Courtesy Michael Rozman/Warner Bros.
Monday, Sept. 12, 2011 | 3:31 p.m.
- "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" featuring Whitney Elementary and Principal Sherrie Gahn will air at 8 p.m. tonight on KLAS Channel 8. The show regularly airs at 3 p.m. but is appearing this evening due to a live sporting event.
Map of Whitney
5005 Keenan Ave., Las Vegas
- Whitney principal wants after-school program patterned after first lady’s (3-14-2010)
- School District donors still giving, but will they outlast need? (5-10-2010)
- School of haves bonds with one of have-nots (2-19-2009)
- Sharp rise in homeless students (9-15-2008)
- School goes all out to help poor kids learn (6-3-2008)
Beyond the Sun
- For information about helping homeless students in the Clark County School District, call the outreach office at 855-6682. Whitney Elementary School can be reached at 799-7790.
When Sherrie Gahn took over a poor, east Las Vegas elementary school nearly a decade ago, little did she know her efforts to help her students in class and at home would inspire so many.
The principal of Whitney Elementary School has been featured on CNN and CBS News, and virtually every media outlet in town. They talk of Gahn’s selfless drive to help her students, many of them homeless, the majority of them poor.
Whitney is more than just a school for Gahn’s 610 students. It’s their food pantry, clothing store and supply shop. It’s where kids can get free medical, dental and eye care. It’s where struggling parents can learn to read or get help with utility bills.
The publicity has garnered Gahn thousands of dollars of donations to help Whitney students. It also caught the attention of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” which decided to feature Gahn in its ninth season premiere airing at 8 p.m. today
Gahn initially thought her school was just going to be featured in a segment of the show. DeGeneres had dispatched a film crew to the school to follow her around for the week.
However, DeGeneres dropped her first surprise on Gahn last Tuesday when she called Gahn to tell her she would be flown out to be on the show.
Gahn was floored. “Ellen is one of my heroes,” she said. “She’s very giving and kind and full of integrity. I always wanted to meet her.”
On Tuesday, the show flew Gahn to Burbank, Calif. They gave her the VIP treatment: a nice hotel, her own dressing room and makeup artist.
“I was treated like a star, but I have a real hard time with that,” Gahn said. “I do what I do not for recognition but for the kiddos.”
As Gahn was getting ready for the taping in California, school administrators were busy in Las Vegas preparing for Gahn’s second surprise. She was to be greeted, via a live television feed, by hundreds of her students.
More than 300 students piled into the school’s multipurpose room Wednesday afternoon for their TV debut. The excitement was palpable.
As the teachers quieted everyone down, the show’s producers explained their mission: “You’re at a surprise party,” one of them said. “Ms. Gahn has no idea we are here. We have to be quiet because the microphones will pick us up, and we’ll blow the surprise.”
It was hard, but the children kept quiet with the help of a few dozen teachers who volunteered to help with the show’s taping.
Finally, after two hours of waiting, the big moment arrived.
DeGeneres introduced Gahn to her audience in California, played a six-minute video profile of the school and started to interview her. Toward the end, DeGeneres told Gahn she had a few surprise guests who wanted to say hello.
The cameras panned back to Las Vegas, and the students jumped, hands in the air to greet a shocked Gahn.
“It was so crazy and surreal,” Gahn said of being on the show. “All I was thinking was, ‘How did they get all the kids there?’ ”
Then, DeGeneres dropped yet another surprise, and this was the big one: A $100,000 check from Target to help start an after-school program at Whitney and continue providing services for its families. It is the largest donation in the school’s history — and the biggest ever given on the show.
“I was literally dumbfounded,” Gahn said. “I was half crying, half laughing and my heart was literally up in my throat.
“For me, the gift was to be on the show, but then to get the check … I was shocked.”
DeGeneres told the kids to head outside where dozens of volunteers from Target were waiting with 650 bright red backpacks filled with school supplies, blankets and snacks. Also waiting outside were dozens of parents holding up camera phones, watching the giving frenzy.
“That was so amazing, and we’re so grateful,” said Michelle Owens, 31, the mother of a fourth-grader. “A lot of people don’t know kids need these supplies. This was really a blessing.”
The donations and attention gave Ricky Alvarez goose bumps, he said. His fifth-grade son, Isaiah, was excited about being on TV with his classmates, he said.
“He loves this school and his teachers,” Alvarez, 32, said. “Gahn is a very good principal. She really deserves this.”
School Board President Carolyn Edwards said she was grateful to DeGeneres’ show for highlighting Whitney, which has one of the highest homeless student populations in the Clark County School District. There are 5,000 to 7,000 homeless students in the district, she said.
“The need level here is great,” she said, commending Gahn for her work. “She is an incredibly energetic, selfless person who just cares about the kids.”
For Gahn, being on the show was an experience of a lifetime. She is now anticipating another round of donations coming her way from viewers.
“It’s going to be beyond my wildest dreams,” she said. “Millions of people watch ‘Ellen’ around the world. I’m extremely grateful.”