2019 Promise Award Recipients Celebrated

A Message from Communications and Community Relations

Bellingham Public Schools recently surprised our 2019 Promise Award recipients and are pleased to announce the honorees from our schools. The Promise Awards program recognizes the exemplary achievements and contributions of staff and volunteers connected to The Bellingham Promise, our district’s strategic plan. The Promise Awards are supported by the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation. You can view photos of our Promise Award events here.

Above and Beyond Service Award

Marnie Keller, paraeducator, Kulshan Middle School


Left to right: Superintendent Greg Baker, Promise Award recipient Marnie Keller, Principal Meagan Dawson and Assistant Principal Kevin Terpstra.
Left to right: Superintendent Greg Baker, Promise Award recipient Marnie Keller, Principal Meagan Dawson and Assistant Principal Kevin Terpstra.

Marnie Keller is a lunch and recess supervisor as well as a special education paraeducator, but colleagues say her real job is showing kids how much they are loved. Marnie gives her heart and soul to the students of Kulshan. She attends many school events including sporting events, dances, musical performances, academic presentations and more. She is there to support and cheer on the Kulshan students. Marnie does her job daily with a smile on her face, then goes out and does even more. She stays late to make sure students aren’t waiting out in the cold for rides, she tracks down owners of lost planners and brings in slightly used clothing for students who would otherwise go without. Inside the classroom, Marnie is dedicated to student success, helping students stay on track with classwork or modifying supplies to better fit their needs. Colleagues say they “have never met anyone who does their job with more care, compassion, dedication and a positive attitude.” Eighth graders have been known to say, “I’m not going to high school because I don’t want to leave Ms. Keller.” She truly represents everything that is great about Kulshan. She makes it more than a school – she makes it a community.

Above and Beyond Service Award Honorable Mentions:

Brenda Apt, paraeducator, Sehome High School: “Brenda has helped staff to find ways to better support and engage a diverse learning community. She has helped students learn how to advocate for themselves and to hold themselves to high standards for learning and achievement. She has helped provide a safe place for students to set and follow through with these goals in the after-school Learning Center. She goes above and beyond daily to ensure that our students, all of our students have the best outcomes possible for a productive and successful life.”

Nicole Charlton, custodian, Wade King Elementary School: “Nicole is gentle and supportive. Students and staff alike are easily drawn to her calming presence. She supports school-wide expectations while showing respect and love to all students. She happily assists where needed, never complaining and is always happy to help well outside her job expectations. Nicole exemplifies the team approach, being available wherever she is needed. Nicole loves our school family; and our school family loves Nicole.”


Collaboration Award

Laura Murdzia, secretary to the principal and Kristin Cerenzia, office assistant at Happy Valley Elementary School

Back row left to right: Promise Award recipient Laura Murdzia, Promise Award recipient Kristin Cerenzia, Superintendent Greg Baker and Principal Nick Hayes. Front row: Happy Valley Elementary School students.
Back row left to right: Promise Award recipient Laura Murdzia, Promise Award recipient Kristin Cerenzia, Superintendent Greg Baker and Principal Nick Hayes. Front row: Happy Valley Elementary School students.

Laura Murdzia and Kristin Cerenzia are the front office team at Happy Valley. They are in their first year working together. This year they both started on the first day of school, taking over the office from a team that had been in place for many years. For both of them, this required high degrees of flexibility as they managed one of the most challenging weeks of the school year on top of getting up-to-speed with new systems, a staff they didn’t know, and a principal who was also new to the school. Through this time, their calm demeanor and constant composure very quickly won over the staff, families, and students of Happy Valley. Half way into the year, they have already revamped old systems, streamlined many processes and operate as a high-functioning team. Every interaction matters to these two. They are deeply connected to the core mission of educating our students. They treat every visitor to the office with compassion and model through their actions what integrity and respect look like. Whether helping a student who is not feeling well, supporting a parent, or ensuring our teaching staff has the resources they need, they are always patient, loving and respectful.

