Parenting OC’s annual Top Teacher & Employee awards honors the top 25 teachers and employees selected by school administrators, teachers and students.
Top Employee of OC Schools 2020
International School of Orange County
Though Alphonse Nguyen is technically the International School of Orange County’s operation manager and IT PC specialist, his work extends far beyond campus maintenance.
“I admire his dedication and energy,” says the school’s Marketing and Admissions Manager Sarah Blek, who nominated Nguyen for Parenting OC’s Top Employee award, which he won Feb. 5. “Alphonse is always willing to help our staff and faculty so we can work in the best conditions possible. … He is also particularly dedicated to our students and to ensuring their safety on our campus.”
Blek says her own children, who attend the school, tell her that Nguyen encourages them to eat their vegetables and that he plays soccer with them during recess. She recalls when one of the students attending the school’s 2019 summer camp was having a hard time socializing, how Nguyen helped.
“Every day, Alphonse would engage with him and encourage him to play with others, as well as encourage others to include him,” says Blek. “I was impressed by his care, kindness and empathy.”
Nguyen says he’s inspired to go above and beyond because he loves the school and working with the kids.
“Developing a relationship of trust and being able to guide them or simply interact with them on a daily basis is oftentimes very rewarding,” he says. “I also embrace the school’s mission of bringing bilingual education to OC and want to participate in providing the best environment for our students. The fact that we are a small community of 140 students helps create long-lasting relationships with our students and families. Our community is definitely very special.”
Nguyen has been working at the International School of Orange County for the past 11 years. He says that back before he found the job, he was looking for a position where he could utilize his French language skills along with his IT background, and he was lucky to find the school.
A typical day for Nguyen may involve opening the campus, which means he’ll take care of set-up — installing the flags, and making sure the campus is safe and clean for the students coming in for daycare at 7:30 a.m., for example.
“I also take care of any repairs needed or requests from our staff or faculty members for supplies or materials needed in the classrooms while also managing our campus assistants,” he says. “When more families start arriving around 9 a.m., I manage the safety in the parking lot but also greet the parents and students.”
He also assists with recess and lunch supervision, and sometimes supervises the study hall, helps with homework and evening daycare.
“I love the relationships that I have developed and continue developing with our students and parents every day,” he says. “I love solving problems and finding solutions to IT-related issues on campus. I am also very active and always on-the-go. I particularly enjoy that schools are such bustling places.”
He’s proud of the work that he and the campus director have done over the years to beautify the campus since the move to the current location in 2015.
“I also like helping students feel welcome among their classmates, and seeing a shy student finally come out of his shell and make friends is always a success,” he says.
He says he was honored — and surprised — at being named Top Employee.
“Our school stands out by offering a French-inspired curriculum, and a very unique approach to education,” he says. “I am happy to see our campus being recognized for that. Being a Top Employee means a lot to me and pushes me to do better every day. I also love that our school and bilingual program get to be known by the local community through my nomination and win.”
— Jessica Peralta
Top 10 Employees of OC Schools 2020
Sts. Simon & Jude School
“It was quite an honor to be in the company of so many outstanding educators. I have been blessed to work with amazing administrators and fellow teachers who have supported me and my use of art around the school to reach children and the community.”
Coach Karen Foster holds a special connection with the school. Foster graduated from Sts. Simon & Jude School in 1974 and returned in 1980 to begin coaching and teaching. Her importance to the school goes well beyond her titles, which are many: coach, physical education teacher, safety director and stand-in administrator. When the principal and vice principal are off-campus, she is the one entrusted to keep the community safe and secure. She knows every single student and faculty member, knows their stories and exactly how to help when they need it. She has supported multiple families through cancer treatments, death in a family, divorce and more. She also takes wonderful care of students with learning differences, making them feel valued and worthy. She is a brilliant artist and the school is filled with her colorful renderings. It would be difficult to find an alum who doesn’t remember her with great fondness and love.
— Nominated and approved by Principal Colette Obannion
Dwyer Middle School
“Winning top 10 was a great honor for me. I appreciate the support and recognition of my Dwyer team and Parenting OC Magazine.”
As an instructional aide in a special education class serving students with severe needs, Sarah Kolt tirelessly devotes her passion and expertise to maintaining a positive and nurturing environment. Her work ethic, compassion and love for education has inspired all staff. The structure of the classroom could not function to its highest capacity without her guidance. She has established a great rapport with local businesses that have donated items, including clothing and skateboards. The donated items have been used in rewarding students through the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program who demonstrate the four components of GRIT (gratitude, responsibility, integrity and tenacity) on campus and in the community. She continually develops new ideas for working with her small groups, including working outside in nature. Kolt has been a devoted employee of the Huntington Beach City School District for 15 years and is currently pursuing a teaching credential.
