They’re the ones who drive school buses, keep campuses clean, manage offices and work one-on-one with students. And though they often perform their critical roles behind-the-scenes, six of these outstanding workers are now front and center as finalists in this year’s Orange County Classified School Employees of the Year program.
Established in 2008 by the California Department of Education, the CSEY program annually highlights the contributions of classified employees who have gone above and beyond in support of public schools and students, from preschool through grade 12.
“Each and every day, our classified employees perform essential services that support and enable learning at all levels,” said Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares. “These six staff members in particular have distinguished themselves with passion, integrity and ingenuity, contributing directly to the health, safety and academic success of our students. On behalf of the Orange County Department of Education, I am extremely proud to celebrate their achievements and their inspiring commitment to our schools.”
A committee consisting of community representatives and educators annually selects the Orange County Classified Employees of the Year in the areas of child nutrition services; maintenance, operations and facilities; transportation; para-educator and instructional assistance; office and technical services; and support services and security.
Alright, enough suspense. Here are the honorees for 2016:
Para-Educator and Instructional Assistance
Denise Yota, an occupational therapist at Castille, Wagon Wheel and Carl Hankey schools in the Capistrano Unified School District, has for more than 16 years brought care, commitment, passion and creativity to her role in working with students who require specialized support. She cares deeply for the success, wellbeing and achievement of her students and provides dedicated support to staff, students and their families each and every day.
Touted as an “out-of-the-box thinker,” Yota spends a great deal of her own personal time developing treatment plans and materials to help parents and colleagues better support students with disabilities. She recently adapted some of the lessons in a handwriting program to make them more user-friendly for both special education and general education classes.
Yota finds each child’s strengths and uses them to address their unique needs. She truly connects with her students, and they look forward to working with her. Her favorite part of her job is watching the kids grow and flourish in school and at home. When her students experience success, she feels fulfilled.
Support Services and Security
Kyle Coates, the site coordinator at Olinda Child Development Center, has been with the district for 12 years, serving children in preschool through middle school. He is responsible for the overall administration of the center, including marketing, recruitment, enrollment, fiscal management, curriculum development and supervision.
He has taken the lead on integrating 21st-century learning into the district’s child development programs. He truly understands the importance of providing activities that promote critical thinking, problem solving and creativity. He has created a culture in the before- and after-school programs that engages students in science, technology, engineering and math projects.
Described as having a contagious positive attitude, Coates is always ready and willing to help others when needed. He is a strong leader and his peers say they often look to him for advice and guidance. His favorite part of his job is building relationships with the children and their parents. He enjoys getting to know them and providing an environment where kids can learn and have fun at the same time.
Lucia Tammy Mesi, a bus driver in the Anaheim Elementary School District, is an employee who genuinely cares about her “precious cargo.” She has been a bus driver for the district for 18 years and distinguishes herself by consistently being hardworking and reliable. She is often the first to step up and take on assignments or extra duties with enthusiasm and dedication. Her number one priority is the safety of the students. Regardless of the situation, Mesi always delivers — literally.
Committed to taking the time to talk to her students, Mesi makes it a point to also learn their names and get to know their parents to ensure proper identification at each bus stop. She provides them with extra support, simply by being a good listener.
Mesi has been an invaluable staff member on the Transportation team. She is appreciated, respected and admired by her colleagues, students and parents.
Maintenance, Operations and Facilities
Efren Barrera, a head custodian for the Ocean View School District, started working as a custodian for the district 26 years ago when he was in high school. During his first year with the district, he took only two sick days — and he didn’t another over the next 21 years. That’s right, not one sick day in 21 years.
A clearly dedicated employee, Barrera works hard every day to provide a safe, clean, problem-free environment for students so they can learn and be productive. He is known for being a role model, communicator, problem solver, innovator and creator to students, staff and community members. He is a living example of the 21st-century skills educators aim to teach students.
What Barrera enjoys most about his job is making a difference for kids. Barrera makes note of this being a team effort and he appreciates the support of the entire maintenance crew, the teachers, the principal, the office staff, the IT team and everyone else who supports student learning. According to him, the kids are why we are here.
Veronica Chapple, a lead food service worker at Willmore Elementary School in the Westminster School District, exemplifies hard work, excellence and service in everything she does. She has been going above and beyond for 11 years with the district to ensure a clean and safe kitchen environment.
She is always looking for ways to improve the menu, the equipment and the operational procedures at her school. Counted on to train others, she only knows one way to do things — the right way. She always looks out for the best interests of the children.
Believing each student is a different book with their own stories, Chapple’s goal is to ensure the time students spend at school helps create positive chapters. She shared that if she can make a difference in one life, this is all worth it.
Office and Technical
Mary McAfee, an office manager at Huntington Seacliff Elementary School in the Huntington Beach City School District, has been described as creating an office that runs like a well-oiled machine. She has been with the district for 15 years. The principal shared that on a typical day, you may see McAfee at her desk in front of the computer or on the phone (multi-tasking of course), but you may have just missed her helping a student with an iPad problem, switching out two wireless access points, ordering a cart of iPads, registering a new family, balancing the budget and fixing the copy machine.
With her team wondering how she does it all, McAfee adds to that notion by having recently taken on the role of technology lead for the school. She always makes sure to be available for students, staff and parents to answer questions or address concerns. If she doesn’t know the answer, or she can’t find it in one of her many well-organized binders, she will not give up until the issue is resolved.
Due to her boundless energy and supportive nature, she has earned the respect and admiration of students, parents and staff.
A total of 57 employees were nominated in Orange County, and judges evaluated each application based on a state-selection criteria organized around four themes – work performance, school and community involvement, leadership and commitment, and actions that go above and beyond.
Each of the finalists was honored at the April 6 Orange County Board of Education meeting and received a $500 award from SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union. In addition, a full-page advertisement recognizing the finalists and nominees ran on page four of the Orange County Register.
Next up, the six finalists will represent Orange County in the state-level competition.