The San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) is celebrating San Diego County equity champions in the community and the classroom with the Lighthouse Awards presented to honorees at the 2024 Equity Conference.
A lighthouse helps guide navigation and often provides a beacon of hope as we sail through potentially rough waters. Our challenges may be financial, personal, business, or spiritual in nature. The lighthouse metaphor speaks of safety and security in the face of adversity and challenge in a unique way.
The SDCOE Lighthouse Awards are given annually to people who are beacons in the educational community by channeling and leading others in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
This year, in recognition of the equity work being done across the country, we have added a category to recognize an equity champion outside of San Diego County.
The nomination period closed Dec. 8.
2024 LIGHTHOUSE AWARD RECIPIENTS
Chrishaun Green, director of expanded learning programs for the Santee School District
As a founding member of the district’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, Chrishaun implemented several equity-centered literacy initiatives through art, history, and music. Ms. Green has also supported the development of the Black Excellence Committee at PRIDE Academy.
Excellence in Student Support
Maria Al-Shamma, social worker and LGBTQ+ youth liaison for the Oceanside Unified School District
Maria oversees the district's social work interns, serves on the board of the North County LGBTQ Resource Center and as a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) advisor, provides professional learning for staff, and leads statewide advocacy initiatives. She has created an environment of inquiry and accountability and guided teachers through the laws that protect youth and teachers.
Excellence in Teaching and Learning
Katherine Banuelos, English teacher at Morse High School in San Diego Unified School District
Katherine goes above and beyond to create a classroom atmosphere that celebrates diversity and fosters inclusivity. As an integral member of Morse’s Equity Leadership Instructional Leadership team, she ensures that students encounter literature that reflects a broad array of cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. She enriches the academic experience of her students as well as cultivates an environment where every student feels welcomed, valued, seen, and loved.
Excellence in School Site Leadership
Kelly Brown, assistant principal at Woodland Park Middle School in San Marcos Unified School District
Kelly is one of the original administrators who initiated the equity work in San Marcos. She provided opportunities for staff at the sites she has served to engage in meaningful conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion. Kelly's student-centered work with empathy interviews, street data, and involving students in decision making began at and has led to permanent change in how San Marcos High School makes policy decisions.
No Place for Hate® Leader
Miranda Shilling, counselor at Pacific Rim Elementary in Carlsbad Unified School District
Miranda hosts various kindness initiatives to support a sense of belonging at school. Likewise, she conducts engaging monthly No Place for Hate lessons with every single classroom and highlights the learning at school assemblies.
Superintendent’s Community Equity Champion
Michelle Irwin, area superintendent of middle schools for San Diego Unified School District
Michelle is a longtime educator and champion for children. She has also been an innovative and creative leader who addresses the specific needs of Black and brown children. She has been steadfast in her efforts – even in ever-changing and challenging landscapes.
Student Equity Leadership
Angela Rico and Quibey Gonzalez-Hernandez, seniors in San Marcos Unified School District
Angela and Quibey have been part of the SMUSD Equity team since they were freshmen. They have presented their work across the state, facilitated at a district conference with more than 500 teachers, and served on the Superintendent’s Student Council. They focus on leading teachers through the importance of knowing their students' stories, changes that can occur when teachers get to know their students and how important it is to partner with parents.
Dr. Tiffany Campbell
Dr. Tiffany Campbell is the deputy superintendent in San Marcos Unified School District where she spearheaded her district’s first equity team and held the first districtwide Equity Conference: Equity is Empathy. She is a strong supporter of the district’s LGBTQ community, and spearheaded a new mental health program and campaign to help students in need of emotional and mental health support.
Turnaround School Site Leader
Douglas Corbin is a principal at the Contra Costa County Office of Education Court and Community School program. Corbin prioritizes rigorous science content and student relationships with a focus on transforming lessons to be culturally responsive. He ensured that every teacher is equipped to integrate science and academic discourse in their classrooms as they cultivate an equitable learning environment for every student.
No Place for Hate
Molly Engblom is a school counselor in Poway Unified School District, where she supports students to make the pledge to help create No Place for Hate schools and creates activities that are valuable, engaging, and help students become No Place for Hate leaders on campus.
Tram Le-Harkins is an English teacher at Mount Carmel High School in Poway Unified School District, where she is a strong voice and advocate for the school's equity work. She also developed an ethnic literature course where students have a safe space to share their lived experiences and discuss the role of race in their lives and in the broader society.
