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Meet Our 2022 Community Partner of the Year and Staff Excellence Award Winners

One of our favorite traditions each year is honoring outstanding community partners and staff members with our Community Partner of the Year and Staff Excellence awards. It's our chance to highlight their dedication, knowledge and skill – and to offer our thanks for all they do to help our district thrive.

Quick Links: Community Partner of the Year | Administrator of the Year | Staff Support Person of the Year -  Waggoner | Staff Support Person of the Year - Toon | Staff Support Person of the Year - Chavez-Lara | Creativity in Curriculum | Certificated Specialist of the Year | Elementary Teacher of the YearMiddle School Teacher of the YearHigh School Teacher of the Year


Gesa Credit Union

Community Partner of the Year: Gesa Credit Union

Our school district is lucky enough to have some amazing community partners. These groups help us fulfill our mission of “providing a safe environment in which all students reach their highest potential and graduate well prepared for success in post-secondary education, work, and life.”

One of these partners, Gesa Credit Union, has stepped up for us in recent years, donating time, money, and expertise to our students, staff, and schools.

One of the ways Gesa helps us is through the Affinity Debit Card Program. Through this program, Gesa offers branded debit cards featuring more than 30 community organizations, including Kamiakin, Kennewick, Southridge and Delta high schools. Each swipe of the card means money for that school or program.

For us, the money goes to support our high school students who participate in DECA, ASB activities and clubs, and travel to national competitions. Gesa recently announced its most recent donation to us through the program – totaling more than $59,000.

Gesa also has student-run campus branches in a number of high schools in our region, including at Kamiakin, Kennewick, Southridge and Delta. The program provides high school students with hands-on, real-life experience in the financial industry. It’s an invaluable program that makes a tangible difference.

Those are a few of the ways Gesa partners with us. The list goes on. We’re grateful to have Gesa working alongside us and helping make a difference for students and families in Kennewick.

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Chris Chelin

Administrator of the Year: Chris Chelin, Kamiakin High School

There’s an old adage that goes, “if speaking is silver, then listening is gold.”

Principal Chris Chelin of Kamiakin High School understands that and puts it into practice every day.

He regularly sits down with staff members one-on-one and listens to what they have to say. He gives them space to talk about their successes and share their concerns. He’s quick to help when needed, and he’s thoughtful with feedback and counsel.

He's also an expert when it comes to data. He’s able to take test scores, grades, and other data points, and use them to paint a picture of how his school is performing. This data informs everything from instruction to professional development to individual student placement. 

And yet, he also understands that data points don't tell the whole story. He never loses sight of the teachers, specialists, paras, support staff, students, and families behind the numbers.

He cares deeply about the culture of his school. He wants it to be a place that’s united, where students and staff alike feel like they belong. He pours his heart into making that a reality.

In the words of one staff member, he “shows up every day, choosing to be awesome” and provides his staff and students with the tools and support they need to thrive.

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Heidi Waggoner

Staff Support Person of the Year: Heidi Waggoner, Kennewick High School

Kennewick High School paraeducator Heidi Waggoner has a smile that could brighten any room. 

And she has a disposition that matches that smile. She has a way of making everything a little lighter, happier, and better.

In the classroom, she makes sure things run smoothly. She makes sure everyone has what they need. She doesn’t shy away from taking on tasks and instead works hard to accomplish all that needs to get done. She’s the kind of person you can count on, who you feel comfortable turning to and asking for help, who you can share a laugh with.

She’ll always encourage you, support you and cheer you on.

Her supervisor describes her as a kind, flexible professional who’s always willing to lend a hand.

Although she's soft-spoken and doesn’t seek a lot of attention for herself, her actions speak loudly. They say that she’s amazing at what she does, that she cares deeply about her students and coworkers, and that she pours her heart into her work.

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Benet Toon

Staff Support Person of the Year: Benet Toon, Horse Heaven Hills Middle School

A ray of sunshine. A breath of fresh air. A warm, caring person who brightens the day.

Those are a few of the phrases that come to mind when Benet Toon is mentioned. The secretary at Horse Heaven Hills Middle School makes her school a sunnier place to be.

She is a favorite among the staff for her skill, helpfulness and demeanor. In particular, she’s become a touchstone and mentor for the newer members of the office staff, always willing to share her wisdom, advice and secrets of success. Students love her, too. She gets to know them and makes sure to connect with them.

She has a way of making those around her feel valued and appreciated.

She’s the kind of teammate who has your back.

She’s also the kind of teammate who steps up to get the job done. If there’s a task that needs doing, she’ll figure out a way to do it, even if it’s outside of her usual duties or comfort zone.

She’s always willing to go the extra mile.

Her supervisor describes her as “hard-working, dedicated and always helpful,” noting that “she cares about our school, students, and staff, and goes above and beyond to assist families.”

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Angela Chavez-Lara

Staff Support Person of the Year: Angela Chavez-Lara, K-12 Education

Spanish translator and interpreter Angela Chavez-Lara is a bridge for our district's Spanish-speaking families.

She ensures that information coming from our district is available in Spanish.

She translates written materials, taking great care with word choice and context so they’re as accurate and clear as possible. And she regularly attends meetings, events and conferences as an interpreter, ensuring Spanish-speaking families are able to fully participate in our district.

Colleagues describe her as tireless, enthusiastic, committed, detail-oriented, and full of heart.

