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 Inaugural Lighthouse Awards Recognize Equity Champions

The San Diego County Office of Education's inaugural Lighthouse Awards are awarded to people who are beacons in the educational community by channeling and leading others in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Congratulations to the honorees, who will be feted at Equity Conference 2020 on Jan. 16 and 17 at the San Diego Convention Center.

Equity Champion

Laila Aliali is a parent and community advocate committed to the education of the whole child in a safe, nurturing environment. She arrived in San Diego from Algeria and quickly educated herself on the school processes, policies, and various parent-involvement committees. In addition to advising the San Diego Unified School Board as chair of the District English Learner Advisory Committee, she has been a strong community leader in response to rising Islamaphobic attacks, working in collaboration with community groups to address bullying, improve the school climate and exposed bigotry against the Muslim student population. Her breadth and depth of understanding of education, the school system, authentic leadership, and state government is an incredible asset to the work on creating real equity in our schools. 

Equity Champion

The Association of African American Educators, San Diego County (AAAE) advocates for equity in educational opportunities and outcomes for African American students and for equal opportunity and fairness for African American school staff members. AAAE provides a variety of supports to students and staff members and it serves as a resource to district superintendents. Since 1983, the organization has promoted increased understanding and valuing of African American history and culture.

Turnaround School Leader

Carlos Turner Cortez is the president and CEO of San Diego Continuing Education (SDCE) and committed to student success through his support of services that play a critical role in addressing the historically entrenched inequities that impact adult noncredit students. His efforts have worked to address food, housing, transportation security, financial literacy, and textbook affordability. New programs under his leadership include apprenticeship readiness through the San Diego Building and Construction Trades Council and the SDCEats! food pantry for students and community members. Under Turner Cortez, SDCE has expanded partnerships with community agencies and mobilized an entire system of services and supports to remove barriers to student success and make educational achievement accessible to every student. 

Turnaround Teacher

Lisa Chohany is the Special Education department chair and teacher at Mt. Carmel High School in Poway Unified School District. She is a passionate student advocate and works to craft engaging student experiences, promote active learning, and support the social-emotional well-being of all students. She spearheaded the school’s efforts to serve all students with disabilities in the general education environment and has championed new supports, such as math acceleration courses, so that more students can work toward University of California and California State University requirements. Chohany’s leadership of a large and diverse student population, as well as a large and diverse staff, has produced great experiences and outcomes where students feel welcomed, supported, and truly a part of the school. 

Turnaround Support

Cielo Villasenor is the bilingual parent liaison for Ramona Unified School District where her strong work ethic, insistence for improvement, and sincere concern for each person has allowed her to positively impact student outcomes and family engagement. During her year in this position, she focused on student attendance and called the parents of 196 students to better understand the challenges faced by the families. She connected them with services and supports, and the district saw a 75% increase in those students’ attendance. Villasenor sent handwritten notes and made calls to families to celebrate their success. She also organized college trips with presentations in Spanish for families to feel welcomed and learn more about the support available to their students. Her passion has helped level the playing field for students and their families 

No Place for Hate

Kelly Palitto is a English language development teacher for 7th- and 8th-graders at Spring Valley Academy in La Mesa-Spring Valley School District. Her school became a No Place for Hate school in 2016 and from the start Palitto has used class time to promote its message and helped to actively recruit students to learn more and join. Her class created what became the school’s Eagle Emporium, a food and supplies pantry for families in need. As the No Place for Hate school advisor, Palitto helps lead schoolwide activities, attends learning opportunities, applies for grants to visit the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and teaches all of her students about identity and the appreciation of our diverse cultures. She is the definition of caring by opening her classroom before first-bell as a safe space for students, purchasing snacks for hungry students, and volunteering for after-school activities. Any student on campus would likely say that Palitto is their trusted adult at school.