Dr. Alberto Ochoa
Community Equity Champion
Dr. Alberto Ochoa is a professor emeritus in the SDSU College of Education. His lifetime commitment to community empowerment for educational equity and excellence has inspired countless educators and community leaders.
Turnaround Support Staff
Ilde Ojeda is a student support specialist at the SDCOE Juvenile Court and Community Schools north region, where he inspires teachers, counselors, students, and parents to persevere as critical thinkers who collaborate and solve real-world problems.
Brittni Rudolph is a teacher on special assignment at San Onofre School in the Fallbrook Elementary Union School District. She serves as the school’s Innovation Lab instructor for grades TK-6 STEM students, and she is the driving force behind creating a culture of awareness, acceptance, and inclusion at the school.
Student Equity Leadership
Joy Ruppert is a student at San Dieguito Academy in San Dieguito Union High School District, where she has been a change agent and advocate championing the voices and communities of marginalized youth and people of color.
Dr. Matthew Steitz
Turnaround School Site Leader
Dr. Matthew Steitz, principal at The Preuss School UC San Diego, examines and seeks to improve or dismantle systems and practices that contribute to inequities in education for black and brown students. He also uses restorative practices in lieu of suspension to address behavior concerns.
Dr. Amy Illingworth
Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services, Encinitas Union School District
Dr. Amy Illingworth is committed to supporting a culture and climate where students have what they need to succeed. Her work has led to the adoption of districtwide equity policies and practices through a student-centered lens. She spearheaded an equity committee, implemented a three-year plan with the help of the SDCOE Equity department, and recently led 25 professional learning sessions to engage and support every school site and district employee in equity learning. Illingworth works to ensure all educational partners are involved and informed regarding the district’s intent and progress and prioritizes equity.
District Social Worker, Escondido Union High School District
Turnaround Support Staff
Mayra Gonzalez provides students in acute and chronic crises the support they need to learn and grow. She is regularly called on to guide families through dark days: helping students navigate a mental health crisis, work through a death in the family, and process trauma. When working with “Ms. Mayra,” families and students feel cared for. She goes above and beyond to support students and staff by delivering food and resources to families in need.
English Teacher, Teacher on Special Assignment, Steele Canyon High School, Grossmont Union High School District
Jennifer Koller is committed to equity curriculum and instruction. She designed and developed an innovative "a-g" approved literature and social justice class at Steele Canyon High School, where students explore equity and intersectionality through a range of texts and multiple perspectives. Her class supports students to develop a working concept of social justice, helps them view systemic injustice and social inequality through an inclusive and dynamic lens, and encourages students to develop an empathetic and well-developed understanding of the similarities and differences present in the human experience.
Dr. Cynthia Larkin
Principal, Morse High School, San Diego Unified School District
Turnaround School Site Leader
Dr. Cynthia Larkin's student-centered approach is reflected in her mantra: "We must build relationships with students." She intentionally and strategically guides her team to create an inclusive, supportive school environment where all students can succeed academically, feel cared for and supported, learn, and grow. Dr. Larkin launched a dynamic Equity Leadership Team as part of a collaborative project with SDCOE’s Equity department, and she continues to inspire her staff through engaging, cutting-edge equity learning focused on the needs of Morse’s diverse student population. She fully embraces the district’s restorative justice policy and created a committed Response-to-Intervention team focused on the specialized needs of struggling students. Dr. Larkin is dedicated to supporting a culture and climate where students have a voice, know they are loved, and are prepared to thrive.
No Place for Hate Leader®
Clara Cho has been a champion of the ADL's No Place For Hate® program at Miller Elementary in the San Diego Unified School District. Throughout last year, she created virtual opportunities for children, teachers, and parents to participate in the program. From offering lessons, to communicating with community members, to writing articles in the local periodical and communicating with parents –– the No Place for Hate® campaign continued during challenging times. Once students were back on campus, the program was implemented fully in every classroom. The No Place for Hate® program is an integral part of the school community, and Clara ensures the highest standards.
Community Equity Champion California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center
The California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center was approved in May 2009 and opened its doors on Nov.17, 2011. The center is the first of its kind in the state of California and focuses on serving the unique needs of American Indian students by conducting original research and preserving the cultural heritage and languages of tribal communities.
The California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center facilitates a sense of community and belonging among the Native population both on and off campus. It prepares students to give back to their tribal communities upon graduation.
