Niu Valley Middle School music teacher Zachary Morita was handed a giant ceremonial check from Farmers Insurance for $100,000 in a surprise award ceremony as hundreds of students cheered him on Tuesday morning.
Morita’s winning proposal to establish what he envisions as the Niu Valley Music Olympic Invitational edged out hundreds of proposals from teachers nationwide competing in Farmers’ annual Thank America’s Teachers® Dream Big Teacher Challenge®.
He initially was named one of 15 finalists — three of whom were from Hawaii this year — and advanced to the online public-voting phase of the competition. From there, the top five vote-getters in the country each secured $100,000 prizes for their schools.
Morita said he plans to create the music invitational as a collaborative competition where students can compete in a classical music setting in such categories as solo, duet, trio and large ensemble. Students will be mentored and adjudicated by members of the local arts community, including the Hawaii Symphony and Chamber Music Hawaii.
“This grant will change our community by providing an opportunity for our student musicians to pursue what they are passionate about and hopefully through that be able to work with professional musicians in our community to inspire them to strive for their goals,” said Morita, who's been teaching at Niu Valley Middle for 11 years.
Last year, Stevenson Middle School STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teacher Patricia Morgan was the first-ever teacher from Hawaii to win a $100,000 grant from Farmers to create an “Innovative Invention Imaginarium.” Morita said he was motivated by Morgan’s win.
“I hope that I can inspire other teachers and other students to pursue their dreams,” said Morita, who played in band in middle and high school.
Students credit Morita for being a hard-working teacher, known to devote much of his own free time to his students and classes. Niu Valley 8th-grader Lexi Reynolds-Machado-Wong was one of many music students who supported Morita on his “Dream Big” journey. “I think it made him really happy just to know that all his hard work was worth it.”
The funds will go toward purchasing musical instruments as well as audio/visual equipment to archive performances and promote events. Morita says he wants to “level the playing field” by including low-income students from neighboring schools in the competition and giving them instruments.
“The Farmers Insurance ‘Dream Big’ initiative means so much to our school because it really promotes ... our vision of our students being global citizens,” said Niu Valley Middle Principal Laura Ahn. “Mr. Morita’s program brings together not only Niu Valley students but students from around the state. We are looking forward to a lot of hard work and a wonderful partnership with many schools and communities.”
Melanie Joseph, marketing manager for Farmers Insurance Hawaii, thanked the community for rallying around Morita and supporting him. “The Farmers Insurance Hawaii ohana wants to send a huge congratulations to Zachary Morita. We’re so happy for him and for his students,” she said.
The surprise award presentation was made during a school-wide student assembly, which included a proclamation from Gov. David Ige and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell naming December 11, 2018 as “Zachary Morita and Niu Valley Middle School Day,” and congratulatory remarks from state Senators Michelle Kidani and Stanley Chang and state Representative Mark Hashem.
The Thank America’s Teachers initiative awards more than $1 million in educational grants to teachers across the nation each year in support of proposals and projects that will make an impactful difference in the education of students. For more information, visit www.farmers.com/thank-americas-teachers.
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