Meet Orange County’s Classified School Employees of the Year for 2020

OCDE has announced Orange County’s top classified school employees for 2020.

Six county finalists were selected from a pool of 64 district-level winners based on their work performance, leadership, commitment and involvement with their schools and communities.

In addition to being honored locally — including an appearance in a full-page ad in today’s Orange County Register — each is now eligible to compete for state honors.

The 2020 Orange County Classified Employees of the Year are:

  • Phillip Burns, a sous chef in the Anaheim Union High School District
  • Luis Cordon, a bus driver for the Garden Grove Unified School District
  • Cathy Kitto, an office manager in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District
  • Vanessa Larios, an Extended School Program coordinator in the Fountain Valley School District
  • Timmi Pearson, a paraeducator in the Cypress School District, and
  • Danny Salas, a head custodian in the Los Alamitos Unified School District

The Classified School Employees of the Year program was established in 2008 by the California Department of Education to spotlight the contributions of classified workers, whose ranks include instructional assistants, custodians, office clerks, technicians, bus drivers and other non-certificated staff members.

In Orange County, home to approximately 475,000 public school students, SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union partners with OCDE to annually recognize six exemplary employees who help make sure campuses are safe, supportive and engaging learning environments.

“Classified workers are indispensable at all levels of education, ensuring the health, safety and academic success of our students,” Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares said. “They are often the first to greet students on campus, and many play a central role building relationships with families.”

Here’s more on each of this year’s winners, based on the nomination forms submitted on their behalf.

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Phillip Burns, sous chef, Anaheim Union High School District

Representing the Child Nutrition category, Phillip Burns has served as a sous chef in the Anaheim Union High School District’s Food Services division for six years.

Burns portrait

Phillip Burns

His responsibilities have included recipe development, product testing, planning and creating meals for students with special dietary needs. More recently, his role expanded to include assisting the central kitchen manager with the oversight and preparation of approximately 20,000 meals a day.

Burns is continually working to develop new menu items that meet strict state and federal guidelines, and he seeks feedback from students, parents and staff to ensure meals are as delicious as they are healthy. Dedicated to his craft and methodical about quality control, he conducts thorough research and is proactive about sharing the latest culinary trends with colleagues.

Burns wants students to build healthy habits at home as well as school, and he’s always up for a challenge. Following a national student culinary competition, the district wanted to add a student-created recipe for sliders, but it proved to be labor intensive and exceeded nutrient guidelines. Burns figured out how to make the dish work while staying true to the students’ vision, and it has since been added to several school menus.

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Luis Cordon, bus driver, Garden Grove Unified School District

Luis Cordon, a bus driver in the Garden Grove Unified School District, represents the Transportation category. Cordon has served as a district bus driver for 20 years.

Cordon portrait

Luis Cordon

Cordon has maintained an impeccable school bus driving record with no accidents and has been awarded the district’s Meritorious Award for being accident-free for more than 15 years. His student-centered approach is just one of the reasons he is an exemplary employee, said Transportation Director Javier Rodriguez.

As a school bus driver, Cordon is the first school employee many students see in the morning. His positive attitude, calm demeanor and keen understanding of student behavior makes him a natural mentor to students.

Rodriguez describes how on one occasion, Cordon was eating at a local restaurant when a waitress, a former district student, recognized him and commented that his caring attitude made a profound impression on her when she was a student, inspiring her to always do better.

Fellow bus drivers consider Cordon a mentor and continually seek him out for advice. Meanwhile, he also serves as a lunch duty aide at Patton Elementary School, where he’s known for his gentle and approachable manner with students.

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Cathy Kitto, office manager at Andersen Elementary School, Newport-Mesa Unified School District

Cathy Kitto, the office manager at Andersen Elementary in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, is representing the category of Office and Technical. She has 27 years of experience in the district.

Kitto portrait

Cathy Kitto

Kitto is described as a shining example of someone who goes above and beyond to ensure her duties are performed at the highest level. Often the first person visitors will meet on the campus, she prides herself on greeting everyone with a warm smile.