Del Norte High School Student Equity/Anti-Racism Task Force
Student Equity Leadership
The Del Norte Equity/Anti-Racism student task force includes 50 students who represent the Black, White, Asian, Middle Eastern and North African, Latinx, and LGBTQIA + communities at Del Norte High School in the Poway Unified School District. Their goal is to change the culture of their school and community to show their school’s commitment to celebrating diversity and creating an equitable learning environment where all students are valued. Through diversity campaigns, student panels, and awareness videos that educate students on campus on issues marginalized groups face, they provide valuable resources to teachers. Their many accomplishments include collaborating with administration to create a see-something-say-something form that students can report to administration if they are a victim of racist or hate-related behavior or if they witness it. The students have taught staff and students a lot about inclusion, empathy, and bravery –– and they inspire others to do the same.
Equity Champion - Organization
For many years and especially during the pandemic, Cox Communications has been a critical partner in bridging the digital divide for students in our county. Cox’s Connect2Compete broadband program in San Diego is a low-cost internet service for students and families in need. With the service, which includes initial free months, young people could access virtual learning while schools were closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Cox also partnered with the San Diego County Office of Education, Computers 2 Kids San Diego, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, and San Diego Councilman Chris Cate, District 6, in the “Meet the Need” computer drive to get more affordable devices into the homes of students.
San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher has been the face of the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic with daily press briefings and regular communication with SDCOE. Fletcher also proposed that a portion of $2 million in County of San Diego general fund money would go to providing satellite and cable Internet, and wireless hotspots to local schools to be used to bridge the digital divide. Some 4,303 students and their families from 19 different school districts and charter schools in San Diego County received access and a stronger connection to the Internet to help them with distance learning activities during the pandemic thanks to Fletcher’s leadership.
Dr. Julie Vitale
Dr. Julie Vitale is the superintendent of Oceanside Unified School District (OUSD). Vitale has adopted policies and practices with a true equity lens that include creating board resolutions that acknowledge OUSD is a safe place for students, regardless of their immigration status; ensuring LGBTQ students have safe and supportive spaces on each campus; and supporting her district in adopting an ethnic studies course that reflects the district’s demographics. Her breadth and depth of understanding of leading school systems with a student-centered focus is an incredible asset to the work of creating real equity in schools.
Turnaround School or District Leader
Carol Osborne is the associate superintendent of Learning Support Services at Poway Unified School District. Osborne has taken on the challenging role of leading Poway Unified efforts to implement a districtwide Racial Equity and Inclusion Plan. Under her leadership, the district hosted community forums on race-related issues and experiences, inviting school administrators, teachers, and parents to hold honest and open discussions. Osborne and her team are working to create significant shifts in district and school culture including implementing the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate program, introducing ethnic studies and diversifying the curriculum, revising discipline policies to expand restorative justice practices, and hiring more diverse staff.
Melissa Blitzstein is a teacher at the Motivated Youth Academy, a non-classroom-based charter school with 170 students. Blitzstein is committed to learning the unique social, emotional, and academic backgrounds of each student and family. She mentors students in credit recovery, connects stakeholders with wrap-around services, and facilitates college enrollment, career training, or post-graduation employment. In the classroom, Blitzstein engages students in project- based learning opportunities and ensures that students understand responsibility and accountability. She implements restorative solutions rather than punitive actions. She works to create an environment where students gain self confidence, learn commitment, express empathy, experience humility and resiliency, and prepare to become their best selves. Out of the classroom, she leads numerous committees, coordinates countless community initiatives, and inspires her colleagues to be agents of change.
Turnaround Support Staff
Luis Lopez is the Sweetwater Union High School District’s equity curriculum and instruction teacher on special assignment. In this role, Lopez wears many hats from curriculum writer to webmaster. As a curriculum writer, he has created a semester's worth of daily social and emotional learning (SEL) activities for more than 1,800 teachers and 40,000 students in the district. Lopez also works to embed SEL and equity strategies in each subject area so that all students feel included and positive relationships are built between students as well as student-to -teacher. He also works with LGBTQ students and the community to provide resources and curriculum to ensure that all voices are heard and all needs are being met.
Maria Arroyo and Carla Sandez
No Place for Hate® Leader award
Maria Arroyo and Carla Sandez, a counseling team at Daly Academy in the Chula Vista Elementary School District, are co-winners of this award. During weekly group counseling sessions, they teach compassion, understanding, and equity, as well as integrate the No Place for Hate curriculum lessons. When they supervise in the Daly MakerSpace Lab, students often use the phrases, "I understand how you feel," "I want to understand you better," and "I am sorry. What can I do better next time?" Arroyo and Sandez are both individually, and as a team, superb examples of "walking the talk."
