2023 SDCOE Awards

Posted on 02/15/2023

Posted on behalf of the San Diego County Office of Education:


The San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) recently surprised three school counselors at their campuses to let them know they were chosen for the 2023 San Diego County Counselor of the Year award. 

This year’s honorees include:

  • Heidi Saupe from Monte Vista Elementary in Vista Unified School District was awarded the elementary award. 
  • Karena Haro-Esparza from Feaster Charter School in the Chula Vista Union School District was awarded the middle school award. 
  • Chris Toomey from San Pasqual Academy in Escondido was named High School Counselor of the Year. 

“As we continue to focus on mental health, we are reminded once again of the vital role school counselors play in ensuring the well-being of our students,” said San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Gothold. “I congratulate this year’s honorees, who exemplify the dedication and professionalism of all the counselors supporting students, schools, and families throughout San Diego County.” 

The School Counselor of the Year awards are sponsored by North Island Credit Union. Each honoree was awarded a $500 check from the credit union. The counselors will be highlighted and recognized during an in-person event in May.

In addition, four special awards in school counseling leadership – Advocate of the Year, Administrator of the Year, Community-Based Organization of the Year, and Lifetime Achievement – were announced this week.

  • Greg Mizel, Associate Superintendent, Student Support Services, Poway Unified School District, received the Administrator of the Year.
  • Dr. Lonnie Rowell, retired professor from the University of San Diego, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement award. 
  • Lezya Weglarz, a district counselor on special assignment for San Marcos Unified School District, was presented the School Counselor Advocate of the Year award. 
  • The San Marcos Promise was given the Community Based Organization of the Year award. 

“North Island Credit Union is honored to partner with the San Diego County Office of Education in recognizing elementary, middle, and high school counselors for the essential role they play in our students’ health, well-being, and success,” said North Island Credit Union President/CEO Steve O’Connell. “We congratulate the 2023 Counselor of the Year honorees for their hard work and dedication to their students and all of their contributions to their school communities.”

About The Honorees

Heidi Saupe is a counselor at Monte Vista Elementary School in Vista Unified School District. Her superintendent of schools, Dr. Matthew J. Doyle, says, “Mrs. Saupe is first and foremost a dedicated counselor. She prides herself on her ability to work side by side with educators to design individual, small- and large-group lessons that engage students in activities and discussions to strengthen their behavioral and social and emotional capacity.”

Karena Haro-Esparza has been with Feaster Charter School for the last four years as a school counselor and has served as the lead counselor for the last two years. “Karena is the kind of counselor that goes above and beyond what is expected of her to connect the students and do her job as effectively as possible,” said her nominator, Feaster Charter School Principal Jimmy Gordilllo. “Oftentimes, I see her working after school to seek new ways to reach out to students and families and provide the best support possible.” 

Chris Toomey is a counselor for the San Diego County Office of Education’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools at San Pasqual Academy. His nominator, Bruce Petersen, says, “Chris is a highly skilled counselor with the ability to immediately connect with students. Working for many years in Juvenile Court and Community Schools, Chris understands the trauma and adverse conditions many of our students have experienced.”

Greg Mizel, assistant superintendent at Poway Unified School District, has overseen school counselors in the district and has invested time and money into professional growth, hiring more school counselors at all levels, adding social workers to middle and high school sites, and putting the work of school counselors in front of the board and all stakeholders. Fran Hjalmarson, school counselor at Los Penasquitos, and 2022 Elementary School Counselor of the Year, writes, “Greg has been a strong advocate for our district’s school counseling program. He has promoted and advocated for school counseling and mental health from day one since accepting the position as the associate superintendent for Student Support Services.”

Leyza Weglarz has been a counselor since 2018, working in San Marcos Unified School District. She is currently a counselor on special assignment, coordinating the districtwide Multi-Tiered System of Support rollout and alignment as well as supporting the districtwide school climate initiatives. “Lezya is a pillar of strength, support, and knowledge for our school counselors! She is incredibly informed, helpful, and systems orientated,” said her principal at San Marcos High School, Adam Dawson. "She leads with grace and love.”

Dr. Lonnie Rowell has been an educator for more than 50 years. He is a retired professor at the University of San Diego, where he directed the counseling program and the school counseling emphasis. The collaborative action research model he created for school counseling has been widely cited in school counseling literature. Dr. Rowell is a co-founder of the Action Research Network of the Americas and was program chair for the Action Research Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association from 2012 to 2014. He was founding chair of the research network’s Coordinating Group from 2013 to 2015 and served as coordinator of knowledge mobilization from 2015 to 2017. Dr. Rowell has received numerous awards, including the Eduardo Flores Leadership Award from the Action Research Network of the Americas, the H.B. McDaniel Foundation Individual Award for Outstanding Contributions to the field of Counseling, and the Advocate of the Year award from the California Association of School Counselors.

The San Marcos Promise has supported all schools in the San Marcos Unified School District for almost 10 years, especially those at the secondary level. The group’s executive director and programs coordinator are former district school counselors who have great relationships and partnerships with school site employees. Because of their counseling background, they are acutely aware of the academic, social, college, and career needs of students. The group created Future Centers onsite at the three district high schools to assist with college and career readiness support. These Future Centers empower students to graduate college and be career-ready with foundational job skills, self-confidence, and a clearer idea about their career path.

All recipients will be recognized at our second annual Honoring Excellence in School Counseling Leadership event on May 12. 

Find information about school counseling and upcoming events at www.sdcoe.net/schoolcounselors.