Stephanie Cruz didn't always plan to be a teacher. In fact, she didn't even like school as a kid, and ended up dropping out of college the first time around.
Now she's the San Diego County Office of Education's (SDCOE) teacher of the year, working with students at 37ECB, one of the campuses SDCOE operates as part of its Momentum Learning portfolio of schools.
"Steph is an outstanding educator who has overcome significant challenges this past year and taken equally significant risks with her teaching practice to cause an enormously positive impact on her students' learning and well-being," said Matt Simon, a project specialist in charge of professional development for Momentum Learning.
It was a support system in her community that motivated her to return to college. The second time, she fell in love with school.
"Those were some of the happiest days of my life," she said. "I wanted to stay in school forever, and I realized the only way to do that was to become a teacher."
Her experiences with a turbulent home life and strong community support inspired her to focus on addressing the needs of the whole child to help them build a sense of self-confidence.
"I knew from my own experience that a good support system could be the difference between success and failure," she said.
She started her career as an educator more than 20 years ago as a substitute teacher in Juvenile Hall. Over the years, she worked at a variety of court and community schools. Now, she is the English language arts and visual and performing arts coordinator at 37ECB, focusing on project-based learning.
Knowing that she can be a positive influence on her students and may offer them a last chance to be successful in school motivates her to go the extra mile, she said.
"My reward is watching my students metamorphose into amazing, confident, caring young men and women," she said.
The SDCOE teacher of the year selection committee, made up of three certificated employees, said Cruz stood out because of her passion for teaching, community involvement, and focus on project-based learning.
Cruz deserves the recognition for being a strong role model for her students as well as her colleagues, said Tracy Thompson, principal at 37ECB.
"She is passionate about making sure her students succeed in life through the power of education," he said. "Daily, she challenges her students to expand their horizons by providing opportunities for them to attend plays and participate in restorative circles, and by incorporating trauma-informed practices during her improv class."