Dozens of vehicles showed up to the PRJUSD office in support

On Friday, the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District held a noontime appreciation parade for five district awardees, and dozens of decorated vehicles rode through the parking lot of the district office in a ruckus of celebration.

Music blasted, with supporters circling the parking lot with cheers and signage celebrating the employees for about 30 warm afternoon minutes.

Anthony Overton, Maggie Tatman, Mario Holland, Erika Tidwell, and Justin Pickard received the physically distanced congratulations.

2020 PRJUSD Teacher Appreciation Parade 52
PRJUSD Awardees from left are, Virginia Peterson principal Maggie Tatman, school psychologist Mario Holland, Lewis Middle School secretary Erika Tidwell, Paso Robles High School teacher Justin Pickard, and PRHS principal Anthony Overton. Photo by Nicholas Mattson

Teacher of the Year

Justin Pickard, Paso Robles High School

PRJUSD Bio: Justin Pickard has been leading and taking the PRHS Welding programs to new heights for the last decade. Under his direction, students have won countless local, state, and national competitions. Justin is continuously committed to the growth of the program. He promotes the trades through numerous community events engaging his students in philanthropic opportunities. Justin not only teaches our Bearcats the job skills for success beyond high school but truly instills the character traits we hope to see in all of our Bearcats. Written grants for over 50,000 for our welding program. He is smart, hardworking, and a role model for kids.

“SkillsUSA and FFA — competition welding in general — is a big part of my professional life,” Pickard said. “It also rolls into a lot of my personal life as well.”

Pickard’s devotion to the student welding program at PRHS is a year-round commitment to students.

“When we start as early as November, sometimes October, we are preparing for competitions,” Pickard said, “and to see that progression in students from month-to-month and year-to-year, it is one of the most rewarding things I can do.”

Before the closures due to COVID-19, the SkillsUSA team at PRHS was on a roll. In the Region 2 Conference, 104 students won 74 medals and were poised to advance to the state competition in April. That all changed.

“We made it through the regional competition for SkillsUSA in February and felt really good,” Pickard said. “We had a lot of kids that came back with gold or silver medals.”

In mid-March, schools shut down alongside a majority of businesses and events.

“At the time of the closure it was a rapid-fire of everything shutting down, and when [SkillsUSA] nationals said we are done this year, it was a real eye-opener,” Pickard said. “To have to tell those really driven students that there was nothing we could do, it was a really hard message to send out.”

The PRHS welding program provides a professional pathway for students through the Career Technical Education program, and for many of the students, it is more than a high school elective.

“It is a passion what I do, and a passion what those kids do,” Pickard said. “Whenever anyone signs up to be a competitive welder, we have a discussion that we are there for the purpose of being the best. It doesn’t have to be said every time, because they want to be the best, get a medal, and move on in the competition.”

Pickard said there was a lot of interest from students to enter the Mid-State Fair competition, with 70 students attending the information meeting in October.

“We could have potentially had 70 projects at the Mid-State Fair this year, showcasing what these students have learned in the program,” Pickard said.

Prior to the closure, Pickard said, the program was seeing a lot of success, with dual enrollment with Cuesta College, the first ag mechanics program to get A through G fine art credit for the college-bound students.

“This closure has opened my mind to things we could always do better,” Pickard said. “The last couple weeks have been brainstorming ways to look at our current situation, how can we improve when we do go back [to school]. It was a really good stopping point to take a look at that. I’m trying to turn this negative into a positive, so when we do go back to school the students yet again get the best education out of the welding program at Paso Robles High School.”

The impact on high school seniors was sudden and disorienting as the spring semester crashed into COVID-19. For welding students, there was a financial investment that will be more difficult to recover than in years past. Pickard said that some of the seniors who purchased metal would enroll in the Cuesta College course he teaches, an opportunity for those seniors to recover some of what was lost.

Classified Employee of the Year

Erika Tidwell, Daniel Lewis Middle School Secretary

PRJUSD Bio: Erika is a quiet, humble, calm leader in our office. She constantly has a smile on her face and goes the extra mile to support teachers, students, parents, and staff alike. She is a wonderful resource in solving problems and maintaining fluid systems with a focus on the maintenance of a healthy and safe environment for kids and high levels of customer service. Erika sometimes goes unnoticed as she takes care of so many small and large problems on campus with no expectation for attention or recognition. Erika Tidwell is amazing, and our school would not be the same without her. We are very fortunate and grateful to have her a part of our staff.

“[The award] meant the world to me,” Tidwell said. “It was amazing to be recognized by all my coworkers and peers and everyone at the district — for doing my job.”

As the recipient of a highly visible award, Tidwell said she felt honored, but that it was all in a day’s work.

“I don’t feel like I’m going over and beyond, but obviously they felt I am able to do that and more,” Tidwell said. “I was really grateful to get it for my site.”

As a primary manager for Lewis Middle School, Tidwell was challenged to pivot and provide support for the LMS student population as it adjusted to online learning.

