Top Employee of Orange County 2021
San Joaquin Elementary School in Laguna Hills
Multitasker really doesn’t fully capture Shawnna Sharrar’s unique skillset.
“If the saying about wearing many hats was applied to Mrs. Sharrar, she could open her own boutique,” states the essay nominating Sharrar for Parenting OC’s Top Employee as part of the magazine’s annual School Heroes Awards. “She happily and expertly fills the roles of attendance clerk, health clerk, copier service person, community liaison, custodian, playground assistant, bus duty, kitchen help, media clerk specialist and accountant, all while still maintaining her role as school office manager.”
San Joaquin Elementary School Principal David Shun said he nominated Sharrar because her dedication reflects the Saddleback Valley Unified School District mission of supporting students through a strong partnership between home, school and community.
“The word I would choose to describe her is dedicated,” he said. “She works tirelessly to help support teachers and staff, collaborate with personnel across a variety of schools and departments, all while continuously assisting students and families in order to provide the best learning environment for students.”
She is also a creative problem-solver. When the pandemic first hit, the school faced the challenge of trying to facilitate a school-site materials pick-up for families that didn’t have transportation. To help, Sharrar organized the grade-level materials needed, contacted families and personally assisted in delivering the materials.
“We knew those students would fall too far behind if we didn’t do something to get them the supplies and materials they needed,” said Sharrar.
And she didn’t stop there. Once the school opened for distance learning, Sharrar was on the phone with each family that needed assistance in order to make sure they were successfully able to log in and to help with any tech problems.
“Many of our parents needed help and the district help desk was intimidating for them — especially for our non-English speakers,” she said. “At the beginning of the year, most of our mornings were spent walking students through getting set up in their online classrooms — it was a learning process for all of us. Many days, our whole office would cheer when we helped a particularly difficult kid get into their Google Classroom. There were many times when I would help the same kid get online every day for a week — the celebration would happen when he could do it himself.”
It all comes back to her dedication. In fact, she even learned Spanish in order to better communicate with families for which English is a second language.
“Parents and students are genuinely appreciative of her dedication with assisting and supporting them through clear communication, ease of accessibility and great follow-through,” said Shun.
For Sharrar, wearing many hats is part of the fun.
“Variety is the spice of life,” she said. “I worked (pre-kids) at the engineering firm. It was pretty much the same thing every day. At a school site, every day is a new day, new challenges, new accomplishments. It takes a village. If I have to sweep water out of a classroom where a pipe burst, I have to sweep water … and call the maintenance department.”
At the heart of it all, Sharrar just wants to do her part in helping develop successful students and people. She comes from a family that worked in education — her mom and dad were both long-time school employees.
“I always want the next generation to do better than the last and education plays an important part in that,” she said.
Shun has only good things to say about Sharrar and her work.
“She is an essential part of our winning formula, and continues to help San Joaquin Elementary School support all our students with a high-quality education in a safe and nurturing environment,” he said.
— Jessica Peralta
Top 10 Employees of Orange County Schools 2020
Lake Forest Elementary
“I am honored and grateful to be chosen for this award. I work with an incredible principal and staff that is always supportive, positive and encouraging. We work together as a team and I am thankful to be part of it.”
While Mary Core’s title is attendance clerk, she is so much more. She is the first person families see when they walk into the office in the mornings. She greets everyone with a smile, and knows most by name. Core also takes on the role of psych clerk, scheduling all of the IEP meetings on campus. She is an excellent communicator, and always makes families feel at home when they walk in the door. With a large Spanish-speaking population, Core decided to take a night class to learn some Spanish to be able to better communicate with families — and she’s always ready to pull up Google Translate to try to communicate in Farsi, Arabic, sign language and many other languages families speak. She’s always willing to do more without ever being asked. She fills in if someone is off of work. She jumps up to run something to a student in the classroom to make sure they are not missing instructional time. She also helps identify families who may need some extra help and finds resources for them. In these uncertain times, she is always happy to lend an ear to parents who just need to talk and be heard.
Heritage Oak Private Education
“I am truly honored to receive this award. I really enjoy being able to assist the students, teachers and staff at Heritage Oak understand and use technology to their fullest potential. I look forward to the surprises and challenges that await me in the future.”
