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Excellence in Education

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​​The Merced County Excellence in Education program began in 2006 as a partnership between Educational Employees Credit Union and the Merced County Office of Education. This program showcases some of Merced County's top teachers, administrators and school employees. A sculpture titled "Commencement" was created by the late artist Clement Renzi and was commissioned by EECU. The piece was the final work by famed Valley sculptor Renzi, who passed away in 2009, and has a permanent home in front of the MCOE. Renzi's other works can be seen throughout the Central Valley.

​Winners from school districts in Merced County are selected as finalists, and one teacher, one administrator and one school employee receive the county winner award. Each county winner receives a sculpture created by Renzi and a framed photo of them with their superintendent. Nominees, family members, and special guests are invited to attend the evening reception and awards ceremony, sponsored by EECU. The ceremony honors educators, administrators and employees in a variety of fields, ranging from special education and alternative education to preschool, elementary and high school.​​ 

Download a digital version of 2023 Merced County Excellence in Education program.

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2023 Excellence in Education Winners

Employee of the Year

Yolanda Tualla

Gustine High School
Gustine Unified School District

Administrator of the Year

Maria Duran-Barajas

Special Education Department
Merced County Office of Education

Teacher of the Year

Yer Lawson

Merced High School
Merced Union High School District


Yolanda Tualla – 2023 Employee of the Year

Yolanda is the Cafeteria Lead at Gustine High School. One of the most valuable qualities Yolanda possesses is her ability to establish relationships built on trust and respect with students so they never have to feel embarrassed about saying they're hungry. On more than one occasion, Yolanda has taken time out of her day to tend to students’ needs, because of this they they can come to her for anything and feel comfortable expressing their needs. Her ability to establish lifelong relationships does not stop with students, Yolanda goes above and beyond to create memorable experiences for staff on campus, whether it is for a birthday or a holiday, she approaches everything with thoughtfulness. She also sets high expectations for her food service team and supports them in meeting those expectations when creating fun events for the school, which include opening day for Major League Baseball, the Honor Roll Luncheon and Senior Breakfast, among others. Whereas teachers say no child should get left behind, Yolanda says no child should go hungry, and with her leadership, they never do.


Maria Duran-Barajas – 2023 Administrator of the Year

Maria is a Special Education Director for the Merced County Office of Education. Maria has served the students of Merced County in a variety of ways over the course of her 29 years in education. In her role as a director, Maria is responsible for various functions of the Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) countywide programs which includes specialized programs and services for students with visual and hearing impairments. Maria has an incredible knack for supervising staff, programs and developing new procedures all while keeping students as the focus. Through her leadership and extensive knowledge of the complexities associated with Special Education, the programs continue to provide quality support and services that positively impact students and their families across the county. Her strong work ethic and genuine desire to effect positive change makes MCOE, and the community, a more inclusive space for students with special needs.


Yer Lawson – 2023 Teacher of the Year

Yer considers herself an extension of every great teacher who inspired her own educational journey. Now in her eleventh year of teaching, she continues to pass on that same encouragement to her students. Not only is she the instructor for biology and AP biology, but she is also the lead coach for the school’s academic decathlon team, which achieved multiple victories under her guidance; an advisor for the KIWINS club, a club that promotes public service in the community; and the department chair, where she supports the other teachers in her department. Yer takes on these responsibilities, not to just inspire her colleagues and foster greatness in her students, but to nurture great people who have the capacity to make a positive difference in their communities. Through honest self-reflection and a willingness to learn, Yer adjusts her lessons to find the best and most effective ways to reach her students and instills in them a love of learning, perseverance and teamwork. Yer possesses all of the qualities of what make a great teacher and an exceptional leader.