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Schools celebrate educators’ spirited service

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SAN DIEGO — Taking place amidst a global pandemic, the 2020-2021 academic year was extraordinary.

And that was reflected at the seventh annual Catholic Educators’ Awards Ceremony, where one of the evening’s major awards was given not to one school, but to all 47 Catholic elementary and high schools in the diocese.

The ceremony, held May 20 via Zoom, is hosted each year by the diocesan Office for Schools to recognize local Catholic educators for their dedicated service.

The event has traditionally been a well-attended, in-person gathering that includes dinner. This was the second consecutive year that the event took place virtually.

All of the diocese’s schools shared equally in this year’s “Re-Imagine Catholic Schools” Award, which is “given to a school that recognizes the needs and interests of the 21st-century student.”

John Galvan, the office’s director, said all of the schools “had to re-imagine themselves” to re-open safely after the suspension of in-person instruction and the shift to distance learning last year.

“We thought, this year, it would be really important to memorialize for all of our schools what they’ve been through and the hard work that they’ve put in,” Galvan said.

During the ceremony, the Schools Office also recognized teachers and principals marking significant milestones. These included educators celebrating 10, 20, 30 or 40 years, as well as those who are retiring.

In addition to the “Re-Imagine Catholic Schools” Award, several other awards are presented at the annual ceremony. The recipients are nominated by fellow members of the Catholic school community.

The Good Shepherd Award, which recognizes a member of the clergy or a consecrated religious who has modeled discipleship, truth and courage, was awarded to Father Devdas Masillamony, pastor of Santa Sophia Parish in Spring Valley.

Elijah Bonde, of Nativity Prep Academy in the College Area, received this year’s Distinguished Principal Award, which honors a principal whose impact on Catholic education extends beyond his or her own school.

Kristina Alger, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Mary Star of the Sea School in Oceanside, was named Catholic Teacher of the Year. The award similarly recognizes a teacher whose influence is not limited to his or her own school.

“In my encounters with Kristina, I find her to be everything a Catholic school teacher should be. Kind, faithful, compassionate, collaborative, and dedicated,” one of her nominations read. “Even amid the pandemic, Kristina has remained optimistic and hopeful, always ‘showing up’ for her students.”

The recipient of this year’s “All Are Welcome” Inclusive Education Award, presented annually to a school that is striving to make education accessible to students with disabilities, was St. Martin of Tours Academy in La Mesa for its work with dyslexic students.

Oralia Puga, preschool director at St. Charles School in Imperial Beach, received the Sister Breege Boyle Award, which honors a preschool program or director “for making a difference in the lives of our youngest students.”

Kate Aeono, a second-grade teacher at St. James Academy in Solana Beach, received the ACT Fellow Award for demonstrating service through teaching, community involvement, and spiritual development at the University of San Diego’s Academy of Catholic Teaching (ACT).

Steve Laaperi, who is retiring after nine years as president of Cathedral Catholic High School, was feted with the Sister  Claire Patrice Lifetime Achievement Award. The award recognizes major contributions over many years to educational leadership in the San Diego Diocese. Laaperi’s work with San Diego Catholic schools began in 1976 as a teacher at St. Rita’s School. His distinguished career includes a 20-year stint as principal of Sacred Heart School in Coronado and six years as director of the Office for Schools.

The 2021 Catholic Educators’ Awards Ceremony, which opened with an invocation by Auxiliary Bishop Ramón Bejarano, was dedicated to the memory of Mario Fierro, the beloved Cathedral Catholic teacher and coach who was murdered in early February and died at age 37.

“After the year we’ve just had, I just wish we could do so much more for our schools, for our pastors, for our principals, our teachers,” said Galvan. “They’ve just gone so far above and beyond what any of us signed up for when we started this work. I pray in gratitude every day for our school leadership and our teachers because they’ve really met the challenge with incredible grace, fortitude, creativity, and certainly with care for the wellbeing of their members, their employees and kids.”

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