The nomination this month of a local woman as an inspirational educator proved that not everything in county academia is black following Pink Friday.

Donna Collins, an Oxnard teacher with a long-time history of working with special needs children, was lauded by her school district with an honorary award on March 4. Named the Rio School District’s Most Inspirational Educator by her colleagues, it was part of a luncheon also honoring a group of similarly inspirational students.

“It was absolutely not expected,” Collins, who teaches fourth and fifth grades at Rio del Mar School, said of the award. “I was incredibly honored and extremely appreciative for receiving the recognition.”

Accolades for Collins and the students at the Rio district painted a brighter picture for the state of education across California, even though public school districts in counties and local municipalities have been faced with severe budget cuts and teacher layoffs to conserve funds.

Pink Friday, a statewide event on March 13 protesting the problem, took place in full force as school faculties and parents and students lined up at street corners, dressed in the inimitable color of the looming pink slips expected to be handed down to more than 600 teachers in Ventura County alone.

According to previous reports in this paper, most school districts have also frozen their hiring processes, and most large contracts have been placed on indefinite review.  

On the heels of the event’s notoriety among school officials, Collins, a special education teacher at Rio del Mar Elementary School, “absolutely supports” the Pink Friday gesture and says there should be great cause for concern, especially in the field of special education.

“The timing in all of this, education should be valued. I’m watching some of my colleagues and peers and people I know in other districts lose so many jobs,” she says. “I’m very sensitive to what they’re going through. The very programs that gave me opportunities to do some of the things I do … some of those will be at the consequence of the budget.”

Collins herself moved through the ranks of several West Coast programs as both student and teacher, starting as a volunteer for autistic and handicapped children, then as a seeing-eye dog trainer, indicators of her future career path in special needs education.

Those experiences were followed up with placement at the former Camarillo State Hospital, where Collins taught briefly during the facility’s final five years before she transferred to Rio del Mar. Additionally, she’s been a volunteer for the

Oxnard/Port Hueneme Boys & Girls Club and at La Posada in Camarillo.

“As a classroom teacher, and certainly even at the state hospital, it’s almost like I have my own niche,” she explained. “I’m very comfortable working within this type of population, those with emotional types of issues (as opposed) to those with actual physical handicaps. I feel I have the opportunity to share something and to make
a difference.”

However, if budget cuts are imposed, special education amenities could be hit hard, where, according to Collins, most students require extra assistance with after-school tutoring, special enrichment programs and regular field trips.

“The cuts are a very widespread thing, and they’ll show themselves in a variety of ways,” she said.

Rebecca Rocha, principal of Rio del Mar, says the school hasn’t been able to offer student field trips as often as in the past, a combination of rising transportation costs and regular reductions in local education budgets. According to Rocha, the school district also has not managed to receive its full allotment of funding owed through IDEA 97, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in 1997.

However, Rocha says a special group committed to aiding underprivileged students in Ventura County, Support for the Kids, has recently forwarded funds compensating for some cutbacks the district may have incurred.

Lynda Miller, founder of the Thousand Oaks group, could not be reached by deadline for comment on an exact dollar amount donated by the charity.

Also, according to Tim Blaylock, president of the Rio School District Board of Education, it looks unlikely that the district will lay off 23 teachers as planned, from its six elementary schools and two middle schools.

“One of the biggest reasons is, we’re not declining in enrollment,” he said. “We’re pretty happy about that.”

He commented on Collins’ winning of the district’s award.

“I think it’s fantastic. She’s an incredible human being,” Blaylock said. “Her students respond very well to her and we’re very proud of her.”

“Donna is always compassionate with the students,” Rocha said. “She’s understanding and respectful of them. She always puts their needs before her own.”

Collins downplays the compliments.

“It’s almost funny that I’m selected as this most inspirational teacher. I can see where that comes from, but I’m inspired by my students and the staff I work with,” she said.

“As a district, we’re certainly all pulling together,” she adds about the crisis facing education. “It’ll keep the world turning and make school a good place and have learning continue to occur.”