Personable, efficient and helpful are all words staff members have used to describe Heritage Oak’s Technology Director Ryan Cygan. Not only did he take on a new role this year, but he completely reimagined the position. Cygan began his career at Heritage Oak in 2009 as an accountant. While on the accounting team, he enthusiastically volunteered to take over the summer camp online registration website design and implementation. His impact on summer camp has gone far beyond technology and accounting. As a former Heritage Oak student, Cygan has extensive knowledge of the “camper experience” and has been an invaluable asset to the camp planning team. His ideas and suggestions have improved the quality of Camp Heritage Oak year after year. When the technology director position opened in 2020, Cygan was a natural choice. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the school needed someone who would think outside the box since technology was key to offering a quality program during these circumstances. When technology issues arise, he not only fixes the problem, but he also empowers teachers and students by teaching them how to fix it themselves.
Foothill Ranch Elementary
“This nomination just fills my heart with joy. When I was offered this position eight years ago, it filled a very personal need in my life. I am thrilled my colleagues can see the love I put into working with them and the children.”
Students and parents alike rely on Regina Essex’s commitment to bring reading and books to the students of Foothill Ranch Elementary, where she’s been the library/media clerk for 14 years. Her library is a haven for young readers. She does an incredible job of ensuring all students are allotted regular library time — a challenge even at the smallest of schools. She is also in charge of the AR reading program, where students challenge themselves to read books at an appropriate reading level as well as test their reading comprehension skills. She also makes sure the library is equipped with new and interesting books to read, coordinates several fundraisers to encourage new book donations, and loves to read to students and teach them about the library. Throughout the pandemic, she has worked diligently with the district office to ensure students have the books they need. She also comes in on her own time to deliver books to students at home when needed, and even meets parents out in the community when coming to school during her regular hours isn’t possible. When school was quickly shut down last spring, she organized Chromebook distribution to over 300 families in three days.
Vibrant Minds Charter School
“It is such a blessing to be acknowledged by the people I love to work alongside. My work is my passion and I enjoy every aspect of helping our scholars develop their strengths. We strive to create a launching pad for a life full of dreams. Our school will always make me proud and I love that we are ‘a family dressed up as a school.’”
While Yvette LaValle’s title is coordinator of Project-Based Learning/Events, what she contributes to Vibrant Minds Charter School defies categorization. When the school opened in 2015-2016, LaValle enrolled her son as a kindergartner. From the beginning, she gave her time and talent to serve all scholars and families. When there wasn’t much of a budget, she put together playground equipment, found inexpensive furniture, painted walls and decorated classrooms. She established school fundraisers including Cow Chip Bingo and the Color Run. It is hard to imagine what the school would be without her relentless energy in the early days. During the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years, LaValle became a staff member and undertook numerous projects. This included working with GATE scholars to complete community service, as well as project-based learning. She also developed an exemplary Safe School Plan, as well as helped the charter get renewed for the next five years. This school year, LaValle was officially hired as a full-time coordinator. In the midst of the pandemic, she has maintained connectivity with the school’s staff and families. For parents, she coordinated a virtual kick-off event. She also secured food in November and toys in December for families in need.
El Toro High School
“It is an honor to be part of this recognition. I am so happy to do what I love and support my students, staff and community every day.”
Assistant Principal Jordan Reed is a trailblazer and advocate for Unified Sports and Unified Esports at El Toro High School and throughout Saddleback Valley Unified School District. He plans, leads, supports and engages students of all abilities in Unified Sports activities on campus. He engages students with and without special needs to lead, play, socialize and compete with each other through practices, clinics and competitions. He is a leader in the inclusion revolution and dedicates countless hours to ensuring students at El Toro High School have access to Unified Sports. In addition, he’s a leader in the Unified Esports movement in SVUSD, Orange County and throughout the country. He jumped at the opportunity to have El Toro High School athletes and partners (students with and without disabilities) join the Unified Esports pilot for Special Olympics, engaging his Unified teams weekly in after-school Unified Esports matches and games. His teams play Unified Esports with schools in Orange County and in Arizona. Reed’s passion for students of all abilities is a driving force for inclusive opportunities at El Toro High School. He also started Unified Track and Field at EL Toro High School, providing students with and without disabilities an opportunity to participate in a CIF sport.
La Habra High School
“I’m truly humbled and motivated by this nomination. I have all my LHHS staff and faculty to thank, for their hard work and for being very supportive. This helps me become a better tech for everyone, which is what I’ll continue to do!”