Collaboration Award Honorable Mentions: 

Birchwood Elementary School Staff: “Words don’t do my feelings about Birchwood justice. In short, witnessing their utter commitment to diversity celebration, problem-solving, and community building has rekindled my belief in the public schools. Talking to Birchwood neighbors, community volunteers, educators, and especially Birchwood students, I know I’m not alone feeling such pride and hope when I see staff members greet each and every child with love and respect and sheer appreciation for their individuality.”

District Early Childhood Team (Kristi Dominguez, Kris Newberry, Debbie Haney, Barbara DelWraa and Nina Ballew): “Their selfless actions clearly demonstrate the tenets of The Bellingham Promise; in particular: together we achieve more than alone and compassion and service build community. They have extended their service to early learners and fellow educators beyond the confines of Bellingham Public Schools.”


Compassion and Service Award

Dianna McCandless, food service lead, Geneva Elementary School

Left to right: Superintendent Greg Baker, Promise Award recipient Dianna McCandles and Executive Chef Patrick Durgan.
Left to right: Superintendent Greg Baker, Promise Award recipient Dianna McCandless and Executive Chef Patrick Durgan.

Dianna is the food service lead at Geneva and she goes far beyond her job duties to show students and staff they are loved. Dianna is known for always greeting you with a smile. She makes it a priority to look out for the well-being of Geneva students and staff. She is quick to notice changes in students—sometimes very subtle, but she sees and knows when they may need a little extra help. The relationships she develops with students creates a safe environment so they can ask for what they need. Aside from serving students in exceptional ways, she also cares for the staff. She is always showering Geneva staff with little gifts, kinds words or hugs. Geneva staff feel truly cared for. Colleagues say: “To put into words all Dianna provides to the Geneva community, its students, and the district, would be truly impossible. She loves each child as if they were her own and personally takes it upon herself to care for them unconditionally. Her compassion is an example of what it means to love the students that come to our school every day.”

Compassion and Service Award Honorable Mentions: 

Trisha Miller, paraeducator, Shuksan Middle School: “Trisha always maintains her poise and positive attitude. She inspires students to work and lets them know that she deeply cares about them through tough love. Students continually come back to Shuksan to visit Trisha from high school, letting her know that they are now succeeding. She always responds with a high level of pride, affirming that she is genuinely invested in their lives.”

Aramis Johnson, counselor, Squalicum High School: “Aramis has the rare combination of knowledge, integrity, selflessness, empathy and courage. I stand stronger today as an adult because of leaders like Aramis. He understands balance. The crucial nature of introspection with fearless honesty in the face of fear.”


Dependable and Responsible Award

Robin Russell, special education teacher, Roosevelt Elementary School

Left to right: Promise Award recipient Robin Russell, BEA President Lisa Peterson, Superintendent Greg Baker and Principal Tom Gresham

Robin Russell is a special education teacher and leader who makes Roosevelt a dynamic, caring and fun place to work, where students and staff members feel valued and honored. Robin is always working to bring people together. Every day, she reads her Words of Wisdom message over the intercom. This message centers around a character trait or value that the school is focused on. She has been doing this for many years. In addition to the morning message, Robin is the primary planner of the weekly assemblies. These assemblies bring the Roosevelt community together and help the school move in the same direction. Robin is a team player and a firm believer that together we achieve more than alone. She is a role model for children, families and staff. Robin understands that strong connections between staff members at school creates a more positive school climate for everyone. Colleagues say: “She challenges us to see the good in others and ourselves, no matter the circumstance.” Robin works tirelessly to create moments and opportunities for the people in her life to come together, lift each other up and create a true sense of community.

Dependable and Responsible Award Honorable Mentions: 

Patrick Brown, athletic coordinator, Squalicum High School: “I am always elated to see him at my choir concerts and wrestling meets because I know he supports me and my high school journey. I have heard similar things from other students who appreciate his dedication. For example, a member of the cheer team shared that he is always willing to drive the second van for the cheer team to be able to travel to away games. He is a humble and motivated member of the district who deserves to be recognized in this way. He has shown me an example of a dedicated leader who goes going above and beyond with best interest of others in mind.”

