Optimist Club honors dedicated and innovative Malibu teachers and three fourth-grade orators

Ten students competed in the Final Round (from left to right): Lyle Sokoloff (Webster), Hazel Rivers (OLM), Jack Marderosian (OLM), Caroline Felton (OLM), Tulee Earnest (Webster), Eli Becker (MES), Loe Gregory (MES), Naomi Jackson (Webster), Mavin Polatin (MES) and Raphael Armony (MES).

Excellence in Education awards go to  five Malibu teachers’ for their instruction and support of pupils

By Barbara Burke

Special to The Malibu Times

As echoes of singing “School’s out for Summer” still ring in locals’ ears, there is yet more to celebrate in Malibu’sacademic landscape. The Malibu Optimists Club hosted two signature events celebrating brilliant, innovative andeffective teachers in our local schools and Kids Speak Out!, an annual fourth-graders’ writing and oratory skills competition challenging young scholars to write about and publicly speak about the topic “Why Choose Optimism?”

On May 23, the Malibu Optimists presented the 2024 Ronald E. Merriman Excellence in Education Award to five very deserving teachers in Malibu.

“Every year, the Optimists reach out to the principals at each of the five schools in Malibu, asking them to nominate an educator from their school who has demonstrated that they are a ‘special friend of youth,’ and who exhibits an exemplary dedication to serving youth and a passion for helping students reach their full potential.” Excellence in Education Award Program Chair Mona Kyle explained. “We traditionally honor the recipients and their families at one of our regular Thursday breakfast meetings in the Hahn Fireside Room on the Pepperdine campus, recognizing their leadership with a plaque and gift certificate that is very generously donated by Geoffrey’s Restaurant.”

This year, the emcee for the award ceremony was Stacy Rouse, who has been the sole Malibu representative on the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District Board since December 2022. 

This year’s award recipients include Dee Dee Cooper, who previously received the Excellence in Education Award while teaching at Point Dume Marine Science School, now called Malibu Elementary School. Cooper currently teaches first grade at Webster Elementary. She spends a great deal of time planning relevant and engaging curriculum for her students, cares deeply about each child’s well-being, and works diligently to support their emotional growth and self-confidence. Cooper has also served on both the Site Leadership Team and School Site Council. 

The second teacher recognized was Joelin Ferguson, who has been teaching for 24 years. She began teaching at Point Dume Marine Science in 2004 as a second-grade teacher, but is currently teaching third grade at MES. 

“Joelin contributes to the academic success of her students by providing the very best learning activities every minute of every school day, and was recently re-elected by her peers to be the Lead Teacher to head the School Leadership Team,” Kyle stated. 

Ahmad Diba was the third recipient of the award.

“After four decades successfully running aerospace companies as a mechanical engineer, Ahmad Diba started teaching French at Our Lady of Malibu School, and has expanded his repertoire to include teaching advanced math, acting as the STAR testing coordinator, maker of the OLMmaster schedule, and after-school tutor extraordinaire,” Kyle noted.

The fourth awardee, Nahla Seikali, is a graduate of UC Berkeley who came to teach at Malibu Middle and Malibu High Schools from Northern California in 2014. She previously taught seventh-grade Algebra I, and AP Calculus AB, in addition to her current courses of Geometry, Precalculus/Calculus A, and AP Calculus BC. Seikali was recognized by the Parent Teacher Students Association with an Honorary Service Award in 2018 and again in 2022, and she was also recognized with the Educator Spotlight Award in 2018.

The fifth recipient, Mike Mulligan, could not attend the ceremony because he was supervising the MMS eighth-grade field trip to Yosemite, but he caught up with the Optimists at their next event. Mulligan started teaching at MMS/MHS in 1991. He served on the district curriculum writing team for physical education and helped develop the independent study physical education requirements. He was also the physical education department chair for several years.

“Mike started the water polo and swim teams in 1992 and the girls’ water polo team in 1996,” Kyle noted.

The five teachers from five Malibu schools help Malibu’s children excel academically and socially and who help toshape our community’s future leaders, and Malibu is the better for it.

