in our schools, arts in our community.”
Hundreds of teachers across the country submitted proposals that were judged through a competitive process and winnowed down to 15 finalists.
Hawaii made a splash this year when three of its teachers were chosen as finalists. The other two were health science teacher Ryan Chatfield of Aiea High School and third-grade teacher Leimamo Lind-Strauss of Ho‘okena Elementary School on Hawaii island.
Morita was the only local educator to place in the top five in the public online voting.
“We hope to create a sustainable arts community where people appreciate music and go to live performances, symphony concerts, classical music,” he said in a video prepared for the online voting.
Morita envisions an Olympics where students would form teams and compete in various instrumental categories as soloists, duet, trio or larger ensembles. The event would be open to public, private and home-schooled students in grades 6 through 12 across the state.
He describes it as a “collaborative competition” that will bring student and professional musicians together.
Morita also intends to use the grant money to buy new instruments to level the playing field for low-income students across the state. And some funds would go toward audiovisual equipment to archive student performances.
His students had pitched in to help him win by holding signs in front of the school, making social media posts supporting him and even appearing on a morning TV news show. Niu Valley has 870 students in grades six through eight and offers the International Baccalaureate program.
Among the other Hawaii contenders, Chatfield had proposed creating a Health Science Student Development Center at Aiea High while Lind-Strauss wanted to install a telescope observatory at her campus in Captain Cook.
Last year, Stevenson Middle School’s Patricia “Trish” Morgan won a $100,000 Farmers Insurance grant to create an Innovative Invention Imaginarium at her campus.
Farmers Insurance is giving away more than $1 million to teachers this year in its Thank America’s Teachers program, including numerous $2,500 grants.