The Association of African American Educators
Equity Champion Organization
The Association of African American Educators (AAAE) was founded to promote equity in education within the ethnically diverse pupil population of San Diego County. African American educators, by the nature of their ethnicity, bring a unique perspective to the education of African American children. The unprecedented intensity of societal demands on the nation's schools emanates from diverse needs and sources. Recognizing that education must serve the interests of all community, the AAAE affirms its commitment to quality education for all children, specifically as it affects the opportunities of African American youth.
The primary objective of our association is to address the educational needs and conditions of African American students enrolled in Pre K-12 schools and to provide training and professional development opportunities for teachers, school administrators, and other school staff. The association has been existence since 1983.
The Association of African American Educators, San Diego County (AAAE) was founded with two primary purposes:
- To advocate for equity in educational opportunities and outcomes for African American students.
- To insure equal opportunity and fairness for African American staff within the ethnically diverse school districts of San Diego County.
To accomplish these purposes, AAAE will fulfill the following functions:
- Support educational programs that enable African American students to realize their highest potential.
- Assist African American students in developing a sense of responsibility toward self, others and society.
- Support improvement of educational conditions for all students.
- Promote increased understanding and valuing of African American history and culture.
- Stimulate professional and personal growth of members by encouraging participation in appropriate programs.
- Interpret to the broader community the needs and desires of the African American community as they relate to educational matters, and conversely, interpret and clarify for the African American community, the goals and policies related to students of African descent of the greater San Diego County school districts.
- Serve as a resource to the Superintendents of San Diego County School Districts, in interpreting the educational needs of African American students; and provide assistance to teachers, other school employees, administrators, supervisors and districts as a whole in fulfilling the educational needs of African American students.
Equity Champion Individual
Lallia Allali, received her Bachelor in Electronics from the Institute of Technology in Algeria, Master of Art in Leadership Studies from University of San Diego and a Leadership Coaching credential from USD, taught Physics, Chemistry, Math and Statistics in High School for 9 years. Since 2013, Lallia has been the voice of the English Learners in San Diego Unified School District through the District English Learner Advisory Committee (DELAC) as an English Learner Advisory Committee (ELAC) Liaison, Parliamentarian, and recently Chairperson for a second term. Lallia is also a member of the San Diego Unified School District Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee to promote diversity and inclusiveness. Lallia is leading the Committee to support Religious and Cultural Diversity, an inter-religious and intercultural team of educators, from different faiths and cultures committed to address the Islamophobia and its impact on Muslim students in San Diego Schools Districts.
Lallia Allali started the first Girl Scout troop of Islamic Faith troops at the Islamic Center of San Diego and helped create GS troops in City Height, North county and other states. in 2017, Lallia participated in the International Leadership Association Conference in Belgium, with her research on a model of Leadership in Turbulent Times.
Lallia Allali received the Outstanding Scholar Recognition award by the Department of Leadership Studies, University of San Diego for her research. In 2012 Lallia also received Interfaith Center for Worker Justice award for lobbying for AB 1964, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, protects and safeguards the right and opportunity of all persons to seek, obtain, and hold employment without discrimination or abridgment on account of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, or sexual orientation.
As a Navy wife, Lisa Chohany has had the privilege to live all over the world and teach in various states and overseas. When she was lucky enough to join the staff at Mt. Carmel High School, she knew she had found her true “work” home. As a general education teacher, she had taught in many different programs with students who had struggled to learn and find academic success. So when she applied for a job in the Poway Unified School District and she was asked if she had ever considered teaching Special Education, she took this opportunity and began teaching special education at MCHS. She concurrently enrolled at CSUSM and earned her Special Education Credential and a Master’s Degree in Education. She has worked at Mt. Carmel for 2 decades and has been the Special Education Department Chair for the last 17 years. During this time, she has been able to work with some incredible teachers and foster a community of acceptance and collaboration that is unique to the Sundevil Community.
Lisa has been an advocate for inclusive learning practices for students for 20 years. She has been the driving force behind the Linked Learning and SPED Collaboration model at Mt. Carmel. Her leadership voice has shaped the culture at Mt. Carmel and has helped countless educators, in and out of the SPED department, to better serve all students, including those in Special Education. In 2016, she was recognized by the PUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, for her outstanding commitment to providing great service and learning opportunities for Special Education students and families.
Lisa and her team recently wrote a plan for a model SAI Instructional Service Plan for Mt. Carmel that built on her team’s two decades of work. This service model is built with the idea that an inclusive learning experience built to meet the needs of the individual student will support a positive school culture and build pathways that support all students in pursuit of their personal learning and life goals. It was accepted as a model program and is currently being implemented with the support and resources provided by Poway Unified School District.