Dominique Lantagne, teacher on special assignment, Community Transitions: “From our initial interaction, I was taken aback at how organized and determined she is in supporting staff and students with meeting personal and district goals. Dominique has been available to problem-solve sensitive matters and she makes time to attend weekly staff meetings, which is greatly appreciated. The Life Skills special education department benefits greatly from her ongoing support. Thank you, and you rock!”


Great Teaching Award

Alexa Nigretto, kindergarten teacher, Cordata Elementary School

Promise Award recipient Alexa Nigretto surrounded by her students.
Promise Award recipient Alexa Nigretto surrounded by her students.

Alexa Nigretto is a kindergarten teacher who really believes in, and works for, the development of the whole child. She partners closely with families and with her colleagues at Cordata in order to understand and meet student needs. She is warm, welcoming and attentive to the students in her care. Even when her students have different needs socially and emotionally, she caters to them individually. Alexa builds strong relationships with parents too, always engaging with them in a friendly way and keep parents updated on stories and experiences of their children in class. A parent who nominated Alexa said: “She showed patience, was respectful, compassionate and tried her best to work with my daughter. I saw the effort she put into the relationship she has with not only my daughter, but all her students.” Alexa exemplifies The Bellingham Promise’s core beliefs that all children should be loved and that the whole child is important. Parents say they feel at ease knowing their child is in good hands in her classroom.

Great Teaching Award Honorable Mentions: 

Jan Dustrude, special education teacher, Birchwood Elementary School: “I want to nominate my teacher Jan Dustrude. She is the reason I want to go to school every day. She is funny, cool and awesome. She helps me with my reading. My scores on my tests went up two years in a few months. She also enjoys having us in school. She believes in me and all the eight kids in her reading group. She helps me with my technology and to have a computer. The computer helps me write, read and take tests. I feel proud of myself because of her. I feel strong safe and included because of her. I will miss her when I go to middle school.”

Penny Sherwood, teacher, Whatcom Middle School: “Penny teaches with compassion and a deep love for her students. As an educator, Penny was a tremendous support to teachers on her teaching team and in the early years of their careers. She was always willing to collaborate to make the school experience better for all students. Penny has not only impacted the thousands of students she has taught over the years, but has also left a lasting impact on Whatcom Middle School.”


Innovation and Flexibility Award

Lori French, Spanish teacher at Bellingham High School and Jeremy Louzao, ELL specialist at Squalicum High School

Lori and Jeremy
Left photo: Promise Award recipient, Jeremy Louzao in middle with trophy, surrounded by Squalicum staff and students. Right photo: Promise Award recipient, Lori French in middle with trophy surrounded by students.

Through the collaborative efforts of Bellingham High School Spanish teacher Lori French and Squalicum High School ELL specialist Jeremy Louzao the Bilingual Teacher Academy was created. This new course is designed for bilingual students who are interested in a career in education. Students are encouraged to be proud of their linguistic skills, to share their cultures and to connect with others who have similar experiences. In addition, students in the Bilingual Teacher Academy are paired with younger elementary students to mentor them and encourage the growth of their literacy skills and cultural pride. A colleague said, “This is just the start of this course, but I believe their innovation will impact many future students and potentially the education field. I’m inspired by their dedication and commitment to this work and their collective impact on future generations of teachers!” A program like this requires two innovative and flexible professionals who are willing to take the leap and try something that has never been done before in our district. Through this course and in all their daily work, Lori and Jeremy live out The Bellingham Promise.

Innovation and Flexibility Award Honorable Mentions:

Bellingham High School Math Department (Paul Clement, Chuck DeVange, Jon Fleck, Ben Goodwin, Amanda Shearer-Hannah, Julie Sheldrup, Scott Smartt, Paul Stoddard and Steve Wilson): “The BHS math department staff have been early adopters of visible thinking classroom strategies which involve student groups solving problems together on large vertical whiteboards posted in the classrooms. They have attended multiple training sessions and implemented these strategies throughout all math classes. In a grassroots approach, they identified low-cost ways to obtain and install whiteboards. They meet on a regular basis and continue to grow as math professionals. This department consistently works to further their technology expertise and develop a high skill level in their students.”

