CUSD celebrates the 2024 Teachers of the Year

By Lou Ponsi

Capistrano Unified School District’s annual Teacher of the Year Celebration is the one evening each year when the district recognizes and honors the men and women who do much more than simply teach.

With CUSD administrators, members of the Board of Trustees, and family members of the honorees in attendance, the District celebrated its 2024 Teacher of the Year on April 24 at San Juan Hills High School. One Teacher of the Year was named for each of the District’s 59 schools.

Through their guidance in the classroom, these resolute educators help shape the lives of their pupils in ways that carry over outside the classroom, said CUSD Board of Trustees President Krista Castellanos as the ceremony began.

“Beyond the classroom, you are leaders and advocates for education, collaborating with colleagues, engaging with parents, and the entire community,” Castellanos said. “I want to thank you for your tireless dedication and your unwavering passion. You’re truly deserving of this honor and we are proud to celebrate you tonight. I’m extremely personally thankful for all your hard work, passion, and dedication to all of our students.”

Viejo Elementary School teacher Norma Hernandez was named CUSD Elementary School Teacher of the Year and Casey Campbell from Don Juan Avila Middle School was recognized as the Middle School Teacher of the Year. Both were in consideration for the Orange County Teacher of the Year.

For Hernandez, who immigrated to the United States at age 7 and spoke virtually no English when entering first grade, says teaching is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor because each student has different needs and learns differently. Viejo Elementary, where Hernandez teaches, is one of four dual immersion elementary schools in CUSD, where students become proficient in both English and Spanish.

“Now as a bilingual teacher, I empower students to master both languages,” Hernandez said. “Through tailored instruction and play-based learning, I nurture their academic and social-emotional growth, fostering a supportive and inclusive classroom environment. My students are learning to value a growth mindset. I understand my students as they learn a second language and put myself in their shoes repeatedly, in my daily teaching.”

Beyond his duties in the classroom, Campbell has made significant contributions toward promoting cultural proficiency within the community and fostering a culturally responsive environment that aligns with the school values, Don Juan Avila Middle School Principal Amy Varricchio said.

“He has positively influenced the overall school culture,” Varricchio said. “This is seen in his classroom where he prioritizes his students so they feel supported and successful each day. He aims to foster individual growth and a positive learning environment. Students in his class are encouraged to focus on personal progress, not comparison.”

CUSD Supt. Chris Brown, who stepped into the role of superintendent in July, was attending his first Teacher of the Year celebration since beginning his tenure.

“It becomes very clear that this district has been incredibly successful at hiring the best and the brightest teachers in the country,” Brown said. “I will have walked every school, I will have walked hundreds of classrooms, and I continue to be impressed by the quality of instruction that I see. It’s really safe to say that the teachers here value teaching as a profession.”

Teachers of the Year for each CUSD school are:

Lucille Robustelli, Adult Transition Program

Ebru Guvengir, Aliso Niguel High School

Doug Wade, Aliso Viejo Middle School

Carina Purer, Harold Ambuehl Elementary School

Mary Samis, Arroyo Vista Elementary School

Jenn Vega, Arroyo Vista Middle School

Jessica Rusinkovich, Bathgate Elementary School

Kendra LeFevre, Truman Benedict Elementary School

Salina Christian, Marian Bergeson Elementary School

Lisa Waizinger, Bernice Ayer Middle School

Lori Bilhorn, Cal Prep Academy and Capo Virtual School

Joan Calkins, Canyon Vista Elementary School

Vanessa Kaluger, Castille Elementary School

Jason Sorrell, Capistrano Valley High School

Annette Burns, Chaparral Elementary School

Kelly Burke, Concordia Elementary School

Danielle Wallace, Dana Hills High School

Mahshid Hosseinzadeh, Del Obispo Elementary School

Sue Larwood, Don Juan Avila Elementary School

Sylvia Garwood, Esencia Elementary School

Kathleen Stough, Esencia Middle School

Lisa Santuci, George White Elementary School

Mary Lynn Warren, Carl Hankey Elementary School

Jillian Dogterom, Carl Hankey Middle School

Tara Rynne, Hidden Hills Elementary School

Amy Duarte, Kinoshita Elementary School

Caroline Platt, Ladera Ranch Elementary School

Kelsey Shattuck, Ladera Ranch Middle School

Suzy Griffen, Laguna Niguel Elementary School

Christine Dodge, Las Flores TK-8 School, Elementary

Stephanie Goodwin, Las Flores TK-8 School, Middle

Karla Sturtz, Las Palmas Elementary School

Joelie Buchan, Clarence Lobo Elementary School

Eileen Medrano, John Malcom Elementary School

Alyssa Adams, Marblehead Elementary School

Heather Caruso, Marco Forster Middle School

Saima Khan, Moulton Elementary School

Jennifer Baker, Elementary Music Teacher

Gin Japlit, Fred Newhart Middle School

Colleen Van Ginkel, Niguel Hills Middle School

Keena Patel, Oak Grove Elementary School

Jennifer McAteer, Oso Grande Elementary School

Elaine Dolnack, Palisades Elementary School

Meagan Gerlach, R.H. Dana Elementary School

Hiam Hassan Awni, R.H. Dana Early Childhood Center

Joanne Gonzalez-Gulley, Philip Reilly Elementary School

Michelle Riem, San Clemente High School

Monica Diaz, San Juan Elementary School

Kelly Hambrick, San Juan Hills High School

Chris Billy, Shorecliffs Middle School

Nate Ritscher, T esoro High School

Marianne Mann, Tijeras Creek Elementary School

Mathew Sheridan, Union High School ATS Alternative to Suspension

Kristy Johnson, Vista del Mar Elementary School

Paul Wachenheim, Vista Del Mar Middle School

Courtney Lawler, Wagon Wheel Elementary School

Gianna Kuehn, Wood Canyon Elementary School

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