She takes on work with a smile and gives 110 percent to each task. She does it because she cares deeply, and everyone in the Kennewick School District benefits greatly from her hard work.

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Jen Wright

Creativity in Curriculum, Jen Wright, Kamiakin High School

Jen Wright, a Spanish teacher at Kamiakin High School, is known for her skill, expertise and energy. She makes her classroom a fun and exciting place for students.

It’s also a safe place. In her class, students have to put themselves out there – they have to speak up, get out of their comfort zones and try new things. It’s the nature of the subject she teaches.

Yet, students don’t shy away from her classes. Instead, they clamor to get in because they enjoy and trust her.

She also motivates and inspires her colleagues. She’s someone fellow educators look to for advice, feedback and ideas. She’s a model of skilled, efficient, and innovative instruction.

On top of all that, she always seems to have a smile on her face and a kind word for everyone she passes.

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Lori Woods

Certificated Specialist of the Year: Lori Woods, Southgate Elementary

Southgate Elementary P.E. teacher Lori Woods loves creating a fun and engaging learning environment for her students.

When she crafts lessons, she thinks about the academics and the learning goals, of course, but also about the experience.

She lets her imagination run wild, and in doing so, she ensures that her students are learning all they need to and more – and she’s ensuring that the learning sticks. Her students long remember the things she teaches them because they’re engaged and they’re having so much fun.

She sets high expectations for her students, and she provides them with the tools, support and encouragement to leapfrog right over those expectations.

She knows every student at her school, and she makes an effort to connect with them. When she hears about a student’s accomplishment, or she notices a student doing something nice or good, she calls it out and makes that student feel special.

She’s a cheerleader. She’s a champion.

Her colleagues say that she's the first person to jump in and shuffle her schedule to help others. She’s always got a listening ear and a shoulder to lean on.

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Julie Brisbois

Elementary Teacher of the Year: Julie Brisbois, Southgate Elementary

Warm. Loving. Positive. Knowledgeable. Skilled. Encouraging. That’s how colleagues describe Julie Brisbois, first-grade teacher at Southgate Elementary.

She's known for having a deep well of knowledge and for being a touchstone for others in her building. She’s a GLAD rock star, and she’s always willing to share her expertise.

Brisbois is endlessly creative. She comes up with engaging, applicable, inclusive and fun lessons – the kind that students talk about for years to come.

She also creates a classroom environment where her students feel safe to challenge themselves and grow. Everyone who sets foot in her classroom is welcomed and valued.

Students want to be around her because they know she cares about them. Plus, she’s a lot of fun. She goes all out for spirit days – and for every event and program at her school.

She also goes the extra mile for her colleagues. She’s always there with a listening ear, an encouraging word, and a thoughtful and helpful idea. She’s known to stick a caring note into a colleague’s mailbox or leave a special treat – like a cupcake – on their desk.

She’s a leader in her building and on her grade-level team. She works hard to support those around her, and, in the words of some of her fellow teachers, “staff look to her as a confidant, and they gather ideas from her wealth of knowledge.”

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Cara Suarez

Middle School Teacher of the Year: Cara Suarez, Park Middle School

Park Middle School reading, language arts and history teacher Cara Suarez is known for being energetic, committed and diligent. 

She does whatever she can to help her students learn and succeed. She meticulously plans lessons, using innovation and creativity to come up with ways to make learning engaging and fun.

She’s a model for other teachers in her use of GLAD strategies. Colleagues know they can go to her for help implementing those strategies, as well as for inspiration.

She is enthusiastic about trying new things for the good of students, and she’s the first to embrace new initiatives and ideas at her school. One of her supervisors describes her as “our go-to person when we’re trying something new” because she’s always willing to step up.

When it comes to what’s best for students, she is always striving, always trying. She gives 110 percent in pursuit of what will help them thrive.

She gives that same effort to her colleagues. She’s the epitome of a supportive teammate, and she’s always cheering on her fellow teachers, paras and other coworkers and finding ways to encourage them. They know they can turn to her and count on her. They know she has their back.

One of her supervisors tells us that her innovation, energy and creativity stand out, and so does her intentionality. She’s intentional about everything she does, from arranging the seats in her classroom to planning her lessons to building up community and being a great colleague and friend.

She brings intention and purpose to her work and everyone around her benefits.

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Dan White

High School Teacher of the Year: Dan White, Kennewick High School

It’s been said that “teachers plant seeds of knowledge that grow forever.”

There’s a lot of truth in that. A teacher’s job isn’t just to ensure that students are gaining fundamentals, grasping concepts, and meeting standards. It’s also to help them find a love for learning, open their eyes to new ideas and possibilities, and believe in themselves and their potential. It’s about planting seeds that keep growing long after the student has moved on.

Dan White, agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Kennewick High, is an expert in doing just that.

In the words of his supervisor, he is caring, flexible, understanding, hard-working, and professional. He’s the essence of a top-notch educator.

He is deeply knowledgeable and passionate about agriculture, and our district leaned on and harnessed that knowledge and passion when we were developing his program’s classroom space.

Students lean on him, too. They know they can count on him.

He recognizes that not all students are interested in the same things or learn the same way, and he offers a variety of courses that appeal to a wide spectrum of teens.

He’s guided students to success in state and national FFA competitions, and he’s given them a place to belong, explore their interests, and find their own talents and passions.

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