“I feel like we have done an amazing job,” Tidwell said. “Administrators and staff have been extremely supportive in how to help us and guide us in taking steps, what we can do, how to reach kids, and keep us in communication.”

Tidwell said the closure of the schools made her job more challenging, as was a common refrain from those who made the sudden pivot to distance education.

“I see kids that have different needs or meeting counselors or kids needing that extra support in different areas,” Tidwell said, “being able to connect with them, guide them, that has changed.”

Administrator of the Year

Maggie Tatman, Virginia Peterson Elementary Principal

PRJUSD Bio: Every Panda knows and loves Ms. Maggie. She is a strong, visible leader who impacts the lives of students. Maggie listens to her staff, leads, and cares for us. Maggie is a wonderful principal for our Pandas. She has worked in our district for over 20 years as a teacher, guidance specialist and principal. She is the heart and soul of the school and leads with kindness and innovation.

“It has been a really special year,” Tatman said. “It has definitely been a year of adventure and fun in a lot of ways. Our site has an amazing culture and community of students and families, and teachers that work together.”

As a first-year principal, there were expected ups and downs in getting through a rookie season, but nothing in the handbook had COVID-19 directions. Tatman said her special family of students, teachers, and parents made it all happen.

“We have really risen to the occasion amidst all the chaos,” Tatman said. “In some ways, it has unified us even more. Our families have gone above and beyond to make our teachers feel special this week — and to make me feel special and very honored.”

Student Services Employee of the Year

Mario Holland (Psychologist)

PRJUSD Bio: Mario is an amazing psychologist. He is literally hands-on all the time. He has developed relationships with the students and is instrumental not just for testing but correcting behavior. He finds joy in working with the students. He has a kind heart but is not afraid of having the tough talks. He has such care for his clients. He came to the rescue to a field trip with one of my students. His intervention made a difference with not just that student but the students who were also on the field trip. He follows up and makes plans for the students he works with.

“It is difficult,” Holland said of the closure. “I really want to be there for the students, and doing the best I can. Calling them, making Google Meets … but I can’t wait for this to all blow over.”

Holland’s usual course of action would be to tour his sites — Pat Butler and Georgia Brown — and check on his students.

“I don’t like being in my office,” Holland said. “I am always in the classrooms, checking in on students on my workload.”

Taking school psychology virtual has been challenging.

“It is hard to keep their attention for five minutes,” Holland said. “They are home with distractions.”

From at-home distractions to overcoming concerns, uncertainty and fear, the job of a psychologist is more challenging and more necessary during a pandemic.

“The way the pandemic is portrayed, the kids are afraid they will get sick or contract a virus, and the family would get sick,” Holland said. “What we did as a district is tackle that and show them coping strategies, ask questions, and they can always reach us — the mental health therapists, psychologists, and teachers.”

With dozens of specific students on his caseload, he has his hands full, but he said he keeps his eye on the entire population of students.

“How I see it, is that I have 600 students that I see,” Holland said. “From general ed to special education.”

Rookie of the Year

Anthony Overton, Paso Robles High School Principal

This is Anthony Overton’s first full year as a principal, he taught in our district for years. He was a terrific teacher, activities director and assistant principal. Anthony has been doing a wonderful job clearly communicating with the staff, juggling many responsibilities at PRHS. Anthony has made use of technologies our district has adopted to ensure all teachers access weekly communications (created a google classroom to share docs with us). It has been an incredible year at our site with unprecedented upheaval at the district, Anthony has kept a steady hand at the wheel and is doing an excellent job keeping our staff directed at our core values. He is an advocate for students, staff, and the Paso Robles community. We look forward to many, many years of his leadership.

There is nothing like a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and national lockdown to welcome a rookie high school principal to the fold.

“As a first-year principal, my first year has been full of lots of crazy things, and it is fitting it would end on some other crazy note,” Overton jested.

Halfway through his first year, coming back from an otherwise normal winter break, Overton was tasked to lead his school through an unprecedented closure during an already tumultuous year.

“It was a surprise, but it wasn’t,” Overton said about the closure. “Living on the Central Coast and the number of cases we had makes it hard to see the global pandemic in general.”

One of the most challenging parts of the school closure for Overton was the communication.

“We are so accustomed to seeing each other,” Overton said. “In public education, we are people-people. We got into this to work with kids and make an impact on lives. None of us imagined that impact was going to be done remotely or through video camera.”

As the weather warms and the state takes steps toward recovery, attention has been directed to the 2020 graduating class, with the big question of what that will look like.

“At this point, our community has a lot of hope of being able to have that celebration with friends and family,” Overton said, “and we have created a plan. We are still holding out for something that resembles a traditional graduation. But we know, the unknown is out there, and we are gearing up to provide a celebration no matter what happens.”

Unanswered questions are lingering around graduation, and traditional graduation may not be possible for 2020, the year of COVID-19.

“The message to our seniors is that we are here for them,” Overton said. “We are trying to do the best by everybody and honor what they have done. I look forward to seeing them one last time, and see them off into their future.”