OCDE makes surprise visits to announce the 2017 Orange County Teachers of the Year

This is a big morning. Over the next several hours, the 2017 Orange County Teachers of the Year will be revealed during surprise visits to their respective campuses, and we’ll be along for the ride.

As has been tradition, the good news will travel by way of the department’s “Prize Patrol,” a big yellow school bus carrying Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares, other OCDE administrators, local media and sponsors.

And where will it stop? We’re not saying just yet.

But all five Orange County Teachers of the Year will be presented with a prize package that includes a number of goodies from local sponsors. Disney is kicking in park passes as well as merchandise, and SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union is presenting each recipient with a basket of food and school supplies.

Finalists will be formally honored at a dinner gala in October at the Disneyland Hotel, where they’ll receive a $15,000 prize from the Dr. James Hines Foundation established by Orange County residents Bill and Sue Gross.

The Prize Patrol is ready to roll. Stay tuned.

8:35 a.m. | Western High School | Anaheim Union High School District

The big yellow bus made its first stop at Western High School in the Anaheim Union High School District, where Superintendent Mijares and a throng of visitors found U.S. history teacher Raquel Solorzano-Dueñas leading her first class of the day. Appropriately enough, the superintendent presented her with the first of five Golden Apple awards.

“It is a pleasure to give you this Golden Apple, which is a memento to what you have accomplished,” Dr. Mijares said.

DuenasSolorzano-Dueñas, who has taught for 11 years, choked up as her students broke into applause. 

“I’m shocked,” she said moments later. “This is a great surprise for early on a Monday morning.”

Raymond Solorzano, her brother and fellow social science teacher at Western, was among those in the audience. The school itself holds a special place in the hearts of this pair, both being former Western students.

A noted creator of student experiences, Solorzano-Dueñas is passionate about providing students with opportunities to learn in and out of the classroom. She enjoys organizing and supervising field trips, finding it’s a great way for students to learn about their world, others and themselves.

Colleagues say Solorzano-Dueñas’ most impressive characteristic is her approach, facing each task in a quiet manner. Her voice is never the loudest in the room, yet she is the leader of the social science department and an active member of the school leadership and professional development teams.

Solorzano-Dueñas said the most challenging part of her job is the curriculum — “We cover everything” — and the most rewarding part is engaging students with technology, social media and supporting them as they step out of their comfort zone, “where the real learning takes place.”

9:30 a.m. | South Junior High School | Anaheim Union High School District

Our next Orange County Teacher of the Year is Matthew Bidwell of South Junior High School. Bidwell was surprised with the good news during second period in a science class that included a turtle, a miniature skeleton and some very proud seventh-graders. His wife, Cecilia, who is a counselor at the school, was also among the well-wishers.

“We are so honored to give this to you,” Superintendent Mijares said, dishing out the next Golden Apple.

bidwellBidwell has been teaching for 13 years, all of them at South. Recently, he’s been working to forge connections between different classes at his school. For example, a downhill car design project involves kids enrolled in technology, digital animation, art, computer-aided drafting and Spanish classes.

Bidwell said he had no idea he would earn county honors Monday, but he knows something special is happening at his school.

“I knew what we were doing here at South was starting to get traction and starting to get attention, but I was not expecting anything like this,” he said.

Inspired by the nexus between science and engineering, Bidwell is making connections to both in education.

A self-proclaimed craftsman, he took his special skill set and gave his curriculum a new life, teaching students in STEM and woodshop for the 21st century. This involves scientific investigations to evaluate designs and allow students to create relevant products with life skills — like his creation of the school’s outdoor learning environment and garden that incorporates solar energy to power the irrigation system. 

He says his classes are always his greatest accomplishments.

10:20 a.m. | Santa Ana College | Rancho Santiago Community College District

Santa Ana College is our latest stop, and Steven Bautista, a professor and counselor for the past 20 years, just learned he is an Orange County Teacher of the Year for 2017.

“I’m shocked,” he said. “I mean I’m totally stunned.”

bautistaOnce again, Bautista was surprised in front of his class, which broke into applause and let out a loud “Woohoo!” after Superintendent Mijares made the announcement. Like his colleagues, he was informed he would be receiving $15,000 in October courtesy of the Dr. James Hines Foundation, and he was presented with additional prizes by sponsors Disney and SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union.

“Are my feet touching the ground? I can’t even feel anything,” Bautista said.

