Honoring Orange County’s classified school employees of 2023

Nine school workers from local districts earned the title of 2023 Orange County Classified School Employee of the Year for their exceptional dedication to the well-being of their students and unwavering commitment to going above and beyond their assigned responsibilities.

While the Orange County Department of Education did announce the winners in March, the OCDE Newsroom wanted to honor the finalists again by letting others know who they are and why they are deserving of the recognition during Classified School Employee Week, which is on the fourth week of May. That week falls on May 21 to May 27 this year.

Two of the department’s honorees also earned the attention of State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, who earlier this month included them among the 2023 California Classified School Employees of the Year.

Jaime Carranza, a senior warehouseman from the Anaheim Union High School District, won the award for top classified employee in the Food and Nutrition Services category. Adriana Ponce, an office manager at Jordan Elementary School in the Lowell Joint School District, was awarded in the Clerical and Administrative Services category.

“Each Classified Employee of the Year represents the dedication and invaluable contributions made by the vast community of over a quarter million classified employees across California,” said Sonja Morrissey, president of California School Employees Association Chapter 468. “Whether on the frontlines in classrooms or working tirelessly behind the scenes in district offices, they have truly elevated the field of education, positively impacting the lives of staff, students and the communities they wholeheartedly serve.”

Below are photos of each finalist taken by OCDE’s Media Services team and short biographies based on nomination forms submitted on their behalf.

Emma Avalos
Family and Community Engagement Specialist, Anaheim Elementary Online Academy
Anaheim Elementary School District

2023 Orange County Classified School Employee of the Year Emma Avalos

Emma Avalos, a family and community engagement specialist, has poured her heart and soul into her role at the Anaheim Elementary Online Academy community. She is representing the Health and Student Services category.

For nearly 10 years with the Anaheim Elementary School District, Avalos’ colleagues have seen how hard she has worked to build relationships with students, their families and community.

The engagement specialist is described by many of her colleagues as “an angel.” Avalos works while keeping students’ well-being and education in mind. She often seeks out opportunities to build relationships with community organizations and local businesses in hopes to lean on them when students and families in need turn to the school for help in addressing food and housing insecurities.

“Ms. Avalos supports this school community in so many hidden and invisible ways,” said Julie Klinkenberg, a teacher from Anaheim Elementary Online Academy. “We wouldn’t be as successful as we are without her.”

From planning school-wide events to translating important information for families in Spanish, Avalos also takes the initiative to support her colleagues in personal ways.

“She has great emotional intelligence that allows her to connect with people,” said Principal Anna Bae Kim. “I have been truly blessed by her thoughtful messages and cards that offer a source of encouragement and affirmation at some of my lowest points.”

Jaime Carranza
Senior Warehouseman
Anaheim Union High School District

2023 Orange County Classified School Employee of the Year Jaime Carranza

Jaime Carranza, a senior warehouseman, has a big role in feeding more than 35,000 K-12 students in both the Anaheim Elementary and Anaheim Union High school districts every school day. He is representing the Food and Nutrition Services category.

Carranza’s responsibilities include ensuring school sites receive their deliveries, working with drivers and maintaining the fleet of trucks, handling food and supplies, and keeping the warehouse in tip-top shape.

“When challenges arise, he is quick to address them and offer solutions,” said Tiffanie Bas, the Anaheim Union High School District’s assistant director of Food Services. “Because of his knowledge and experience, and his willingness to assist others, employees never hesitate to call Jaime for assistance.”

When students were home learning remotely during the pandemic, Carranza created transportation routes for his teammates to deliver more meals and would step in if a driver was out sick.

“There were times where we had minimal staff left in our central kitchen to complete production for our 23 elementary sites,” said Bas. “Jaime has been known to jump in on the production line to assist without being asked.”

Having served the district for more than 23 years, Carranza has built a reputation of being respected and appreciated by colleagues in both districts.

Josephine Walberg
Paraeducator 4, Adult Transition Program
Capistrano Unified School District

2023 Orange County Classified School Employee of the Year

Josephine Walberg, a paraeducator from the Capistrano Unified School District’s adult transition program, is constantly searching for ways to better serve her students with moderate to severe disabilities. She is representing the Paraprofessional category.

Along with her students’ parents and families, colleagues and administrators have all taken notice of how she has brought a balance of professionalism and heart into the classroom for the past five years.

“She has worked with some students with the most challenging behavioral, medical and caretaking needs in our district,” Education Specialist Amanda Bacopulos said. “What sets Ms. Jo apart is her ability to celebrate every student’s ability and progress.”

During her time there, Walberg was paired with a student who was deaf. She was determined to learn how to better communicate and understand the student so Walberg enrolled at a community college to take American Sign Language courses.

Outside of work, Walberg volunteers at a local food pantry and as a mentor through Court Appointed Special Advocates of Orange County, which is a nonprofit organization that provides a powerful voice and a meaningful connection for children who have experienced abuse, neglect and abandonment.

Manjit Kaur Charaia
Senior Programmer Analyst
Garden Grove Unified School District

2023 Orange County Classified School Employee of the Year Manjit Kaur Charaia

Manjit Kaur Charaia has earned a reputation as a problem solver while serving the Garden Grove Unified School District for more than six years. She is representing the Technical Services category.

Charaia played an important role in integrating digital curriculum so students and staff can easily access resources and materials anytime of the day or week. She hasn’t ceased to impress district leaders on her ability to expertly navigate problems, resolve challenges and improve routine processes to become more efficient and effective.

“She has vast experience from having worked at other school districts,” said Peter Tran, a web developer for the district. “She’s the go-to person when I need feedback on new ideas or advice. At the start of any project, I’d go to her to brainstorm and receive technical guidance.”