Jodie Schoolcraft and Timothy Cosgrove, language arts teachers, Kulshan Middle School: “The dedication and thoughtfulness of these two teachers continues to surpass all expectations. You can tell that every decision, project, and even OneNote page is well thought out, and formatted to give everyone an equal opportunity at success. One example of a project is the good human videos. The balance of teamwork and individual accomplishment is instilled with personal projects, as well as groups, allowing students to take initiative and experience individual achievement.  These teachers, and the virtues they’ve chosen to adopt have made a huge impact on my school experience.”


Community Partner Award

Elie Samuel of Samuel’s Furniture in Ferndale, Wash. 

Promise Award recipient Elie Samuel (center with trophy) surrounded by district staff, his wife and son.
Promise Award recipient Elie Samuel (center with trophy) surrounded by district staff, his wife and son.

Elie started volunteering years ago with a desire to make a difference and to help families and students in our community. Through his connection with ELL specialist Kathe Koruga, the Thursday furniture deliveries began. Every Thursday, Elie sends his delivery truck and workers to pick up donations and deliver furniture to families. Elie’s team at Samuel’s Furniture is a joy to work with and treats our families with kindness and respect. These deliveries make our families feel welcomed, loved and seen. Due to Elie’s support, we can meet the immediate needs of families in our district. We have seen a direct impact on students as a good night’s sleep is integral to student success. In addition to the Thursday deliveries, Elie has been a strong supporter of the district by donating to the Student and Family Support Fund and to scholarships for our Latino Education Summit. Beyond even those efforts, Elie created “Coffee for a Cause.”  This is his own espresso cart where he has donated proceeds to the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation. Elie is actively making a collective commitment to Bellingham’s children. Together, in ways both big and small, he directly supports some of our most vulnerable students.

Volunteer and Community Partner of the Year Award Honorable Mentions:

Katherine Hendricks, volunteer, Kulshan Middle School: “Mrs. Hendricks is just fun to be around. She acts like we are a whole person, every single one of us, in our own way. She does not care who you are or what you look like; she loves you the same as the person next to you. She is also not afraid to BRING IT if need be. Mrs. Hendricks helped me discover that I love taking pictures and creating things. She has helped me edit them and make them look better than they did. I used to just take random pictures, and now they look better. Mrs. Hendricks makes me feel special. I can go to her with any problem that I have, and she makes me feel that my individual talent that I have is worth something – and not just to me. She values me.”

Common Threads Farm, community partner: “Common Threads has been a leader in teaching our kids the joys of growing and eating their very own food. I have seen students become more adventurous, more respectful of others opinions, and able to engage in other disciplines that otherwise they were unwilling or somehow unable to before (I am thinking of science or art). And, most importantly, they are becoming more healthful eaters. In this way Common Threads most explicitly supports The Bellingham Promise by their interest in helping ‘the whole child.'”


Outstanding Leadership Award

Michelle Kuss-Cybula, principal, Sehome High School

Principal Michelle Kuss-Cybula and Superintendent Greg Baker
Principal Michelle Kuss-Cybula and Superintendent Greg Baker

Michelle Kuss-Cybula is a confident, ambitious and compassionate leader. She works hard to bring out the best in staff and students. She is often seen out in hallways greeting students,  spending time in classrooms or helping students with their learning. Michelle makes it a priority to ensure that each student is cared for, challenged academically and known by name. Staff say that Michelle has cultivated a school culture that strives for excellence and cares for one another. She inspires staff and students to embrace and celebrate Mariner pride. Opening a new school is no small task, but Michelle rose to the challenge and made it seem effortless. Staff said: “It has been amazing to see her pay close attention to both tasks and at the same time continue to develop strong relationships.” With the community, she interacts in a positive and solution-focused way – often using humor to work through challenging situations. Regardless of the situation, Michelle represents the Mariners with professionalism and pride. Michelle will be greatly missed as she moves on to her next adventure as superintendent of Cle Elem-Roslyn School District.

The district Promise Awards Advisory Group, comprised of staff and community members reviewed and scored the nominations and selected the 2019 Promise Award districtwide recipients. The Outstanding Leadership Award nominations are reviewed separately by leadership colleagues. Note: The One Schoolhouse Award and Reaching Higher Award will be announced later this year.