Education Lab

Fresno Co. honors year's top school employees

Fresno County's top education employees of the year were announced and celebrated Thursday night at the Saroyan Theatre.

The Employee of the Year is Suzanne Dias, food service manager at Washington Union High School. She has been in education for 15 years.

Dias is known for her willingness to open her kitchen to local clubs and organizations for events and fundraisers as well as for students who need part-time work.

"I'm very excited about it," Dias said after winning. "Washington Union is a great school. I'm honored to be working there and extremely honored to be recognized as a finalist and then to win out of all of Fresno County."

The Administrator of the Year is Tim Lopez, principal of Fairmont School in Sanger Unified. Lopez has been in education for 20 years. He helped transform the school from a Program Improvement Year 3 School into a three-time Title 1 Academic Achievement School, a California Distinguished School and a National Blue Ribbon nominee.

"I am blessed to do what I do every day," Lopez said. "The success of our school is due to the people who work on the frontlines. Providing an opportunity for kids to be successful is important in education, and I am proud to be a part of it."

Peggy Foletta was named Teacher of the Year after 34 years in education. Foletta is a science teacher and department chair at Kingsburg High School. Foletta uses a variety of teaching techniques, including backpacking excursions, to engage her students.

"There were so many outstanding teachers being honored here, and for me to be selected as No. 1 is inspirational to say the least," Foletta said.

Foletta will represent Fresno County in the California Teachers of the Year awards competition.

The Barnett Award, named after retired Educational Employees Credit Union CEO/President Bruce Barnett, was given to Mike Darling, the principal of Wawona IB World School in Fresno Unified. Darling, who has been in education for 34 years, has implemented several programs at his school, including a foreign language program and a before-school physical education program.

At one point in his career Darling was asked by a parent to watch his son while the parent was in jail. Darling eventually adopted that boy, and when the boy brought home a friend who was homeless, Darling adopted him, too.

"It was an honor to be recognized," Darling said. "I am proud of the work I have done as an educator. As far as adopting my boys, that just happened. It wasn't planned but I can't imagine my life without them. A lot of that inspired my work, as well."

Each of the night's award winners was given a bronze sculpture designed by Fresno artist Clement Renzi, who passed away in December 2009. All other nominees received a signed, framed, limited-edition art print of the original sculpture.

The other finalists were:

Employee of the Year: Mary Ann Lopez, Riverdale Unified, and Jose Plata, Clovis Unified.

Administrator of the Year: Mike Darling, Fresno Unified, and Sherry A. Martin, Riverdale Unified.

Teacher of the Year: Pamela Darnell, Riverdale Unified, and Michelle Vasquez-Madruga, Fresno Unified.