— Nominated by Colin Preibe, approved by Principal Christa Glembocki
Orchard Hills School
“It was an honor. I was completely humbled and taken by surprise. It’s just nice to be recognized.”
Librarian Laurie Lawver is the heart of the school. She knows the names of each and every one of the school’s 1,429 students. She spends the summer reading books so that when any of the school’s K-8 students come in for book recommendations, she quickly guides them. She has helped develop lifelong readers because of her passion for books and bringing characters to life. When a teacher needs a book for a lesson, she quickly orders it. If she is unsuccessful in finding the book, she’s been known to purchase it on eBay, or even contact the author on social media to help fulfill the teacher’s request. She is also the school’s tech guru, distributing iPads and apps to students in grades one through eight. She volunteers at the countless events held at the school, including concerts in the evenings, movie nights, scavenger hunts and more. She holds auditions, practices and runs the school talent show as well as the fifth-grade student cheerleaders for the staff vs. students basketball game. Lawver is an asset to not only the school but the Orange County community.
— Nominated by Christine Platt, approved by Principal Mindy Smith
Barbara Benson Elementary
“I am very honored and very happy to be acknowledged. … I never thought I was getting rewarded for what I love to do — that is serving our children.”
Head Custodian Ricky Leon has a way of brightening everyone’s day. Leon is kind, encouraging and always willing to lend a helping hand. One day at early morning drop-off, teachers were busy getting cars moving along, helping students out of cars and preparing for another day. But there was no one available to hear the crying student who refused to get out of his car because he didn’t want to go to school. That’s when Leon jumped into action. He helped the student with his socks and shoes, all the while talking to him: “Oh, hey, buddy, you are such an amazing kid, so cool, we want you to be at school today. I like you! You don’t want to miss all the great stuff you’re going to do in class today, right? OK, let’s go!” The student stopped crying and went to class. Besides the usual vacuuming, emptying of trash cans and scrubbing down sticky lunch tables, Leon offers suggestions for furniture placement, helps arrange bookshelves and always seems to find storage space for an infinite number of items.
— Nominated by Tootie Nienow, approved by Principal Jackie Christy
Our Lady of Guadalupe School
“Being nominated for Orange County School Employee of the Year is very special. I believe my job is to do whatever it takes for the success of the students and their family. We accomplish this at Our Lady of Guadalupe School by working together as a team. Having someone take the time to write in about me makes me feel very proud.”
Although her official title is business manager, she’s far more than that. In addition to serving as a steward of the school’s finances, she goes above and beyond to support the school community in any way that she can. She is the type of person who places the needs of others before her own, and truly cares for students, faculty, staff and parents. When a student is missing a snack, she makes sure the student is fed. When a teacher needs a break, she is the first to come into the classroom and offer help. When a parent is in need of support, she offers a listening ear and an open heart. She is attentive, kind-hearted and considerate. The school is a better place because of her.
— Nominated and approved by Principal Stella Costello
Utt Middle School
“I was surprised and at the same time honored to be chosen by a wonderful group of staff members.”
Ruben Lopez is the school’s head custodian — but he does so much more. Last year, he spent many hours converting a flower bed into a raised garden so that the AVID and special education students could maintain a vegetable garden on campus. For this, he hauled trash cans of soil from the outer edges of campus to raise the level of the garden by about two feet. Then he gave students and teachers advice on planting and maintaining a vegetable garden. He has appeared in classroom science lessons and has even made videos explaining the science and process of plant growth as well as simple machine/mechanical structures. He is constantly pulling out his woodworking tools to modify a learning station or for teacher storage solutions — sanding and modifying shelving systems, removing and adjusting cabinets and doors, and painting. He is also environmentally-minded and uses the leaves around campus to create compost, and fill holes and planters around the school. If he doesn’t have a paint brush, drill, screwdriver or shovel in his hand, he is building relationships with students and staff.
— Nominated by Bob Valdez, approved by Principal Heather Bojorquez
“For me it’s the wonderful memory of my life. I work for my kids, for my school and for my principal and vice principal. I love Ponderosa. This is my family.”
Instructional Assistant Kathy Navarro exemplifies what it means to go above and beyond to ensure all students are successful and that teachers receive the support they need. She works with students who are struggling both academically and emotionally in grades TK-6 in general education and special education. Her calm demeanor and friendly personality wins the hearts of the students and staff alike. Navarro is also always willing to give assistance whenever and however it is needed. When Navarro is working with her small groups, she is always thinking of the varying needs of the students and adjusts what she does in order to meet those needs. She is continually collaborating and connecting with the students’ teachers to ensure they are making progress across environments. Navarro is always focused on her students and using every minute strategically to ensure all students are learning to their potential. Navarro is an irreplaceable asset to the Ponderosa community, which she has been a part of for nearly 30 years.
