Five schools, four advisors honored for increasing engagement and building positive school environments

Representatives from the Orange County Department of Education made surprise visits to recognize five school-based Peer Assistance Leadership (PAL) programs and four advisors for implementing creative and innovative practices that amplify youth engagement and connectedness. 

Administered by the OCDE, PAL programs promote youth empowerment by encouraging students to help other students in times of need. Youth leaders in grades four through 12 are encouraged to create positive school environments through mentoring, new-student transition services, conflict management, service learning, tutoring, and alcohol, tobacco and drug prevention activities. 

PAL logo

The PAL program supports skill development in the areas of leadership, communication, team building and problem solving. The program can be implemented as a club or class, or it can be incorporated into an existing leadership program, where students receive training in the PAL curriculum and plan campus outreach activities. 

An effective PAL program can help schools incorporate many of the research-based activities that enhance youth engagement and connectedness to school and community, two of the most important protective factors for all types of high-risk behavior. 

“Each year, the Orange County Department of Education in partnership with SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union presents the Outstanding PAL Program Award to programs that have gone above and beyond and youth leaders who connect with their peers to create a caring, safe and supportive school environment for all,” said Deirdre Hill, project liaison at OCDE. 

2022 Outstanding PAL Program honorees:

  • Aliso Viejo Middle School, Capistrano Unified School District
  • Ladera Ranch Middle School, Capistrano Unified School District
  • Peter Marshall Elementary School, Magnolia School District
  • De Portola Elementary School, Saddleback Valley Unified School District
  • Pioneer Middle School, Tustin Unified School District

The 2022 Outstanding PAL Advisor Award honorees are:

Leslie Gomez, South Junior High School, Anaheim Union High School District

Under Gomez’s guidance, PAL students work with their school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports committee, School Site Council, school leadership team and the advisory teachers, as well as community partner OC Human Relations, to engage and support the 1,500 students at South Junior High. Gomez uplifts student voices and empowers her PAL students to identify issues that they care about and develop the skills needed to take action.

Amanda Hatcher, Ladera Ranch Middle School, Capistrano Unified School District

Hatcher is a role model for her PAL students. She encourages them to think outside the box and challenges them to understand the “why” behind their activities. She teaches students how to be reflective and how they can develop a growth mindset. Hatcher believes in the program and sees the impact her students have on their own campus.

Kalyn Rodriguez, Aliso Viejo Middle School, Capistrano Unified School District

Rodriguez works hard to build community within her “PAL family.” Under her guidance, the program at Aliso Viejo Middle School is a model of positive youth development. Her emphasis on student training provides her PAL students the foundation to have an active voice in engaging peers and supporting a positive school environment. With her assistance, the students approach their tasks with the understanding that they are making an impact on others.

Kim Belmont, Las Flores Elementary School, Capistrano Unified School District

Belmont believes strongly in empowering PAL students to take on leadership roles and responsibilities on campus by promoting an environment in which the students understand that their classmates consider them as role models. She makes it a priority to bring out the leadership qualities in each child. Her PAL students were given the opportunity to design the ideal PAL program, truly embracing and taking ownership in the kind of model program they wanted to represent Las Flores Elementary School. Under Belmont’s supervision, PAL students are implementing that model program.

On top of the surprise visits, OCDE’s Media Services team created the video above with Hill to formally announce the winners.

For more information, contact OCDE Project Liaison Deirdre Hill at 714-966-4342, or visit