In addition to teaching and counseling, Bautista coordinates the college’s Center for Teacher Education and is heavily involved with curriculum development. As part of his efforts to train the next generation of teachers, he regularly partners with Cal State Fullerton and Fullerton College.  

“He’s amazing,” said Dr. Micki Bryant, dean of Santa Ana College’s Counseling Division. “We can’t get him to stop coming up with new ideas.”

Bautista sees his role in higher education as one that guides, supports and encourages students to discover their gifts. 

Abiding by his philosophy of “meeting students where they are,” he works hard to instruct the students from the level at which they are in life at that exact moment. Bautista says this could mean anything from grooming future teachers to reducing the anxiety of a single parent returning to college or aiding a veteran in re-acclimating to civilian life. It’s all about helping to figure out what educational path is best for each student.

He believes teachers can change lives, and he enjoys helping students visualize a better future en route to reaching their full potential.

11:15 a.m. | Tustin Memorial Academy | Tustin Unified School District

In Room 14 at Tustin Memorial Academy, Courtney Smith was leading about 20 kindergartners in a song about Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. The class, we learned, was practicing for an upcoming school play. But the song had to be briefly interrupted Monday to name Mrs. Smith a 2017 Orange County Teacher of the Year.

Surrounded by numbers, letters and bright colors, Superintendent Mijares presented the fourth Golden Apple to Smith, as the room filled with educators, sponsors and media.

smith“There are five top teachers in Orange County,” he said, “and you are one of them.”

Smith expressed her gratitude and embraced her husband, Tim, whose appearance was also a surprise.

“I feel very humbled and honored,” she said, “and it’s such an amazing privilege to work for this school district.”

Smith pulls out all the stops to engage students, using music, costumes and hands-on lessons to drive instruction. This year, her class has been working to hatch real duck eggs, and they recently backlit one to reveal some movement inside.

“She’s an amazing teacher,” Principal Wendy Hudson told the Newsroom. “She’s the kind of teacher you want your child to have every single year.”

A teacher for 17 years, Smith focuses on the specific areas in which students struggle while celebrating their strengths.

Providing a safe place for students to be accepted and encouraged, she is constantly utilizing cutting-edge techniques to ensure every student is valued. One example includes a daily focus on using the “TUMS” approach when the day starts. TUMS stands for “Touch,” “Use their name,” “Make eye-contact” and “Smile.” This proven technique, she says, makes a big impact on every child in her care.

She says her goal is to instill in her students a love for learning, to challenge them to grow academically, and to develop their skills and talents so they can be the best they can be.

12:25 p.m. | Dana Hills High School | Capistrano Unified School District

The last stop of the day is Dana Hills High School, where science teacher Kristine Clarke has just been named the fifth and final Orange County Teacher of the Year. 

Clarke teaches AP chemistry, biotechnology and forensics at Dana Hills. Because the Prize Patrol arrived during lunchtime, however, the Prize Patrol wasn’t able to surprise her during class. Instead, Superintendent Mijares and the school’s principal, Jason Allemann, opted to make the announcement in the school’s indoor lunch area, known as The Mall.

clarkeBut wouldn’t you know it? Clarke was still in her classroom teaching a few students how to dust for fingerprints. Another staff member was dispatched to bring her out.

“I’m very honored,” Clarke said after the announcement was made over the PA. “I’m very blown away.”

This time the entire student body cheered, as did two special guests. Clarke’s parents, Mary and Mark of Orange, made the trip to celebrate the honor.

Clarke describes science as a discipline that comes to life through experience, and she uses her own research background to inspire her students.

Giving her students a glimpse into the professional world, she developed a class that mimics working in a real research laboratory. She advocates for the future of the students, and strives to provide them with skills that make them marketable. Several have gained internships as a result of completing her class, benefitting from connections with real experts in the field.

Clarke says science is a hands-on discipline and students learn best when they are exposed to science through experiments. Some examples include bringing in a real FBI forensic scientist to demonstrate how to compare fingerprints or analyzing blood spatter and performing a DNA analysis.


This year’s winners were selected from a field of 63 educators who were honored in their home districts. The process included both applications and interviews for the 15 semifinalists.

In addition to being recognized at the gala dinner in October, Orange County’s four K-12 Teachers of the Year are now eligible to compete for state honors. We’re told California usually announces its Teachers of the Year in November.