In front of a sold-out crowd of enthusiastic supporters, the Highline Schools Foundation presented the 2023 Gold Star Awards Wednesday night at the Gold Star Bash, held at the Burien Community Center.

Eight awards were presented, honoring the outstanding work and deep commitment of teachers, staff, volunteers, and others throughout Highline Public Schools.

“These individuals live out the district’s commitment to know every student by name, strength and need,” organizers said.

And the 2023 Gold Star Award Winners are…

  • Outstanding Administrator – Jessica Ma, Principal – Highline Virtual Elementary
  • Outstanding Classified Staff – Brandon Kitts, Bus Driver – Transportation (Bow Lake Elementary)
  • Outstanding Professional Staff – Anne Marie Littleton, Social Worker – New Start and CHOICE Academy
  • Outstanding Volunteer – Patricia Palomino, Parent Volunteer/PTA – Highline Public Schools Outstanding Alumnus – Maya Mendoza-Exstrom, Class of 1999 – Highline High School
  • Highline Schools Foundation Special Recognition Award – Lolita O’Donnell, Director of Family & Community Partnerships – Student Support & Family Engagement
  • Outstanding Rookie Teacher – Gared Contawe, Music Teacher – Bow Lake Elementary
  • Outstanding Teacher – Beverly Pecoraro, Humanities Teacher – Maritime High School

This year, Highline Schools Foundation received 85 nominations for 65 individuals – including many who were nominated by multiple people – representing 30 programs, schools, and departments throughout Highline Public Schools. 

More about the 2022 Gold Star Award Winners:

Outstanding Administrator
Jessica Ma, Principal

Highline Virtual Elementary

Jessica Ma is the founding principal of Highline Virtual Elementary, and has worked hard to build a strong foundation for this new model of learning. Jessica has been a part of Highline Public Schools for more than 20 years, most recently serving as assistant principal at Madrona Elementary for five years. Before that, Jessica was a teacher and interventionist at Midway Elementary where she supported the integration of a Blended Learning model with Multi-Tiered System of Supports. Receiving a record seven nominations in the category, Jessica’s nominators shared:

“Jessica is an amazing leader of color that makes me feel valued and heard as a teacher of color. She has created a cohesive community of teachers where we all feel supported and inspired to collaborate to build a school that goes above and beyond the Highline Promise.

“Jessica creates a positive, innovative and equitable culture here at Highline Virtual Elementary School that motivates our staff and students to excel.” “This is the second year in a row for Jessica to be nominated for this award, in different schools. Because she genuinely cares for all her staff, they care about her in return. She is loved.”

Outstanding Classified Staff
Brandon Kitts, Bus Driver
Transportation, Bow Lake Elementary

Brandon is a bus driver, route #118 for Bow Lake Elementary. Brandon understands that he is the first and last person that a student will encounter in their school day. Brandon is committed to knowing his students by name, strength and need. He greets his students with a smile and warm hello, and he doesn’t hesitate to check-in with them. His nominator shared:

“When I asked the students about Brandon, one of the students’ responses was, “I feel safe when he’s my bus driver. He’s funny!” (Carol, gr. 5). When students are having a problem on the bus, he helps solve them right away using calming and restorative strategies.

“At the beginning of the year, a newcomer refugee student was terrified of riding the bus. She was crying every day and was unsure about how the bus worked. Mr. Brandon asked the student’s teacher for more information about her. He discovered that she spoke Dari. He went home and used Google translate to learn phrases to speak to her in Dari to help her feel safe. When her kindergarten brother started school, Mr. Brandon greeted him right away in Dari which made him smile. Mr. Brandon made a huge impact on the beginning of their educational experience in the United States.”

Outstanding Professional Staff
Anne Marie Littleton, Social Worker
New Start High School and CHOICE Academy

Anne Marie is a Social Worker, serving the students of New Start High School and CHOICE Academy. She works tirelessly to ensure that students have access to housing, food, mental health services, and students know they are valued members of their school community. Her nominator shares:

“Students feel her compassion and they trust her. We have several students who have connected with Anne Marie, and she is their go-to adult. She is available to discuss their needs with them and problem solve with them. She is not one who tells them what they should do, but she works with them to explore what they feel will work for them. She is such a valuable asset to New Start. I really don’t know what we’d do without her. She is ALWAYS upbeat and smiling, even on her off days. She is just special.”