Media and Computer Technician Roberto Rodriguez is an essential and valued member of the school staff. Right now is not a “normal” time, nor has it been for the past eight months. It has been a time when dependence on technology has reached levels never envisioned or thought possible. Rodriguez has found himself the primary point person to move instruction from in-person to fully online with about two days to accomplish this overwhelming feat. He has transitioned, literally overnight, to the key point of contact for all technology concerns from students, teachers, staff and families. He fields countless tech phone calls, he issues hotspots and provides training on their use. He responds almost instantaneously to teachers on campus who are having issues with Zoom, Google Classroom, their cameras, their projectors or any number of technology snafus that threaten the virtual and hybrid models of learning. The school depends on Rodriguez to restore technology function so that instruction can continue whenever there is a problem. He never disappoints in meeting these needs. On top of all this, he is unfailingly friendly, smiling and positive.
Fairmont Preparatory Academy
“My goal every day is to make a positive impact on my school community. This award means a lot, knowing that what I do on a daily basis is recognized and valued.”
Every organization has that one person who can be viewed as the glue that keeps everything together. For Fairmont Preparatory Academy that person is Lead Counselor Julie Weems. She has demonstrated over her 18 years of service a willingness and ability to do anything that will help support students, families, staff and teachers. Weems is a one-stop destination for questions about the curriculum and student life. As a counselor, she will always put everything else aside to help a student in good times and bad. The relationships that she develops with students and their families is easily one of the things that helps make Fairmont stand out. Her words mean a lot to families and the trust that they place in her is immense. Weems wears a lot of hats — from working with students, developing the schedule, ensuring classes are approved, helping with recruitment efforts, guiding the counselors, working with department chairs on class offerings, and being a member of the administrative team. Even with all her years of service, she continues to innovate and move the school forward. Fairmont Prep is a better place because of Weems and the Prep would not be the same without her.
Robert C. Fisler School
“As an OC school staff member for 16 years, almost 15 of them at Robert C. Fisler School, I am honored and humbled to have been nominated as a Top Employee. Each day my goal is to support the Fisler team to the best of my abilities, both as a tech and as a colleague. In a tech-heavy district at a 1:1 laptop school, tech support can be challenging and exciting, and require flexibility and willingness to learn new things almost daily. To be nominated by my hard-working colleagues for the work I do, the efforts I make, was immensely humbling and heart-warming.”
Computer Technician Sherrie Williamson began her career as a librarian 16 years ago. But no matter what her duties are, Williamson greets every student, staff and parent with a constant, welcoming smile. She has a positive attitude and works collaboratively with staff. As a computer technician, she offers unwavering support to solve technology issues for staff, students or parents. She goes above and beyond her call of duty, often working outside her hours in the morning and late afternoon. She has excellent interpersonal skills to communicate with the community, whether in-person, by phone, email or via scheduled meetings. She is very compassionate when helping students through their tech needs — whether helping access software, or assisting through iPad, laptop or Internet problems. Especially now during the current pandemic, she has provided countless hours of tech support to make sure everyone’s Internet is up and running, Zoom access is stable, and is available for any other tech support concerns. She provides an essential service to the community to make sure students’ learning devices are accessible and ready.
Huntington Beach City School District
“Wow, I was so surprised and incredibly humbled to be nominated for the Top Employee of OC Schools award for being an educator and coach to our youngest learners, parents and teaching staff in a field I am passionate about, and is so often overlooked. Employees in the field of early childhood are rarely recognized for the incredible work they do, so this nomination is even more of an honor. Thank you to all the people that lift me up each and every day so I am able to do this valuable work, especially during these trying times.”
Preschool Supervisor Beth Young is dedicated to creating an environment that addresses the whole child. She maintains a child-centered and inclusive environment for all children. Using an emergent approach, Young responds to their natural curiosity and interest in exploring the world around them. For example, while using a magnet, a child noticed that the magnet stuck to the side of the shelving unit. That discovery initiated a two-week exploration of how magnets work. She is aware of the temperaments of the children and provides a safe environment for them to grow and develop in the social-emotional domain. This has been particularly important during the current year as many children have been isolated due to COVID-19 challenges. Young helps children identify their feelings, supports their interactions with others and helps to identify possible solutions when conflicts arise. She engages children in areas of math and science with hands-on experiences that are supported with open-ended discussions. She incorporates music and movement along with reading daily. It is common to enter her classroom and observe the children reenacting a story they read together using props, felt stories or puppets. She supports a child’s individual growth and development with open-ended activities and experiences that build on their interests that sustain their involvement.