Highline Public Schools
15675 Ambaum Blvd. SW Burien, WA 98166

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Highline Public Schools
15675 Ambaum Blvd. SW Burien, WA 98166

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2023 Gold Star Awards

2023 Gold Star Awards

The winners are.... The Highline Schools Foundation announced the winners of its 2023 Gold Star Awards, highlighting the outstanding efforts of Highline educators, staff, volunteers and alumni. These eight individuals live the Highline promise to know every student by name, strength and need so that our students graduate prepared for the future they choose. 

  • Outstanding Teacher: Beverly Pecoraro, Humanities Teacher, Maritime High School
  • Outstanding Rookie Teacher: Gared Contawe, Music Teacher, Bow Lake Elementary
  • Outstanding Classified Staff: Brandon Kitts, Bus Driver, Transportation
  • Outstanding Professional Staff: Anne Marie Littleton, Social Worker, New Start High School and CHOICE Academy
  • Outstanding Administrator: Jessica Ma, Principal, Highline Virtual Elementary
  • Outstanding Volunteer: Patricia Palomino, Parent Volunteer/PTA, Highline Public Schools
  • Outstanding Alumna: Maya Mendoza-Exstrom, Sounders FC, Highline High School, Class of 1999
  • Highline Schools Foundation Special Recognition Award: Lolita O’Donnell, Director of Family & Community Partnerships – Student Support & Family Engagement

Eighty-five individuals were nominated for the 2023 Gold Star Awards, representing 30 programs, schools and departments. Read on to learn more about what makes each of these eight winners extraordinary.

Outstanding Teacher
Beverly Pecoraro, Humanities Teacher, Maritime High School

Beverly Pecoraro has been an educator in Highline since 2015. She makes her classroom a safe place for students to focus and learn. Her student nominator said, “She teaches in a way that makes me want to go to school and connects it to real life. She makes sure everyone gets the support they need. She makes sure that lessons are available for extra work or extra support. She challenges me in ways that will help me in the future, even if I don’t know it yet. Ms. Bev has made an impact on my learning and life in the first five months of being my teacher. She makes sure everyone feels like they can go to her with anything, and she’ll be there for anyone. She deserves this award because she is the kindest, most hard-working teacher that I’ve had.”

Outstanding Rookie Teacher
Gared Contawe, Music Teacher, Bow Lake Elementary

As a first-year teacher, Gared Contawe takes deep pride in his work. From kindergarten music lessons to fifth-grade band, Gared is able to connect and teach all students. He has a natural ability to build relationships with students and design lessons that are engaging for each age group. Bow Lake serves students that qualify for intensive learning center (ILC) and deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) programs. His nominator said, “Gared has been working really hard to find ways for every student to engage in the content. He's learned how DHH students can engage with music via touch and visuals. In addition to inclusion, Gared calls out the importance of students seeing themselves in music. One way he does this is spotlighting underrepresented musicians every week. He plays videos of artists, asks students to share artists that they like and listen to at home, and allows space for students to explore music genres from around the world.”

Outstanding Classified Staff
Brandon Kitts, Bus Driver, Transportation,

Brandon Kitts takes his role seriously as the first and last person students encounter in their school day. He is committed to knowing his students by name, strength and need, and greets each one with a smile and a warm hello. Earlier this year, Brandon went above and beyond to make a student who is a refugee feel welcomed on a school bus. His nominator said, “She was crying every day and was unsure about how the bus worked. Mr. Brandon asked the student's teacher for more information about her. He discovered that she spoke Dari. He went home and used Google translate to learn phrases to speak to her in Dari to help her feel safe. When her kindergarten brother started school, Mr. Brandon greeted him right away in Dari, which made him smile. Mr. Brandon made a huge impact at the beginning of their educational experience in the United States.”

