TCOE honors excellent staff member in education

Tulare County Office of Education honors administrator, teacher and school employee of the year from districts throughout the county

TULARE COUNTY – Teachers, administrators and other staff members who work with children are just as important to a child’s development as their time in the classroom. And three of them were recognized for their hard work with an annual award.

To celebrate the efforts of these workers, the Tulare County Office of Education (TCOE) granted awards of excellence to the three staff members, who were nominated by their peers. Tulare County superintendent of schools Tim Hire surprised the staff members with the news of their achievements as winners for the 28th Annual Tulare County Excellence in Education Awards program on April 19. The winners are Leanne Cerda as Administrator/Manager of the Year, Nancy Warkentin as Teacher of the Year and Blanca Esparza as School Employee of the Year.

“Each winner has a heart for seeing students grow into successful young adults, and for collaborating with community partners and district resources to support their vision,” Hire said.

The winners, along with program finalists and nominees, were honored with an invitation-only breakfast event on Nov. 2 at the Visalia Convention Center Exhibit Hall.

This year, a total of 31 employees were nominated. The nominees were submitted by Tulare County school districts under the three categories, which are administrator/manager, teacher and school employee of the year. A committee of Tulare County business and education leaders individually reviewed and scored each nominee to determine the winners.

Administrator/Manager of the Year

Leanne Cerda

Administrator of Early Childhood Education and former principal of Cutler Elementary School in Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District.

Leanne Cerda was selected as the 2022 Tulare County Administrator/Manager of the Year for her work as principal of Cutler Elementary, the same school she attended as a child. For 17 years she has worked for the Cutler-Orosi district as a teacher, literary coach and administrator. This fall, she was named administrator of the district’s Early Childhood Education program. Her nominators praised her for her spirit and energy, which she maintained throughout the COVID-19 pandemic “without missing a beat” despite a significant health issue.

In her six years as principal at Cutler Elementary, Cerda transformed the campus with murals depicting various colleges. The murals also convey the message of: “Your journey begins here.” She ensured that students know they can be anything they want to be and that they have visions to achieve for themselves. Through her leadership, Cutler Elementary has become the hub of the community with family social events, academic tutoring and parent partner academies.

As principal of Cutler Elementary Cerda spent the majority of her day observing classroom instruction, celebrating great teaching and supporting improvement. Yolanda Valdez, district superintendent for Cutler-Orosi, said that Cerda had a laser focus on academic achievement and was intricately involved in all data analysis. She assembled the school’s reading specialist, instructional coaches, school psychologist, social worker and learning director every week to ensure students were making academic, and social and emotional gains. For her work in implementing the school’s PBIS behavior support program, Cutler Elementary obtained the organization’s highest designation, “platinum status,” for 2018, 2019, and 2021. 

Additionally, Cerda is also actively involved in her community, serving as a member of the local Visalia Lions Club.

Teacher of the Year

Nancy Warkentin

Transitional Kindergarten teacher for Wilson Elementary School in Dinuba Unified School District.

Nancy Warkentin, now retired, was a teacher with Dinuba Unified for 37 years at Wilson Elementary. For the past 10 years, she was a transitional kindergarten teacher, helping four and five-year-olds develop educational foundations and teaching them to love learning inside and outside the classroom.

Warkentin’s nominators praised her for her creativity in making California school standards fun for her students. Through the use of music, song, pictures, drama, art and technology, Warkentin actively engaged her students in their lessons. At the core of her instruction was love, which she expressed to her students, valuing each one as her own “beautiful” children.

Warkentin also focused on students’ social and emotional learning. She continually collected data and made observations of their struggles, potential triggers and what they valued. She used this data to adapt her instruction to meet their needs. Another foundational effort in her class was the establishment of model behavior. Warkentin said that discipline is a teachable moment, not a punishment.

“Learning cannot effectively occur in chaos, so I establish a clear set of expectations and consistency in managing my classroom,” Warkentin said. 

In addition to her teaching career, Warkentin was active on her campus, serving as the school site hospitality committee chair and leader of the Social-Emotional Learning Afterschool group. She also coordinated performance opportunities for her students, including their annual Christmas caroling event at Covenant Care Center in Dinuba.

School Employee of the Year

Blanca Esparza

Parent Liaison for Earlimart Middle School in Earlimart School District.

Blanca Esparza is proud to give back to the community, where she grew up and received her education. Through Earlimart School District’s student services department, Esparza serves as a liaison between families, schools and the community, and assists district-wide to strengthen parent involvement. A Spanish speaker, Esparza also provides translation services for parents at meetings. Additionally, she routinely tutors parents on navigating the school’s Aeries program, which tracks grades and attendance.

Esparza’s nominators noted her skill at empowering parents to engage in their children’s education. She creates opportunities for parents to attend evening classes, school social events and school meetings such as the School Site Council and the English Learner Advisory Committee.

“I’ve often worked with parents who don’t believe they have a voice in their child’s education,” Esparza said.

Earlimart Middle School principal, Scott Staton, said that Esparza is a sounding board, a board or screen usually placed behind stages to push a speaker’s voice forward, for middle school parents. 

“This has helped create a school community where parents are able to ask for clarification on important issues and be heard,” Staton said.

Just as she is a resource for parents, Esparza supports students with an open door policy before school, during lunch and after school for those seeking academic assistance or advice. Not only that, but her support of Earlimart families extends far beyond her campus. Esparza is involved in numerous organizations that benefit Earlimart’s youth, including the local Rotary Club, Earlimart Youth Cheerleading, Earlimart Youth Foundation, Earlimart Park Project, Earlimart Youth Football Organization and the Earlimart Town Council.


In addition to the winners, the selection committee chose two finalists in each category. The finalists for the 2022 Excellence in Education Awards program are:

Administrator/Manager of the Year

Lisa Majarian
Principal, Royal Oaks Elementary, Visalia Unified School District
Melanie Matta
Superintendent/Principal, Hope School District 

Teacher of the Year

John Boydstun
Industrial Arts Teacher, Lindsay High School
Paige Williams
Science Teacher, Green Acres Middle School, Visalia 

School Employee of the Year

Elsa Avila
District Custodian, Tulare City School District
Mary Ward
Router/Bus Driver, Visalia Unified School District 

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