Kids Speak Out!

“Kids Speak Out!” That’s the pre-oratorical program for all fourth-grade students in the Malibu schools sponsored by the Optimists Club.

“This program provides young people with an opportunity to improve communication skills, gain experience inspeaking to an audience and develop self-confidence,” Kyle explained. “The program includes an introduction to the Optimist Creed and public speaking workshops conducted by Heather Anderson at all three elementary schools. The topic for this year was, ‘WhyChoose Optimism.’”

Preliminary rounds of competition were held at each school on May 29 and 30, and the field of speakers was narrowed down from 60 to 10 students who advanced to the final round of competition, which was held in Pepperdine’s Raitt Recital Hall on June 5.

The 10 students who competed in the final round were Lyle Sokoloff (Webster), Hazel Rivers (Our Lady of Malibu), Jack Marderosian (OLM), Caroline Felton (OLM), Tulee Earnest (Webster), Eli Becker (MES), Loe Gregory (MES), Naomi Jackson (Webster), Mavin Polatin (MES) and Raphael Armony (MES).

Contestants were evaluated for their spirit, which included their enthusiasm, positive attitude, courage, and energy. The content of their speech and whether they stuck to the topic, provided accurate information, had a theme to their work and arrived at logical conclusions were also considered. The contestants’ creativity — whether their piece displayed originality, imagination, resourcefulness and had a vision — also was considered.

Finally, judges evaluated the contestants’ delivery and presentation of their speeches, which included assessing whether the students enunciated and pronounced their words, utilized tempo and rhythm, and emphasized key elements of their message, as well as whether they connected with the audience and retained the interest of those who listened to their presentations.

The top three scorers were Eli Becker, who placed first, Loe Gregory, who placed second and Tulee Earnest, who placed third. Each student received a plaque and gift cards provided by Toy Crazy and Malibu Village Books.

Eli’s essay, entitled, “Why Choose Optimism,” is inspiring and engaging, beginning with the query, “Have you ever been afraid to do something scary?” It continues, “Well after you hear this, you will be less scared.”

Then, Eli takes the listener on an experience, stating, “On July 1, 2023, I told myself I couldn’t go to the Cayucos shipwreck because the tide was high and the water was deep, but my dad encouraged me to swim to the shipwreck and get on it anyway. Dad always reminded me to swim, that being brave means doing something even when you’re scared to do it. Because I decided to be optimistic, it allowed me to be brave and swim to the shipwreck.”

After discussing Martin Luther King’s extreme optimism in fighting for African American rights, Eli noted that “if everyone chooses to be pessimistic, the chances of achieving great things and meeting great challenges in the world will be much less possible than if we choose optimism.”

Proud parents Bill and Magnolia Becker said, “Eli really does see the world through the lens of an optimist. We think it’s important that his, and the other student’s, voices be heard.” 

“’The Kids Speak Out!’ contest involved a fantastic process and the kids all did a great job,” Kasey Earnest, Tulee’smother said. “It is great to see the students learn how to get up and talk in public!”

Tulee was equally impressed, saying “I think the ‘Kids Speak Out!’ contest was the coolest experience ever! We were told two months before we started writing and I was so excited to start — I liked to read my friends’ writing and I learned a lot!”

Ten-year-old Loe shared his second-place essay, which stated, “When I think of optimism I think of Richard Kruse, aka my Uncle Dick, who is 6 feet, 8 inches tall, 330 pounds and 76 years old, with hands so big one hand can wrap around my body. He is wise and humorous, gentle and giant. Oh and I forgot one important detail … he only has one leg.”

Gregory shared that when his Uncle Dick was in his teens, he was a basketball star and was diagnosed with cancer, resulting in his leg being amputated. However, Uncle Dick’s outlook on life has taught Gregory that humor and optimism are the best medicine. A lesson for us all.

Those three Malibu school students, and all of their peers, will one day help to shape our community’s future. By doing so optimistically, Malibu will be the better for it.