‘This group is extremely special’: Meet Santa Cruz County’s educators of the year in a not-so-normal year
Four Santa Cruz County educators — a teacher, classified employee, administrator and counselor — were selected out of a group of 74 nominees and honored as part of an annual tradition that carried added significance after a year of so much challenge and change.
Amid a year of unprecedented upheaval for schools, four intrepid local educators earned recognition for going above and beyond — and bragging rights as Santa Cruz County’s educators of the year.
The annual tradition of honoring a single outstanding teacher, classified employee, administrator and counselor across the county carried more weight than usual on the heels of so much challenge and change, according to Faris Sabbah, the county’s superintendent of schools.
“It goes without saying that this has been a very, very special year for many of us,” Sabbah said before presenting the awards at last week’s virtual meeting of the Santa Cruz County Board of Education. “So many challenges for our students, and our parents and our staff. And also this group of people is extremely special.”
The number of nominations was also unusual. The four honorees were selected from a group of 74 nominees, representing an “extremely high” volume compared to a typical year, according to Debi Bodenheimer, associate superintendent of educational services with the County Office of Education.
“It really was a challenging year this year, because there were so many outstanding people who were nominated,” Bodenheimer said, adding that a discussion is underway around adding more categories in the future.
A selection committee picked the honorees based on state standards and the following criteria:
- Ability to create a passion for learning
- High expectations for all students
- Strong communication and collaborative skills
- Strong sense of values, integrity and professional ethics
- Knowledge of subject and curriculum content
- Commitment to the community they serve
Along with the title, honorees receive a plaque and have their names permanently engraved in the foyer of the County Office of Education.
Here are this year’s honorees.
Teacher of the Year: JoAnne Roster, New Brighton Middle School
Santa Cruz County teacher of the year JoAnne Roster teaches language arts as well as college and career success at New Brighton Middle School in Capitola.
She began her teaching career more than four decades ago at Mountain Elementary School, and — according to accounts from her colleagues and students — her passion for teaching has only deepened with time.
“She accepts students where they are and who they are,” said New Brighton Principal Craig Broadhurst, among those to nominate Roster for the honor. “She builds rapport with those students, and this in turn lowers their affective filters — which makes her very approachable. This is why students really work hard for her, and they grow and learn under her tutelage, and they improve in their skills.”
Roster told the board of education that she was humbled by the recognition.
“It is wonderfully joyous to be in a room with students. And it is, I don’t know — it’s everything,” Roster said. “For me, it’s not a job. It is part of who I am.”
Counselor of the Year: Christie Danner, Scotts Valley High School
Christie Danner is a counselor at Scotts Valley High and the county’s newly minted counselor of the year.
Scotts Valley High Principal Michael Hanson lauded Danner for taking on new roles and an outsized emotional burden over the past year.
“It’s not just students, it’s not just staff — it’s parents, it’s the world, and they dump all their problems on her,” Hanson said. “And somehow she does this magical ninjitsu and people walk away feeling hopeful.”
Originally from the East Coast, Danner moved to the county as an adolescent and attended both Mission Hill Middle School and Santa Cruz High.
Before taking her role at SVHS about a decade ago, she worked for UC Santa Cruz’s Career Center and as a counselor at nearby middle and elementary schools.
“My success at the high school is really directly related to the positive culture at our school, especially with my office and teacher family,” Danner said. “No matter how difficult our days are, we all support each other, and we love each other, and we’re compassionate with each other, and we laugh every single day.”
Administrator of the Year: Chrissy MacLean, Watsonville High School
Chrissy MacLean is an assistant principal at Watsonville High and Santa Cruz County’s administrator of the year.
“Chrissy is a courageous leader who keeps students at the center of her work on a daily basis,” said Watsonville High School Principal Clara Fernandez, who nominated MacLean and spoke on her behalf at the virtual ceremony.
MacLean took a winding path to fulfilling her dream of becoming an educator, spending 15 years on and off taking classes at community college before transferring to UC Santa Cruz.
In 2017, MacLean was honored as the California League of Schools’ State Educator of the Year for Region 5, encompassing Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, Monterey and San Benito counties.
Accepting the award, MacLean acknowledged everyone in the local school communities for rising to meet the challenges of remote learning and the pandemic.
“I’ve seen people this year just show up and do the next best thing — the next thing asked of them or even inventing the next thing — all in service to the community, and I feel so blessed to be a part of that,” she said.
Classified Employee of the Year: Kathy Pruett, Santa Cruz High School
Kathy Pruett is administrative assistant to the principal at Santa Cruz High. A graduate of Watsonville High, she began her career in education at the Pajaro Valley Unified School District before taking a job as a receptionist at the Santa Cruz City Schools district office in 1991.
She has worked at Santa Cruz High since 1996. Both of her sons graduated from the school.
“Kathy has been the backbone of Santa Cruz High School for 25 years,” said Erik Redding, the school’s athletic director.
Pruett, who is retiring this year, said the honor caught her by surprise. “I was totally in shock, but I’m very grateful, and I love my Santa Cruz High School, community and staff,” she said. “When I came there in 1996, I knew I had found my new work home.”
Pruett’s drive isn’t limited to her day job. According to her colleagues, she’s also a gearhead — and comfortable behind the wheel of race cars, 18-wheelers, dune buggies and snowmobiles.