Outstanding Professional Staff
Anne Marie Littleton, Social Worker, New Start High School and CHOICE Academy

Anne Marie is a social worker, serving the students of New Start High School and CHOICE Academy. She works tirelessly to ensure students know they are valued members of their school community and have access to housing, food and mental health services. Her nominator said, “Students feel her compassion and they trust her. We have several students who have connected with Anne Marie, and she is their go-to adult. She is available to discuss their needs with them and problem solve with them. She doesn’t tell them what they should do, but she works with them to explore what they feel will work for them. She is such a valuable asset to New Start. I really don't know what we'd do without her.”

Outstanding Administrator
Jessica Ma, Principal, Highline Virtual Elementary

Jessica Ma is the founding principal of Highline Virtual Elementary, and has worked hard to build a strong foundation for this new model of learning. Jessica has been a part of the Highline team for more than 20 years, previously serving as an assistant principal at Madrona Elementary and a teacher at Midway Elementary. Receiving a record seven nominations in the category, one of Jessica’s nominators shared: “Jessica is an amazing leader of color who makes me feel valued and heard as a teacher of color. She has created a cohesive community of teachers where we all feel supported and inspired to collaborate to build a school that goes above and beyond the Highline Promise.” 

Outstanding Volunteer
Patricia Palomino, Parent Volunteer/PTA, Highline Public Schools

Patricia Palomino is a volunteer in schools as well as a community leader, advocating for all students and families. She first started volunteering in 2012 through Gregory Heights Elementary’s PTA, serving as an advocate for Latino parents. Her nominator said, “During the pandemic, she volunteered with Alimentando El Pueblo, connecting families with resources. She has also been advocating not only for her own child with an IEP, but has also connected other Latino parents of students with special needs. She has been very instrumental in supporting her students, staff and Latino communities in Highline. Patricia is that parent who shows up to an event and is always willing to help in whatever area is needed. She asks lots of questions and puts herself in other parent’s shoes. She sees opportunities to share with parents, staff and community about some of the areas we can grow to support our students.”

Outstanding Alumnus
Maya Mendoza-Exstrom, Seattle Sounders FC, Highline High School, Class of 1999

Maya Mendoza-Exstrom is a proud 1999 graduate of Highline High School. She received a bachelor's degree from the University of Puget Sound and her doctor of law degree from University of Washington School of Law. After working as an attorney in private practice, she joined the Seattle Sounders FC and currently serves as the chief operating officer. Maya is a devoted volunteer, serving on the RAVE Foundation’s Board of Trustees, Seattle Parks Foundation’s Board of Directors and Wing Luke Museum’s Board of Trustees. She served as a Trustee for the Highline Schools Foundation from 2007 to 2017. With her extensive background and experience as a player, coach, coaching director, referee and now parent in Washington Youth Soccer, Maya oversees soccer camps, clinics and youth club development activities. She has been a key stakeholder for all civic matters related to the Sounders, including Seattle’s candidacy to become an official host city for the FIFA World Cup 2026, managing the Sounder’s public benefits, and working with the various jurisdictions on feasibility and development of soccer-specific investments around the region. Within Highline, she advocated with the RAVE Foundation to build three mini-pitches at Beverly Park Elementary, Seahurst Elementary and Valley View Early Learning Center.

Highline Schools Foundation Special Recognition Award
Lolita O’Donnell, Director of Family & Community Partnerships, Student Support & Family Engagement

New this year, the Foundation created the Special Recognition Award to acknowledge someone who has been not only an incredible leader and team member in Highline Public Schools, but a generous friend and partner to the Highline Schools Foundation. Fred Swanson, executive director of Highline Schools Foundation said, “Lita is such an incredible resource to Highline Public Schools and to the Foundation. Her deep connections to and experience with Highline staff and families helps to ensure that our work is grounded in service to the many communities that make up Highline. Whether helping organize a chili cookoff to support our work, lending us dishes for an event, or simply talking through ways we can do better, Lita is a trusted friend. We are so grateful to be in community together!”

The Gold Star Winners will be celebrated at the 2023 Gold Star Bash Fundraising Breakfast, on Friday, April 21, at Cedarbrook Lodge in SeaTac. See more details.

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