Teacher, classified employee of the year awarded to student support services teacher, head custodian for 2021-2022 school year


Image used with permission from Patty Johnson

Student support services teacher Kellie Ma (left) and head custodian Daniel Rodriguez hold onto the flowers and balloons they were given in the staff lounge on Jan. 21 to recognize their honor of being voted Teacher of the Year and Classified Employee of the Year award, respectively, for the 2021-2022 school year.

Kate Yang, Editor-in-Chief

As student support services teacher Kellie Ma reviewed notes with her second period Math Foundations students, the shimmer of several multicolored balloons passing by the window of room 98 caught her eye. 

Seconds later, seven of her fellow colleagues from her department and administration burst through the door and handed her a bouquet of flowers to congratulate Ma on what she never would have expected — a Teacher of the Year award.   

“I was first shocked and very honored to be chosen for such an immense award,” Ma said. “Initially, when I first saw all the administrators and some of the other people from our department, I didn’t realize that they were coming in to surprise me, so it was just really wonderful to see everyone come in.”

To select the teacher and classified Employee of the Year, staff members nominated staff through a Google Form released by principal’s secretary Patty Johnson on Jan. 10. The staff then voted from the pool of 13 teacher nominees and nine classified employee nominees on Jan. 18 before administration chose the winners. 

Administration keeps the employee of the year nominations anonymous. Johnson, however, provided statements made about Ma and Rodriguez from those who nominated them.

“Kellie is the reason so many kids come to school. She finds a way to help every student [and teacher] not just who is on her caseload. She goes above and beyond constantly and always uses her moral compass to guide her to determine what is best for kids. She is an amazing colleague and couldn’t be more valuable.”

Daniel Rodriguez does a wonderful job of organizing his custodial staff and taking care of our campus and our athletic fields. I can only imagine that he receives a tremendous amount of requests for things to be done or things needed and he is always positive and cordial with his interactions with staff and students. Thank you for your service.” 

Last year, former principal Allen Whitten organized a ceremony in the quad to announce the 2020-2021 teacher and classified employee of the year in front of the students who had just returned for hybrid learning; however, for the 2021-2022 year, the Sunny Hills staff instead held a congratulatory ceremony for the two employees in the staff lounge on Jan. 21. 

“Because Danny doesn’t have any students, we thought we’d surprise him with all the teachers in the lounge at break, so we had cake and balloons and had a happy announcement,” assistant principal Sarah Murrietta said. “It’s special to be surrounded by those that you work with, so we wanted to hold [the ceremony] in front of all their colleagues.”

For the past eight years, Ma has worked on the SH campus to aid special needs students by teaching standard subjects, such as Math Foundations and English, as well as the social cognitive communication class. 

“She works one on one with students, pulls them out and works with them on their goals,” Murrietta said. “The Social Cognitive Communication class she teaches is really her speciality, and I can really see why the teachers and the staff voted her Teacher of the Year.”

Besides the one Social Cognitive class Ma teaches this semester, the instructor also has one period of Foundations 1 with math teacher Lauren Johnson. In Johnson’s second period, Ma said she works specifically with students who have an Individualized Education Plan [IEP]. 

Students with an IEP may take all general education classes or may be enrolled in some specialized academic courses, typically smaller in size, depending on their personal needs, Ma said.

“I have the responsibility of also meeting with students to work on their IEP goals to help them be successful academically, socially and emotionally,” she said. “I always instill in each of my students that just having a positive mindset can accomplish anything because I think they have so much potential and they’re gifted in different ways.”

I always instill in each of my students that just having a positive mindset can accomplish anything because I think they have so much potential and they’re gifted in different ways.”

— student support services teacher Kellie Ma

Ma joined the Sunny Hills staff in 2014 as the student support services teacher for remedial Algebra 1, remedial Algebra 2, remedial Physical Science, remedial Biology and Learning Lab.   

“Sunny Hills is such a positive and welcoming environment, and I just absolutely love this school,” she said. ‘I think what makes this school so great is that we have an amazing staff here, and, of course, the kids are incredible here at Sunny Hills.”

With the transition from distance to in-person learning, however, she has experienced some struggles to reconnect with and engage her students.

“I really try to reach out to each of my students and kind of get to know each person as they return,” Ma said. “I think that has been something I’ve been trying to do so that they know that I’m really interested in what’s going on in their lives.”

Additionally, head custodian Daniel Rodriguez heard the news of his nomination for classified employee of the Year surrounded by his fellow staff members in the staff lounge alongside Ma.

“When you’re recognized like that, it is just a very humbling experience,” said Rodriguez, who also won classified employee of the year for the 2016-2017 school year. “It’s always an honor to be selected amongst your colleagues [and] your peers for going above and beyond, and so it’s always cool.” 

Rodriguez, who began working for Sunny Hills since July 2015, ensures students step onto a clean and safe campus with polished bathrooms, organized desks and spotless floors; he even directs morning traffic despite the duty not being a part of his custodial responsibilities.  

“He wants this place to look pristine for parents and students,” Murrietta said. “He wants our students to come and be proud of where they go to school, to have a clean campus, to have everything work, and he really works above and beyond.”

He wants our students to come and be proud of where they go to school, to have a clean campus, to have everything work, and he really works above and beyond.”

— assistant principal Sarah Murrietta

Within the seven years Rodriguez has served as head custodian, he established himself as an approachable companion for all SH students to look to for advice and conversation. 

“I worked 16 years at Harbor Elementary School, and it was a great experience because they always saw you as that heroic figure,” he said. “But coming here, it’s just more a friendship thing, like I’m here as their bud and here to be part of their high school experience.”   

Harbor Elementary School tasked Rodriguez with simply keeping the campus clean and safe, but, upon arriving at Sunny Hills, he expanded his responsibilities, which, in turn, expanded his challenges. 

“Here [at Sunny Hills], everything is multifaceted, and my operations are also multifaceted,” he said. “Students just go about their day, enjoying their time with their friends [and] teachers and creating memories, and it’s my job to make it seem to flow seamlessly.” 

Though holding the title of head custodian, Rodriguez credits his team members for the efforts they contribute toward maintaining a safe and clean environment for the students and staff on campus. 

“We are like a varsity athletic team, and I’m just the captain,” he said. “I need my support people to be able to do what I do because without them, I wouldn’t be able to do all my duties and enjoy every day.”