Rotary Club honors Teachers of the Year

2023 MBUSD Teachers of the Year. Photo courtesy the Manhattan Beach Rotary Club

by Hibah Samad

The Manhattan Beach Rotary meeting on Monday was dedicated to Manhattan Beach Unified and American Martyr’s educators. For the past 73 years, Manhattan Beach Rotary has honored Teachers of the Year with a special awards ceremony. 

Rotary Club president Gerry Morton expressed the club’s long-standing commitment to acknowledging and celebrating the exceptional educators in the community through the annual Teacher of the Year Awards.

 “Since its inception in 1950, the Rotary Club of Manhattan Beach has steadfastly recognized the invaluable contributions of our educators,” said Morton.

The MBUSD teachers honored at the Rotary ceremony were selected by the MBUSD Teacher of the Year Selection Committee, which interviews and observes the nominees from each school site. After a rigorous selection process, the District identifies one teacher as the District Teacher of the Year who moves on to the Los Angeles County Office of Education Teachers of the Year competition. During the event, administrators from Mira Costa, Manhattan Beach Middle School (MBMS), Grand View Elementary, Meadows Elementary, Pacific Elementary, Pennekamp Elementary, Robinson Elementary, and Manhattan Beach Preschool made the case why the Teacher of the Year from their school site was most deserving of this prestigious honor. 

“These awards honor the outstanding achievements of our dedicated teachers and serve as a testament to the Rotary Club’s unwavering belief in the power of education to transform lives and help shape the future of Manhattan Beach,” said Morton. 

The educators were presented with an award and a check from the Rotary. The distinguished teachers celebrated this year from MBUSD are Mira Costa High School’s Lareina Rodriguez, Manhattan Beach Middle School’s Niel Leonard, Pennekamp Elementary’s Patti Ackerman, Meadows Elementary’s Jennifer Mascari, Grand View Elementary’s Devin Meyer, Pacific Elementary’s Morgan Henderson, Robinson Elementary’s Erica Yerke, and Manhattan Beach Preschool’s Iltze Guerra. 

Teachers Amy Plank and Dolores Usandizaga from American Martyr’s were awarded.

“These teachers genuinely embody our Rotary motto of ‘Service Above Self,’ said Morton.

MBMS Teacher of the Year Niel Leonard received a double honor. He was also chosen as the 2023 District Teacher of the Year by MBUSD. Superintendent Dr. John Bowes commended Leonard. 

“When the committee stepped into Mr. Leonard’s class, they were impressed with the constant, engaging and collaborative learning environment he creates,” said Bowes.

Leonard expressed gratitude for the recognition. 

“The Rotary Club is such an amazing organization,” he said. “Being recognized by their group made me feel humbled and grateful. I am honored to receive the recognition and hope to be a part of the Rotary Club in the future due to my interactions with its incredible members.” 

Leonard has taught science at MBMS for over six years and wears multiple hats on campus. He leads MBMS’s Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) committee and finds joy in being a positive figure for his students. Notably, he spearheaded the establishment of a school garden this year and already secured a grant for the program.  His future plans involve teaching students about gardening and the value of understanding food origins. Niel sponsors two clubs on campus and he coaches three sports, two of which have maintained an undefeated record this year.

“One of my favorite activities is to surf,” Leonard said. “When I am out surfing and see my current or previous students in the water surfing and cheering each other on, I know I have the best job in the world.” 

Beyond his contributions to education, Leonard is also a very active member of the community. He helps to raise thousands of dollars for Pancreatic Cancer each year in the annual MB Tour de Pier.  

MBMS Principal Jennifer Huynh described Leonard as a kind, dedicated, and passionate teacher. 

“Each day, he comes to work with a beaming smile on his face, ready to teach his students about all things related to science,” she said. “Niel cultivates a climate of care on and off campus. He facilitates relatable classroom discussions about human differences and how that actually makes us stronger. He allocates extra time and cares for those students who need it.” 

Over a month ago, MBMS administrators and district leadership surprised Leonard in his classroom with the big title. 

“I love working at MBMS for a myriad of reasons: excellent parental connections, incredibly bright students, full administration support, and the backing of MBEF and our amazing PTA,” he said. “Every day I am in awe of how much this community is capable of and what we will do in the future.  I go home every day inspired and filled with a desire to give my all to the school and community.” 

 “You also inspire us all,” Bowes said. “Your commitment to our students to achieve their highest potential and educate the next generations of change-makers embodies what it means to be an educator.” ER 


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