Making a difference in Santa Barbara County schools

Four extraordinary people whose selflessness, work ethic, enthusiasm, and compassion have had lasting impacts on the lives of the school children they encounter every day are being recognized as the 2015 Santa Barbara County Classified School Employees of the Year.

This year’s honorees include an “angel;” another is a “compassionate and supportive self-starter.” There is the peerless career specialist who is known for putting on robust career fairs for a diverse student population; and a “lunch lady,” whose “positive rapport with students and families” has benefited multiple generations of Santa Barbara county school children.

Being honored this year in the Support Services and Security category is Connie McGuire of Santa Maria High School. Ellwood School’s Cassandra Locke is the winner in the Para-Educator and Instructional Assistance category. The Office and Technical category winner is Karen Apple from Pioneer Valley High School. Leora Summer wins in the Child Nutrition Category. Ms. Summer has been at the Isla Vista School for over 40 years.

They will be recognized May 14 (time approximate: 2:10 p.m.) by the Santa Barbara County Board of Education, and will represent the county for potential selection as California Classified Employee of the Year.

“These professionals’ accomplishments speak to the passion and dedication they bring to work every day,” says county Superintendent of Schools Bill Cirone. “And they represent all the school staff members who play such a vital role in supporting children’s achievement, safety, and health.” Cirone concludes, “Classified employees are instrumental to our job of educating tomorrow’s leaders, and we honor them for all they do for children.”

The selection process began with all local school districts being invited to nominate employees from different employment categories. A nominee must be a classified employee of a California public school (preschool through 12th grade), district office, or county office of education in a non-management position and have been in the same service category for at least five years. Nominations can come from a superintendent, administrator, principal, supervisor, colleague, student, or parent. Recommendations focus on the nominee’s work performance, school community involvement, leadership, and commitment. A committee then reviews the nominations and selects the winners.

Connie McGuire has worked nearly 40 years in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, and has changed the lives of thousands of students over the years. A community liaison specialist, she has brought tens of thousands of dollars into Santa Maria High School for the sole purpose of helping underserved student populations.

“Most of the money is brought in through grants that she has networked into our schools,” says Santa Maria High School Principal Joseph Domingues. “There is a reason why we call her ‘Saint McGuire’!”

“If you ask her what she does,” says vocational advisor Heather Reese, “she may tell you that she works to eliminate barriers that keep our students from being successful.” But that is the kind of modesty that comes as second nature to Ms. McGuire. “The reality is,” Ms. Reese concludes, “she has created a network of medical contacts that donate or offer reduced fees for major and minor dental and medical procedures.” It is little wonder that her tirelessness and concern for others leaves those she works with “in awe.”

“Connie has been with the district for over 36 years,” notes Tammy Rhine, the executive assistant to the district superintendent. “Her commitment to Santa Maria High School and the District is evident through the success stories of the students that she helps.” It is clear from the feedback of her peers and students that Ms. McGuire is building a lasting legacy.

Cassandra Locke, an instructional assistant in the Goleta Union School District, possesses the qualities that make her an “essential piece” of the instructional program, says Ellwood School principal Abby Vasquez. She is “compassionate and supportive,” says Vasquez, “but she will take no excuses from any child about ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t.’ She develops trusting relationships with each of the children she works with,” Vasquez continues, “and they know that Mrs. Locke cares about them and is there to help them to learn.”

But it is not just her actions during the school day that set her apart, says district education and behavior specialist Amanda Martinez-Iqbal. “Cassandra would take home the teacher manuals in order to gain a better grasp on how to teach a Direct Instruction Curriculum,” observes Martinez-Iqbal. “And each morning she would come back, armed with a list of questions she had compiled from her reading the night before.” It is that kind of relentlessness and drive for self-improvement that many adults have benefited from when they were schoolchildren themselves. Ellwood parents should take heart that such an educator works among their children every day, in the person of Cassandra Locke.

Karen Apple is a career center specialist at Pioneer Valley High School in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District. Ms. Apple has been working in this capacity since the school opened in 2004, and her colleagues testify to the growth and enhancement of the program since its inception. The College and Career Fair that Ms. Apple organizes for Pioneer students and parents “is a campus highlight each year,” says library technician Jeri Vogt, “that brings valuable resources to the campus.”

But Ms. Apple doesn’t simply provide students with information about different courses of study beyond their high school years; she also educates them and their families about the means to pursue those studies. “Through scholarship and financial research,” adds Ms. Vogt, “Karen is able to help students make their dreams a reality.”

And she is ever mindful of the “career” aspect of her duties too, sensitive to the fact that not every student is ready or inclined to pursue post-secondary education. “Karen brings a variety of speakers from different professions and training institutions,” says Pioneer Valley High School teacher Tony Ramos. “She also brings military personnel to speak to our students who are interested in military service.” By offering such an array of options, adds her colleague Tami Contreras, she provides her students with information on “all the opportunities and assistance that is available to them to achieve their personal career and educational goals.”

Finally, Leora Sumner, a food services cashier at Isla Vista School in the Goleta Union School District, has been positively impacting the school children she encounters every day for over 40 years. With that kind of longevity, Ms. Sumner has developed something of a minor celebrity status in town, notes food services director Sharon Baird. “Students recognize Leora out in the Goleta area for years after they leave IV School,” Baird says, “and finally see her again at school when their children are students at IV.” With a world that is changing as constantly as ours, that kind of stability and consistency can be reassuring. Not to mention exceedingly rare.

“Leora is serving the kids and grandkids of students she had come through her lunch line long ago,” marvels Isla Vista School principal Mary Kahn. But the work is hardly drudgery for the long-time employee. She has “terrific energy,” Kahn continues, and Ms. Sumner is key to serving over 340 students each day. “She always has a friendly hello and smile for students and staff that she connects with.”

Indeed, her longevity and her infectious enthusiasm have resonated not just with her co-workers and the children she serves, but with senior school district officials as well. Ms. Sumner possesses “the remarkable combination of the loyalty, dedication, and experience of a veteran,” Goleta Union School District Superintendent William Banning notes, “and the positive energy and enthusiasm of someone more recently entering her chosen career.”

It is indeed a special privilege to count the likes of Ms. Sumner — and each of this year’s winners — among us. As concerned and involved parents, we enjoy the comfort and reassurance that comes with knowing that our children’s lives are being shaped in positive ways by smart, compassionate adults.

Further information is available from Mari Minjarez Baptista, Assistant Superintendent, Human Resources, for the Santa Barbara County Education Office, at 964-4710, ext. 5279.


Kris Bergstrom; Mari Minjarez Baptista, 964-4710, ext. 5279

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