— Nominated and approved by Principal by Yadira Moreno
La Habra High School
“I’m grateful for being nominated, for being appreciated. I wouldn’t be here without my colleagues. I’m proud to be a Highlander.”
Evaristo Sanchez is the epitome of a Highlander. As a high school student at La Habra, he began his career as a student worker, helping the custodial team after-school and learning the nuances of campus maintenance. After graduation, he became a full-time employee at the school, and currently serves as the custodial grounds supervisor. He has a strong sense of family, and sees the school community as an extension of this. On a campus of nearly 2,200 students, there are always many things needing to be done. Sanchez is able to effectively prioritize, and there has not yet been a job too challenging for him to handle. With all of his many duties each day, he never sacrifices his positive attitude and focus on providing quality customer service. On an average day, Sanchez greets every staff member he encounters and will go out of his way to check in on teachers or other staff he has not seen in a few days. While much of his work is behind-the-scenes, his personality and people skills have made him a beloved presence.
— Nominated and approved by Assistant Principal Keri Kimes
San Juan Hills High School
“This award means a great deal to me. It shows that the extra effort I put into the different programs I support is being recognized and appreciated.”
Fernando Sotelo is an academic advisor managing a caseload of 450-plus high school students to provide college and career counseling. Being bilingual, he also supports a diverse group of students — including first-generation college-bound and English learners. He works with community organizations, the Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE) and the Capistrano Unified School District office to provide workshops for parents of English learners. He coordinated with PIQE to host three separate cohorts, which provided more than 200 Spanish-speaking parents an opportunity to gain greater access to resources that support their children throughout high school. He is a leader in his field with supporting families regarding Dream Act applications and helped to host outside speakers on the Dream Act/Dreamers for families across the district. Last year, he took the lead to organize the first college and career application event at SJHHS. His important work has made the school a more inclusive campus and he has directly contributed to a college-going culture for all students.
— Nominated and approved by Principal Jennifer Smalley
Top 25 Employees of OC Schools 2020
Cpl. Cornelius Ashton
Laguna Beach High School
“I want our youth to know they never have to face struggles alone and that SROs are there to empower them to be at their very best and help them succeed.”
Portola High School
“It’s a great honor. At the same time, you do things [to] serve, without expecting [anything] in return. You serve your people and your staff.”
Fletcher Elementary School
“It means a lot to know that my Fletcher family recognizes me as a Top Employee, because I truly love what I do. It makes this more special.”
Betsy Ross Elementary School
“Just being recognized is an honor, a blessing. I do what
I do not for the recognition.
I like to help. “
Tustin Unified School District
“I’m thankful to Tustin Unified School District for
the many opportunities they have provided me over the
last 19 years.
Fairmont Private Schools, Anaheim Hills
“I have the best job in the world to be able to support students, parents and teachers as an assistant director.”
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
“Running the library doesn’t even feel like work because it’s so much fun to come to work every day. It just feels really nice to be recognized for that.”
San Joaquin Elementary School
“I am honored to accept, and I shall make every effort to continue the good work at San Joaquin Elementary, thank you to San Joaquin community for the nomination.”
Heritage Oak Private School
“I am both honored and humbled to have been recognized by such an amazing, hard-working, dedicated team of professionals, teachers and children.”
Villa Park Elementary School
“It was an honor to be nominated. It means that
I’m reaching the kids. I appreciate them and it’s nice to see that they appreciate what I do for them.”
Friends Christian Elementary School
“Honestly I feel like there’s so many people that I work with that are deserving, and I’m just humbled and honored that I was nominated.”
Fairmont Private Schools
“I feel privileged and humbled to have a long career taking care of the hearts and minds of many children and teens at Fairmont Private Schools.”
Irvine High School
“It is amazing to be
recognized and it’s something I never expected. I would like to thank my friends, family and my colleagues for all of their support.”
Benjamin Franklin Elementary School
“I was surprised and humbled to be named as a Parenting OC School Hero! I take great pride in my work and in making a positive impact on the lives of our children and community.”
San Joaquin Elementary School
“It is truly an honor to be acknowledged and to
represent my school district. Go SVUSD.”
Compiled by Jessica Peralta, Molly Cabrera and Diane Ortiz
Photography by Ralph Palumbo & Eric Stoner