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2024-25 San Diego County Teachers of the Year Named

2024-25 San Diego County Teachers of the Year Named

Five educators were named San Diego County Teachers of the Year this week to recognize the difference they make in the lives of students.

The winners are:

  • Jennifer Ekstein, Bonita Vista High School, Sweetwater Union High School District
  • Mackenzie Levine, Perry Elementary School, San Diego Unified School District
  • Kristen LoPrell, Grossmont High School, Grossmont Union High School District
  • Peter Manzi, Carlsbad High School, Carlsbad Unified School District
  • Maria Miller, Morse High School, San Diego Unified School District

The San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) and Cox Communications collaborated to surprise the teachers in their classrooms or as part of an assembly as part of the 34th annual Cox Presents: Salute to Teachers program.

SDCOE and Cox Communications celebrated all of San Diego County’s 51 school district teachers of the year in April at a special event held before judges selected the five winners.

“We had such an inspiring group of educators this year, and it was important to honor each and every one of them with the Cox Present: Salute to Teachers event,” said Dr. Paul Gothold, San Diego County superintendent of schools. "This group of educators highlights the passion and diverse expertise that teachers across the county have. I know the judges had a difficult time picking only five Teachers of the Year.”

Footage from the surprise announcements and the event will be compiled as a 30-minute Cox Presents: Salute to Teachers television special, which will debut on Cox’s YurView network (Channel 4 on Cox and Spectrum) in September.

SDCOE and Cox Communications have collaborated on saluting our local teachers for more than 30 years.

“Cox Presents: Salute to Teachers is our way of saying ‘thank you’ to all our teachers throughout San Diego County,” said Chanelle Hawken, West Region vice president of government and public affairs for Cox Communications. “As the spouse of a high school teacher, I see every day firsthand how committed teachers are to helping their students realize their full potential. Congratulations to all the teachers of the year.”

Sponsors of Cox Presents: Salute to Teachers included presenting sponsor SDCCU, Murray Lampert Design, Build, Remodel, Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, University of San Diego, Procopio, iHeart Radio, The Mightier 1090, and The San Diego Union-Tribune.

 

2024-25 San Diego County Teachers of the Year

Jennifer Ekstein, Bonita Vista High School, Sweetwater Union High School District

Jennifer Ekstein

Jennifer Ekstein’s biology and environmental science classes are filled with living examples of what the students are studying, including a goldfish, bearded dragon, Greek tortoises, and lots of plants.

Each day starts with a social and emotional learning activity where students might learn more about breathing techniques, meditation, or other mental health resources. She uses a variety of teaching styles to reach a diverse group of learners. This can include singing, dancing, or wearing costumes.

She helps students participate in authentic science experiences outside of the classroom through involvement in local science fairs and projects to create green spaces on campus.

She was one of the founders and facilitators of her school’s Culture and Climate Committee, which included students, parents, and employees. The group addresses issues such as racism and bigotry and encourages students to be kind advocates for each other.

“I recognize that I may not have all the answers or the ability to solve all the problems, but I affirm that I will continue to teach kindness, positivity, and agency,” she said. “My students reciprocate by bringing out the best in me as an educator. For me, there is no greater reward.”

 

Mackenzie Levine, Perry Elementary School, San Diego Unified School District

Mackenzie Levine

Mackenzie Levine’s classroom is a home away from home and safe haven for her students, who are in grades 3-5 and have mild to moderate disabilities. It’s a highly structured and organized environment that is active, led by students, and welcoming.

She collaborates with a team of education specialists and general education teachers to develop a model for students where they can move throughout the day to the environment that is most appropriate for them based on their individual needs.

“When students enter my classroom, they are met with joy, positivity, compassion, and acceptance,” she said. “Their strengths are celebrated, and their needs are met with kindness and opportunities to grow in the discomfort.”

Levine has collaborated with others at the school to focus on educating the entire school community about neurodiversity, including professional development for teachers and lessons for students. She started Mindful 3, a student-led initiative at the school where a student leads the entire school with a positive quote for the day and announcements over the loudspeaker.

 

Kristen LoPrell, Grossmont High School, Grossmont Union High School District

Kristen LoPrell

Students often come to Kristen LoPrell dreading math class and leave with a new appreciation for the subject.

In fact, last year’s salutatorian thanked LoPrell in her graduation speech saying that she helped her love math and is now considering majoring in it. She’s able to boost their confidence with numbers through community building and personal connections. In her classroom, the desks face each other so students can work together to solve problems in teams that are randomly selected each day.

“No one is alone in our math community,” she said.

LoPrell supports the Gender and Sexuality Alliance and Academic League at her school. She also serves as the freshman orientation coordinator, training older students to mentor incoming freshmen. She works to ensure that all students feel safe in her classroom so they feel comfortable taking risks in their thinking as they practice arithmetic using real-life examples.

“I firmly believe that it is our job as math educators to create classrooms filled with joy where student thinking is celebrated equal to the teachers,” she explained.

 

Peter Manzi, Carlsbad High School, Carlsbad Unified School District

Peter Manzi

Through the transformative power of music, Peter Manzi helps students learn to become better musicians, students, and young adults.

In his band and music theory classes, he gives the students the tools they need to be successful leaders and collaborators, whether it’s through composing, picking music for the next performance, or creating the next viral music video.

“The students in the band room know we are always here for them,” he said. “We’ll be there to pick them up when they fail and to praise their successes when they succeed.”

Giving back to the community through music is an important part of Manzi’s teaching. The Carlsbad High bands often perform around the community through a partnership with the Carlsbad Village Association. The students in Manzi’s band classes also invites middle school students to perform at activities before football games, where they teach them to march and lead rehearsals.

He also recently worked with the school’s choir director to start a group of students he calls the Tri-M Honors Society that volunteers for everything from taking tickets to performing with elementary students.

 

Maria Miller, Morse High School, San Diego Unified School District

Maria Miller

In Maria Miller’s 10th and 11th grade English language arts class, students are held to rigorous standards while being nurtured to believe in their boundless potential.

That starts with a greeting as they enter the classroom, a welcoming tone, and warm-up activity. During class, students connect literature with contemporary issues, which supports critical thinking and empathy.

“This student-centered approach is comprehensive, focusing not only on academic learning but also on personal growth, community engagement, and career exploration,” Miller said.

Through a partnership with the Skyline Hills Library, she encourages students to access library resources and apply for internships or volunteer opportunities. Miller also focuses on career exploration by bringing in speakers on topics students of interest to students.

“From the very first day of each course, I make it clear to my students that I am here to support their growth and development in every possible way,” Miller said.


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