Outstanding Volunteer
Patricia Palomino, Parent Volunteer/PTA
Highline Public Schools

Patricia is a volunteer in schools as well as a community leader, advocating for all students and families. Her nominators shared:

“Patricia has been very involved in her boys’ education since her now-freshman started at Gregory Heights Elementary in 2012. She has been involved with Latino parents, has motivated them to get parents involved in the hablemos meetings and PTA. She has also been involved with our community partner Para los Ninos’ parent leadership. During the pandemic, she volunteered with Alimentando El Pueblo, connecting families with resources. She has also been advocating for not only her student with an IEP but has also connected other Latino parents of students with special needs. She has been very instrumental in supporting her students, staff, and Latino communities in Highline Schools. Patricia is that parent who shows up to an event and is always willing to help in whatever area is needed. She asks lots of questions and puts herself in other parent’s shoes. She sees opportunities to share with parents, staff , and community on some of the areas we can grow to support our students.”

Outstanding Alumnus
Maya Mendoza-Exstrom, Seattle Sounders FC
Highline High School, Class of 1999

A proud product of Highline Public Schools, Maya graduated from Highline High School in 1999, then received her Bachelors degree from University of Puget Sound, and her JD from University of Washington School of Law. After working as an attorney in private practice, she joined the Seattle Sounders FC, where she was General Counsel, Senior Vice President of Legal and External Affairs, and was named Chief Operating Officer in January 2022. Maya is a devoted volunteer, serving as a member of the Board of Trustees for the RAVE Foundation, the charitable arm of the Seattle Sounders, a member of the Seattle Parks Foundation’s Board of Directors, a member of the Wing Luke Museum’s Board of Trustees, and served as a Trustee for the Highline Schools Foundation from 2007 – 2017.

With her extensive background and experience as a player, coach, coaching director, referee and now parent in Washington Youth Soccer, Maya oversees soccer camps, clinics and youth club development activities. She has been a key stakeholder for all civic matters related to the Sounders, including Seattle’s candidacy to become an official host city for the FIFA World Cup 2026, managing the Sounder’s public benefits, and working with the various jurisdictions on feasibility and development of soccer-specific investments around the region. Within Highline, she advocated with the RAVE Foundation to build three mini-pitches at Beverly Park Elementary, Seahurst Elementary, and Valley View Early Learning Center.

Highline Schools Foundation Special Recognition Award
Lolita O’Donnell, Director of Family & Community Partnerships
Student Support & Family Engagement

New this year, the Foundation created the Special Recognition Award to acknowledge someone who has been not only an incredible leader and team member in Highline Public Schools, but a generous friend and partner to the Highline Schools Foundation. Fred Swanson, Executive Director of Highline Schools Foundation shared:

“Lita is such an incredible resource to Highline Public Schools and to the Foundation. Her deep connections to and experience with Highline staff and families helps to ensure that our work is grounded in service to the many communities that make up Highline.  Whether helping organize a chili cookoff to support our work, lending us dishes for an event, or simply talking through ways we can do better, Lita is a trusted friend. We are so grateful to be in community together!”

Outstanding Rookie Teacher
Gared Contawe, Music Teacher
Bow Lake Elementary

Gared Contawe is the Music Teacher at Bow Lake Elementary. As a first year teacher, Gared has a veteran understanding of the importance of performance both for students and their families. His nominator shared:

“Gared loves his content and takes deep pride in his work. From Kinder music lessons to 5th grade band, Gared is able to connect and teach all students. He has a natural ability to build relationships with students and design lessons that are engaging for each age group. Bow Lake serves students that qualify for ILC (intensive learning center) and DHH (deaf and hard of hearing) programs. Gared has been working really hard to find ways for every student to engage in the content. He has been a lead learner in many of the Professional Developments our inclusion specialist has hosted. He has redesigned his lessons for all students, with individual student needs in mind. He’s learned more about how DHH students can engage with music via touch and visuals. In addition to inclusion, Gared calls out the importance for students to see themselves in music. One way that he does this is spotlighting underrepresented musicians every week. He plays videos of artists, asks students to share artists that they like and listen to at home, and allows space for students to explore music genres from around the world.”

Outstanding Teacher
Beverly Pecoraro, Humanities Teacher
Maritime High School

Beverly is the Humanities teacher at Maritime High School, and has been an educator in Highline since 2015. Beverly was nominated by a student at Maritime, who shared with us:

“Ms. Bev makes her classroom feel like a safe place to go whenever you need. It’s also a place where we can focus and learn. She teaches in a way that makes me want to go to school and connects it to real life. She makes sure everyone gets the support they need. Makes sure lessons are available for extra work or extra support. She challenges me in ways that will help me in the future, even if I don’t know it yet. Ms. Bev has made an impact on my learning and life in the first 5 months of being my teacher. She makes sure everyone feels like they can go to her with anything and she’ll be there for anyone. She deserves this award because she is the kindest, most hard-working teacher that I’ve had.”

Gold Star Fundraising Breakfast will be April 21

In addition to the Gold Star Bash, the Gold Star Winners will be celebrated at the 2023 Gold Star Fundraising Breakfast, on Thursday, April 21, 2023 at Cedarbrook Lodge in SeaTac.

More information can be found on the Foundation’s website at