Recently when two of her teammates retired around the same time, Charaia stepped in to fill the gaps to ensure there wouldn’t be any disruptions to the department’s ongoing projects.

“We appreciate her for being flexible and remaining supportive throughout the process,” said Superintendent Dr. Gabriela Mafi. “Her support has been critical for classroom success.”

Karin Vizcaino
Skilled Maintenance Electrician
Los Alamitos Unified School District

2023 Orange County Classified School Employee of the Year Karin Vizcaino

Karin Vizcaino, a skilled maintenance electrician for the Los Alamitos Unified School District, has been credited with being instrumental in numerous projects over the past six years. He is representing the Skilled Trades category.

Vizcaino’s expertise was heavily relied upon during the pandemic as the district implemented a new solar power energy strategy, which included the installation of solar panel systems at its school sites and offices.

“His efforts in energy efficiency have resulted in significant cost savings for the district,” said CJ Knowland, the district’s director of facilities, maintenance, operations and transportation. “Karin’s contributions have had a significant impact on our school community.”

His colleagues in the department view him as a leader who promotes collaboration and open lines of communication.

Outside of work, Vizcaino has participated in marathons benefitting local charities. He recently placed second in the Race for Los Al Marathon.

Adriana Ponce
Office Manager, Jordan Elementary School
Lowell Joint School District

2023 Orange County Classified School Employee of the Year Adriana Ponce

Described as someone who does not see limitations and only sees endless possibilities, Adriana Ponce is celebrating eight years of serving the Jordan Elementary community in the Lowell Joint School District. The office manager is representing the Clerical and Administrative Services category.

Ponce was responsible for improving the school office’s efficiency by transitioning it from a predominantly paper-based system to an electronic one. She created an online form system that allows families to report absences and request student work, and she assisted the district in improving accessibility to information with her fluency in Spanish.

“Adriana’s presence immediately gave these families a sense of belonging and inclusion by giving them the opportunity to communicate with the school in the language they best understand,” said Principal Marikate Elmquist.

Each year, Ponce arranges Thanksgiving meals, delivers Christmas trees and gifts, and collects clothing and backpacks for students and families in need.

Ponce has even fostered a student whose mother lost custody of her. She provided the child with a stable and loving environment until the parent was approved to regain custody.

“Her technical expertise makes her an asset, but it’s the warmth, compassion and love that Adriana brings to her position that makes her invaluable,” said Elmquist.

Gene Martinez
Maintenance Operations Division Lead
Magnolia School District

2023 Orange County Classified School Employee of the Year Gene Martinez

Gene Martinez, a maintenance operations division lead in the Magnolia School District, is a figure that colleagues look to for leadership and support. He is representing the Custodial and Maintenance Services category with 10 years dedicated to the district.

Last summer, Magnolia took on more maintenance and facilities projects than ever before, and districts leaders noticed how Martinez took his job title to heart. He worked with his team and third-party contractors to ensure that each task would be completed before thousands of students returned from summer break.

“His actions demonstrate that everything he does supports all students in having a safe, functional and optimal learning and play environment,” said Matt Sumner, director of maintenance, operations, transportation and facilities.

Martinez sees his district as his own personal community — and his own children attended the schools that he has taken care of. He has coached youth baseball, mentored students and fundraised to ensure each student from a sixth-grade class one year had running shoes to participate in a track event. He and his wife even went as far as fostering two children attending the district.

“Mr. Martinez has always been one that is there to lend a hand, no matter the situation,” said Sumner.

Eddie Vey
School Bus Driver
Ocean View School District

2023 Orange County Classified School Employee of the Year Eddie Vey

Eddie Vey has safely transported more than 700,000 students and driven more than 520,000 miles as a school bus driver for the Ocean View School District. He is representing the Transportation Services category with 29 years dedicated to the district.

Vey is well respected among his colleagues, students and their families. He proudly maintains his bus and keeps it so clean to the point that people mistake it for a brand new bus. He gets to know each of his riders and often attends their school’s Halloween parades and Special Olympics events, and he encourages each student to do well in their classes.

“He has outstanding relationships with the students he transports and their parents, which displays a level of trust and compassion in transporting such precious cargo,” said Transportation Supervisor Kelly Daniel.

Vey drove the district’s bus in the Huntington Beach Fourth of July Parade last year. As he made his way down through the parade route on Main Street, he could hear his current and former students shouting his name.

“Ed has made such an impact in the community he has driven over the years,” said Daniel.

During summer break, Vey plans to take care of the district’s entire fleet by cleaning the buses inside and out, painting parking lot markings, and repairing vinyl seat tears — just like he has always done for nearly three decades.

Amira Hana
Playground Assistant, Melinda Heights Elementary School
Saddleback Valley Unified School District

2023 Orange County Classified School Employee of the Year Amira Hana

Amira Hana’s official title at Melinda Heights Elementary School is playground assistant, but according to her colleagues, she does so much more. With five years dedicated to the school and the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, Hana is representing the Security Services category.

From directing traffic to providing support for teachers and staff, Hana is an advocate for the campus’ mission and vision, which is to ensure a safe and welcoming space for all students.

Hana has made it a point to learn students’ names and a little fact about each student. When the children get into disagreements, she encourages them to solve problems together and guides them to fair solutions. 

“If there is a medical issue on campus, from a bruised knee to a bruised ego … Amira is a ‘first responder’ who will run to the aid of any child in need of assistance or a little extra TLC,” said Principal Kathy Martin.

This school year, Hana supported a new school family who were refugees from Ukraine by making them dinner when one of their family members was hospitalized. She also bought groceries for a colleague in the office when they were ill.

“Amira’s kindness and compassion are a staple at Melinda Heights,” said Martin.