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 Three SDCOE Educators honored by Juvenile Justice Commission

Three San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) employees were recognized recently by the San Diego County Juvenile Justice Commission for their work with students in Momentum Learning schools.

The honorees are Stephanie Johnston Austin, student services supervisor; Valentina Mills, teacher at Youth Day Center; and Chris Toomey, counselor at the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Center.

They were honored for their support at a community recognition ceremony July 28.

Toomey is a tireless advocate for students, said Joanne Finney, principal of San Diego SOAR Academy, the Momentum Learning school that educates students in juvenile detention facilities.

"Mr. Toomey sees the potential in every student and helps them consistently take steps to reach their goals," Finney said. "His passion for service to others, his students, his integrity and work ethic make him an invaluable member of our student support team."

Mills has created an ambassador program for students who show promise as leaders. The program has led to positive behavioral changes for several students, said Joel Spengler, Momentum Learning community schools principal.

"It has been amazing to see some of our students blossom when given the respect and opportunity," Spengler said. "By giving them a voice, it has provided the students with a sense of pride and purpose."

Mills has also encouraged students catch up on credits on Saturdays with a Seekers Club and worked to bring more art into her classroom, Spengler said.

Austin has worked with at-risk youth for more than two decades. She collaborates with the court, Probation Department, and school districts to help create a smooth transition from education in a detention facility.

"Stephanie has helped countless numbers of youth graduate from high school and pursue higher education in a variety of ways," said Judge Carolyn Caietti. "Stephanie is a leader, collaborator, mentor, organizer, and her enthusiasm, dedication, and compassion knows no bounds."

Austin has helped to provide opportunities through Dollars for Scholars and Parker Scholars programs as well as Passport to Life, a career and educational exposition for youth on probation. The Passport to Life event is scheduled for Aug. 18 at San Diego City College.

The Momentum Learning portfolio of schools is operated by SDCOE and includes programs for students who are incarcerated, on parole, in foster care, experiencing homelessness, or have been referred by social services, probation, or a school district.