“We have over 100 volunteers that come through the door each week, and they are all greeted with a welcoming heart by Cathy,” said Principal Shannon Bray.

Kitto is often referred to as the “Google of Andersen” for her wealth of institutional knowledge. “The community knows if they reach out to Cathy she will have an answer, and if Cathy does not know the answer she will work hard to find the answer for them,” Bray said.

Kitto can step in and quickly make decisions on the principal’s behalf when she is off campus, and she knows what the expectations are to keep the school running smoothly and safely, Bray said.

“She is highly skilled in her role of administrative assistant,” Bray said. “Cathy is truly a gift to the Andersen community.”

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Vanessa Larios, Extended School Program Coordinator, Newland Elementary School, Fountain Valley School District

Honored in the category of Support Services and Security, Vanessa Larios joined the Fountain Valley School District’s Extended School Program, or ESP, as an instructor in 2007. After a year, her talents were evident. She was promoted to a coordinator at Oka Elementary School’s program, where she worked for six years before moving to Newland.

Larios portrait

Vanessa Larios

ESP is a before- and after-school program that offers help with homework, enrichment opportunities, reading and math intervention, and physical play. Parents say Larios takes care of her students as if they were her own kids, and her positive attitude is contagious.

Newland Principal Christopher Mullin says the way Larios has structured her program has contributed to his school’s increased math and reading scores.

“Students have a quiet place to do homework after school,” Mullin said. “They have access to technology and, oftentimes, Mrs. Larios will check in with homeroom teachers to better aid her students with their work.”

Larios serves on a number of committees at the district and site levels, including Fountain Valley’s STEM Committee and the superintendent’s Safety Committee. She also coordinates summer recreational activities every year. Colleagues say she goes above and beyond to organize fun and engaging opportunities for kids.

“Mrs. Larios leads by example in all that she does,” Principal Mullin said. “She has a strong moral compass and a student-first vision.”

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Timmi Pearson, paraeducator, Frank Vessels Elementary School, Cypress School District

Timmi Pearson has served as a paraeducator in the Cypress School District for 24 years, working at Frank Vessels Elementary School. She was honored in the category of Paraeducator and Instructional Assistance.

Pearson portrait

Timmi Pearson

Characterized as a hard working leader and an effective collaborator, Pearson works with small groups of students each day, promoting rigor and high expectations for all learners.

Pearson mentors and advises fellow paraeducators, and she helps onboard those who are new to the profession. Her expertise is often called upon to assist with challenging behaviors. Even in the most difficult situations, she models composure and compassion.

“Without exception, Timmi wins those students over and supports their ability to engage with the curriculum,” colleagues wrote in her nomination. “On a daily basis, we have seen Timmi inspire her students to reach their full potential.”

Pearson is known to approach every task with professionalism, commitment and a sense of humor. She also forms authentic relationships with families, encouraging them to get involved with community activities and events, and in some cases she has maintained friendships after their children have left Vessels. Coworkers say she embodies what a paraeducator should be to students and staff.

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Danny Salas, head custodian, Oak Middle School, Los Alamitos Unified School District

Daniel Salas, head custodian at Oak Middle School in the Los Alamitos Unified School District, has worked at the campus for 17 years. He is representing the Maintenance, Facilities and Operations category.

Salas portrait

Daniel Salas

Salas is driven by his passion for the job and has pride of ownership in whatever he does, Principal Erin Kominsky said. He is always reliable, and his care and concern extend beyond the work day. In fact, he is always “on call” to shut off an alarm, secure the campus in the middle of the night or answer a text in the early hours of the morning.

Kominsky describes how, many years ago, she received a call at around 2 a.m. about a fire on campus. When she arrived, she found Salas working alongside the fire department, helping to coordinate efforts.

Although the fire was not devastating, it did some damage to the outside of the media center. Salas stayed through the night to make sure that the water and fire debris were cleaned up before students arrived at 8 a.m. It was important for him that students saw it was under control and the school was safe. Salas never went home to sleep.

“Daniel Salas is by far the best site custodian I have ever worked with,” the principal said.


Fermin Leal contributed to this story.