Lisa has been married to Tom for almost 38 years, has 4 children, and 3 grandchildren.
No Place for Hate Leader
Kelly Pallitto is a lifelong learner who is centered in her values of inclusion, equity and always taking a student-centered approach. Over the course of her 14-year career as an educator, Ms. Pallitto has served in a number of roles that have allowed her to live these values and serve students, families and communities.
At Spring Valley Academy she was trained in the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme, embracing the core principles of IB, which were in accordance with her values of inclusion, equity and students at the center. At SVA, she took on leadership with Eagles Service Club, facilitated student-led community service events and opened the Eagles Emporium - a warehouse for food, clothing and toiletries for homeless and foster students and families and anyone needing extra help.
Ms. Pallitto has taken on the opportunity of serving as English learner teacher and coordinator at SVA in seventh and eighth grade. During this time, she became a fierce advocate for multilingual students and immigrant families in the community. She also became a leader of the No Place for Hate (ADL) Leadership Club with students. She feels strongly about embracing the tenets of No Place For Hate, by working to ensure that all students feel safe and comfortable at school, regardless of their educational placement, family background, or lifestyle choices.
Each year, Ms. Pallitto continues to grow her passion and commitment to equity and the community she serves. She is relentless in advocating for those without a voice and she always puts students at the center, pushing herself and her professional growth.
Dr. Carlos O. Turner Cortez
Turnaround School Leader
Dr. Carlos O. Turner Cortez, Ph.D., presently serves as the president of Continuing Education with the San Diego Community College District, where he oversees more than 40,000 students annually at seven campuses and over 200 off-site locations. He most recently served as dean of academic pathways, workforce development, and student success and acting vice president of instruction at Berkeley City College (BCC). Turner Cortez is also as adjunct faculty at Central Michigan University, John Hopkins University, and the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests center on the role of educators and administrators of color in the historical development of American social welfare and education policy. He is also an expert in the area of promoting equity and access in urban education through literacy and policy initiatives. Before BCC, he also served as director of Education Extension at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Prior to UCLA, he worked in education at the P-12 level as a classroom teacher, administrator, and researcher.
Turner Cortez began his career in education as Teach for America Corps member. His experience spans the public, private, and charter school sectors in Washington DC, Houston, New York City, Los Angeles, and Berkeley. Turner Cortez served as principal of New Village Charter School in Los Angeles and as assistant principal at Grape Street Elementary School. In these positions, he was known for his dedication to teachers and students, the development of innovative programs and services, astute fundraising, and sound fiscal management. He has worked primarily with underserved student populations from low income communities and has been a staunch advocate for policy and finance reform as a member of various state and federal level legislative task forces, including his current service on the California League of Community College’s Advisory Committee on Legislation and the Noncredit Coalition. His commitment to social justice drives his passion for urban education reform.
Turner Cortez sits on several regional and national non-profit boards, including the Trevor Project, the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship, the San Diego Workforce Partnership’s Workforce Development Board, the Jackie Robinson YMCA, and Goodwill San Diego.
In 2017, Turner Cortez was awarded the Martes Award for Excellence in Research by the Association of California Community College Administrators and was recognized as San Diego Male Leader of the Year by California State Assembly Member Shirley Weber. In 2018, he received the Excellence in Continuing Education Award from the Association of Community and Continuing Education (ACCE); the 2018 Innovation of the Year Award by League for Innovation in Community Colleges; and The RP Group Research and Planning Project Award. In 2019, he was awarded the Teach for Innovation McGrory Award for Innovative Alumni Leadership and his organization was awarded the 2019 Heather Van Sickle Entrepreneurial College of the Year Award.
Dr. Turner Cortez’s educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in History and Sociology from Georgetown University; a master’s degree in Race and Gender Politics from New York University; and a doctor of philosophy in Education Policy and Administration from the University of Southern California.
Turnaround Support Staff
Cielo Villasenor has served the Ramona Unified School District for over 20 years, working alongside students, teachers, and families as a classroom aide, mentor, guide, and parent liaison. Her work with the bilingual community has been invaluable in building bridges of communication and ensuring educational opportunities and academic success for all students. Cielo is the proud mother of three children, all of whom were educated in the Ramona Unified School District. She is also the proud and very patient mother of two chihuahuas, Tater-Tot and Wilbur. In her spare time, she makes a mean ponche!