Ian Whitaker / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, May 8, 2015 | 5:15 p.m.
The last handful of years has been hard on Sarah Cuellar and her family.
Money was already an issue before her son Brock, 16, was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2011. Then as medical bills piled up, the 19-year veteran math teacher at Bonanza High School and her husband were forced to sell one of their cars.
For four years they shared a secondhand Kia Rio to get Brock back and forth to his medical appointments. Most mornings, Sarah gets a ride to school from a fellow teacher. Other times she’s had to walk the mile from their house.
What has kept Cuellar going are the little things, like earlier this week when one of her students took the time to write a letter thanking her. The student said she wanted to be a math teacher, too.
“It was the highlight of my week,” Cuellar said.
“I didn’t become a teacher so I could win an award,” she added. “I enjoy seeing what they become.”
But on Friday, at the grand finale of Clark County School District’s Teacher Appreciation Week, she got that award. A gathering of students and faculty at Bonanza were called for a special presentation in front of the west valley school. Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky made a short speech and then Findlay Chevrolet rep Jamaal McCoy called Cuellar to the podium.
“Sarah is up here for a lot of different reasons … It’s been said she has a big heart and cares about her students tremendously,” he said, turning to Sarah. “What we’d like to do is give you a car.”
As the Bonanza band played, students cheered and TV cameras swarmed around her, Cuellar hugged Brock, who is now 16. Then the two of them climbed smiling into their new Chevrolet Sonic LT.
“I’m in disbelief. I know you want a big speech, but …,” she trailed off while talking to reporters next to a teary-eyed Skorkowsky. “I could have taught until the day I died and never expected this.”
The scene capped off a week of events aimed at celebrating CCSD’s teachers. On Wednesday, administrators surprised a handful of the district’s newest teachers during class with gift baskets full of goodies. Thursday, teachers Leslie Calkins-Gallant, Corey Gaither, Lola Moss, Pamela E. Murray, Denise D. Nelson, MiJung Park and Jordan Tielemans were honored at a ceremony at Durango High School.
This is the second year CCSD has given a new car to a lucky teacher.
For Cuellar, the key to a successful classroom is respect. She’s down-to-earth and tries to get students to love learning. After they leave, she keeps in touch. She jokes that the hundreds of friends she has on Facebook are mostly former students.
“Just because you’re younger doesn’t mean you don’t deserve my respect,” she said. “I try to be fair and consistent with every single one of them. That’s important to them.”
Even as she is shuffled from interview to interview, gaggles of students stick around to yell her name and wave at her from afar.
“They all know her and love having her as a teacher,” Brock said. “I don’t like school, but when it comes to my mom, she inspires me to do better.”
When asked what the best part of the job is, Cuellar had one answer.
“Kids,” Cuellar said.