By Amy Orr | LB Indy
Support and encouragement are powerful factors in student success. Young lives can be transformed by positive people, like a kind nurse who treats playground injuries with a smile, or a homeroom teacher who makes history come to life in the classroom. Each year, Laguna Beach Unified School District recognizes employee excellence with district-wide awards.
This year, LBUSD named Steve Sogo as the district’s Teacher of the Year and Nikki Romano as the district’s Classified Employee of the Year. Both individuals were acknowledged at the May 28 school board meeting.
Sogo initially taught chemistry at Laguna Beach High School from 1989 to 1992 and then returned to LBHS in 2001. He now teaches chemistry and advanced chemistry research (ACR) at the high school.
“Scientific inquiry is the art of asking questions,” Sogo said. “I greatly value student questions, particularly those that begin, ‘What would happen if…’”
Sogo said taking tests does not make one a good scientist. Rather than putting his focus on exams, he seeks to push the boundaries of high school instruction and offer opportunities rarely found on a high school campus. He believes teenagers should have a chance to address real-world problems and conduct true, cutting edge research. In fact, his goal is to have LBHS student research published in scientific journals.
One of Sogo’s former students, Samantha Piszkiewicz, recently completed her PhD in chemistry at the University of North Carolina and is now a postdoctoral associate in the Chemistry Department at Yale.
“I have based how I train undergraduates and high school students in lab on how Mr. Sogo trained us in ACR,” Piszkiewicz said. “I push my trainees to think and work as independently as possible, just as Mr. Sogo pushed us, to give them a sense of ownership over their science.”
In 2008, Sogo was given the Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence. In 2013, he won the Frey Scientific Award for Excellence in Inquiry-Based Science Teaching, and in 2017 he received the PASCO STEM Educator Award. Sogo said he is gratified and honored to be chosen by the district and his peers as the Teacher of the Year, and he hopes he can live up to all that the award means.
Nikki Romano works with much younger students; however, she also aims to ignite and inspire. As the Library Media Specialist at Top of the World Elementary, Romano works to instill a passion for reading in children.
Dyslexia kept Romano from enjoying books as a child; she said she did not learn the beauty and power of words until her teenage years. She wants TOW students to make this important discovery much sooner than she did.
“Books allow kids to travel the world and meet characters that they will always remember,” Romano said. “I want students to read stories and go on adventures.”
Romano started the Scholastic Reading Counts program at TOW, and she enthusiastically promotes grade level reading goals. Four times a year, she offers youngsters awards based on their reading points. At the end of the year assembly, she recognizes all students who have read one million words or more. This year, 36 youngsters achieved the one million mark, and one student read five million words (which equates to 107 books).
Although Romano said she prefers hiding in a library to being acknowledged in a big group, she’s pleased by the district award. However, Romano said she would do what she does even if no one ever noticed.
“I just want to help kids find the joy in reading,” she said.