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La Jolla public schools celebrate their Teachers of the Year

The 2022 La Jolla Cluster Teachers of the Year celebration
From left, Chuck Podhorsky, Jim Essex, Andi Frost, Melissa King, Courtney Sakai, Stephanie Hasselbrink, Jeff Luna, Nicole Ervin-Fugiel and Mitzi Merino gather at the La Jolla Cluster Teachers of the Year celebration.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

After two years of quiet, socially distanced recognition, the five San Diego Unified School District campuses in La Jolla honored their Teachers of the Year at a dinner May 10.

The event at the Bella Vista Social Club & Caffe in La Jolla was an in-person celebration not held the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

SDUSD Area 5 Superintendent Mitzi Merino said the Teachers of the Year were selected by their peers for “their outstanding commitment to the students they serve.”

Once teachers are nominated by certificated peers at their schools, the San Diego Education Association — the district’s teachers union — collects the nominations and gives ballots to the schools for voting by the teachers at each site.

SDUSD’s La Jolla Cluster includes Bird Rock, La Jolla and Torrey Pines elementary schools, Muirlands Middle School and La Jolla High School. Here are their Teachers of the Year:

Nicole Ervin-Fugiel, Muirlands Middle School

Muirlands Middle School Teacher of the Year Nicole Ervin-Fugiel
(Courtesy of Nicole-Ervin-Fugiel)

Ervin-Fugiel, a seventh-grade English language arts and media teacher known to her students as “Mrs. E,” has been at Muirlands for eight of her 22 years of teaching.

She said she is “delighted and deeply honored” to have been chosen as Teacher of the Year.

“I know how hard my colleagues work, and I see their creativity, curiosity, positivity, problem solving and integrity on a daily basis,” she said. “Being recognized by such an awesome group of peers makes me feel very valued and appreciated.”

In this third school year marked by the pandemic, Ervin-Fugiel said she is “particularly impressed by how flexible and patient my students have been throughout the year and how excited they were to be together in the classroom. I don’t think any of us will take that for granted again.”

Muirlands Principal Jeff Luna said Ervin-Fugiel is an incredible teacher who “creates a warm and caring environment for her students. Her students feel welcomed, willing to take risks, accepted for their individuality, encouraged, supported and comfortable.”

“It is truly inspiring to watch Ms. E and her students interact,” Luna added. “She is a leader and a true asset to our learning community.”

Jim Essex, La Jolla High School

La Jolla High School Teacher of the Year Jim Essex
(Courtesy of Jim Essex)

Essex, an English teacher, said the Teacher of the Year recognition “feels good … I’m humbled. There are so many exceptional teachers out there.”

Essex, a longtime La Jolla resident who has taught at La Jolla High for 12 of his 24 years in education, said he loves teaching in his community and teaching English in particular. “There’s nothing not fun about it,” he said. “It’s fun to see the spark in kids when they get something or they enjoy something.”

Teaching his students in person again after classes went virtual much of the past two years made Essex realize how essential the face-to-face dynamic is. “It was so nice and wonderful to have the kids come back and be so happy about returning,” he said.

LJHS Principal Chuck Podhorsky said Essex is an integral part of the English department and the entire school staff.

Essex’s classroom atmosphere is “stimulating and encouraging to all students,” Podhorsky said, reflecting a commitment to “instilling a love of reading and inquiry-based learning in all of his students.”

Podhorsky said Essex “truly loves the art of teaching and working with high school students [and] considers it his responsibility to find the best way to help each of his students maximize their academic potential.”

Melissa King, Bird Rock Elementary School

Bird Rock Elementary School Teacher of the Year Melissa King
(Courtesy of Melissa King)

King has spent 16 of her 22 years in teaching at Bird Rock Elementary. “I’m the fifth-grade guru,” said King, who has always taught that grade level.

Her selection as Teacher of the Year is “an honor, especially during this COVID time,” King said. “The staff is amazing, and everyone deserves that award.”

The school community is full of supportive parents and caring teachers who go “above and beyond,” she said. “It’s nice to be a part of that.”

King said she’ll remember how the teachers helped one another support students in the absence of parents being able to help on campus. She’ll also remember the students’ resilience in adapting to near-daily changes in COVID protocols, she said.

Bird Rock Principal Andi Frost said King is engaging and enthusiastic, with “high expectations for each and every kiddo in her class.”

King “has integrity and teaches and reinforces integrity with her children,” Frost added.

Courtney Sakai, La Jolla Elementary School

La Jolla Elementary School Teacher of the Year Courtney Sakai
(Courtesy of Courtney Sakai)

Sakai, the education specialist at La Jolla Elementary, said “it’s exciting to be recognized by your peers for working hard.”

Her work supporting special-education students in all grade levels means more focus on special education itself, she said.

Sakai, who started teaching kindergarten at LJES 15 years ago but moved into special education three years later, said she loves “giving kids an opportunity to be successful. … Being able to give them that sense of self and that drive to be able to succeed is really important.”

Sakai said she’ll remember “how flexible I’ve had to be and how creative [I’ve been] in order to really do things and make up for such a weird time in our society.”

LJES Principal Stephanie Hasselbrink said Sakai “is easily among the most gifted special-education teachers,” building rapport with students while empowering them to advocate for themselves.

She is a “phenomenal educator,” Hasselbrink said, “and her stories provide an endless supply of belly laughs to us all. Our students flourish with her guidance and support.”

Jamie White, Torrey Pines Elementary School

Torrey Pines Elementary School Teacher of the Year Jamie White
(Courtesy of Jamie White)

White, a third-grade teacher, said “it’s been challenging the last couple of years” and that the Teacher of the Year recognition “means a lot.”

White has taught at Torrey Pines Elementary for all of her 17-year career in a few different grades and said she loves “our community support. One of my favorite things about teaching is the relationships I build with families” that last well into students’ college years.

White said she’ll “remember just how happy students were to be back together [this year], even though we had restrictions like masks and stable groups. Just being back in a somewhat normal” environment is important.

TPES Principal Nona Richard said White is a team player with long- and short-term planning skills and a “willingness to share with colleagues.”

Richard said White’s initiative this year to begin student-led awards resulted in the school’s governance team expanding the program schoolwide.

“For Jamie, TPES is not just a school or place of work,” Richard said. “It really is her home. She deeply cares about the well-being of her colleagues, and she is a tireless advocate for all children and adults.”

— La Jolla Light staff writer Ashley Mackin-Solomon contributed to this report.