Orange County Middle Schools: Teachers At Pioneer Middle School Earn Top County Marks By Making Sure “No One Falls Through The Cracks”

california-distinguished-school2Five years ago, Pioneer Middle School was a “good” school. It boasted solid standardized test scores, motivated and involved students, and a diverse palette of non-academic offerings.

But administrators at the Tustin school believed Pioneer had the potential to be one of the best public middle schools in the nation, an academic powerhouse where all students achieved at their personal best and no one fell through the cracks.

They shared this ambitious vision with the faculty and, working as a team, began the hard work of radically changing the school’s culture.

“We had always been a good school for most students, but we decided we wanted to be a great school for all students,” Principal Mike Mattos said. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we create a system that guarantees every kid gets that experience?’ ”

Pioneer’s staff took the next few years to develop and refine a series of customized, targeted intervention strategies that would catch every student and maximize use of the instructional day.

Today, no one falls through the cracks at Pioneer – they simply can’t, teachers say, and test scores prove it. Pioneer’s Academic Performance Index score, an overall gauge of a school’s scholastic showing, has shot up by 70 points over the past five years, to 938, and the school received a coveted federal Blue Ribbon award last year.


Tustin Unified School District Announces 3 “Teachers Of The Year”: Emily Neddersen (Myford Elementary), Lisa Fuggitti (Pioneer Middle), And Darin Hallstrom (Beckman High School)

A group of Tustin Unified officials were in stealth mode Wednesday as they converged on three school campuses to surprise three Teachers of the Year with news of their honors.

Tears, shock, applause and even marching bands greeted the announcements as students and colleagues alike sang the praises of the educators who were selected.

emilyneddersenmyford1Emily Neddersen, Myford Elementary School

Neddersen has been teaching for 11 years, and has spent the last 10 years teaching kindergarten in Tustin Unified Schools. What sets Neddersen apart is her obvious zeal for teaching, which she described in her Teacher of the Year application.

“As a child, I taught anything and everything that would stay still long enough – my siblings, my pets, my dolls, anything,” Neddersen wrote. “I could not understand why school wasn’t everyone’s favorite place to be.”

Neddersen mentors rookie teachers and strives to connect with each of her students.

“Each year I start with 33 little bodies, each unique with their own interests, talents and abilities,” she said. “It is my job to identify their strengths and areas of need, and inspire them to learn.”

lisafuggittipioneerLisa Fuggitti, Pioneer Middle School

Fuggitti is a 26-year teaching veteran who began her career in Maryland, and started teaching in Tustin schools in 2004. She teaches home economics at Pioneer Middle School, where Fuggitti morphed the culinary arts curriculum into one supported by nutrition education. Student interest surged and enrollment doubled, and Fuggitti designed an advanced foods and nutrition course.

The educator challenged her students to host a dinner theater night, cooking a healthful three-course meal for 175 guests. Fuggitti says her passion is fueled in part by the severe growth of childhood and teen obesity. The teacher established “Tasty Tuesdays” on campus, and guest chefs provide the student body with nutritious samples of healthy foods.

“My joy comes from watching 35 students work in groups, each student having individual responsibilities, and experiencing success,” Fuggitti said.

darinhallstrombeckmanDarin Hallstrom, Beckman High School

An English teacher to freshmen and juniors, Hallstrom has taught at Tustin Unified schools for the entirety of his 18-year career. Hallstrom is active in new teacher training and teaches a graduate-level course at UC Irvine on English teaching methods. He was also selected as the Tustin Unified Teacher of the Year in 1998.

Hallstrom says his desire to teach came from his own less-than-ideal educational experiences, and empathy for his students is what drives him each day.

“I try so hard never to forget what it’s like to be 11 years old: overwhelmed by new experiences, new curriculum, oversized eighth-graders, and life in general,” he wrote. “I try to provide an environment where they can read and think and talk and listen freely, where they can stretch and grow and mature and, ultimately, learn.”

Hallstrom believes successful teaching boils down to one simple factor: mutual respect.

“I am not afraid to give that respect first,” he said, trusting that my students will see it, expect it, and hopefully give it to someone else in their lives.”

Tustin 92782 Is Home To Pioneer Middle School, Honored As 2008 National Blue Ribbon School


2008 API = 936 

“Validated by the U.S. government is a great honor,” said Mike Mattos, the principal at Pioneer, where the API has increased by 70 points over the past four years.


“We have made a commitment that we did not just want to be a good school, we wanted to be a great school for all kids,” he said.  (Orange County Register)



Pioneer Middle School opened in the fall of 1999, the first new middle school in the Tustin Unified School District in over 25 years. The opening of Pioneer greets the new millennium with designs and built-in technologies that make it one of the finest middle school facilities in the nation.

Middle school sets the stage for a student’s future as an adult. It is a critical link to the student’s successful transition to high school and higher education. Pioneer teachers and support staff work in partnership to provide a rigorous and challenging curriculum. To meet the developmental needs of students, we provide a core of standards-based curricula in reading/language arts, mathematics. history/social science, science, and physical education. Both instruction and instructional materials are state-of-the-art grounded in research-based practices.

The curriculum of Pioneer Middle School encourages students to become inquisitive learners, to grasp a wide variety of academic skills, and to become productive young adults. Pioneer students meet high expectations in today’s basic skills of reading/language arts, mathematics, science, social science, and to read, write, and speak clearly, persuasively and appropriate, and also listen actively. Pioneer provides programs for special needs students and for students at-risk of retention. GATE/honors classes, high school level of algebra, geometry, and foreign language classes are offered. Students may also choose an elective curriculum that includes computer technology, video production, drama, art, music, industrial technology, consumer education, publishing, and leadership.

Students, staff, and parents are actively involved in school activities. Parents are partners in the middle school experience and are encouraged to take advantage of the many opportunities for them to participate. Pioneer Middle School continues the Tustin tradition of a community rich in heritage and committed to excellence. Pioneer is proud of the place it has taken the greater Tustin community.

Pioneer Middle School, a 2003 and 2007 California Distinguished School and National Blue Ribbon School finalist, is an exciting learning community where every student has amazing opportunities for achievement. When Pioneer students enter their campus, they find beautiful state-of-the-art classrooms and a warm welcoming staff. A robust array of activities inside and outside the classroom makes every student feel important and connected to the school.

Set in the beautiful Tustin Ranch, our school has an award-winning design that sets the stage for learning and fun. The central quad is where students gather before, during, and after school. Throughout the day, you can feel the energy and spirit of our 1,325 Pioneer Wildcats in this safe, supervised area. Our classrooms, computer lab and A/V facilities offer learning tools that were unavailable just a few years ago. Other facilities at Pioneer include immaculately maintained sports fields and a track, along with a 17,000 square foot gymnasium – the focal point of our best in class athletic program, which is a finalist for the Governor’s Challenge Fitness Award.

Our staff is distinguished by their subject matter expertise, professionalism and dedication to teaching. As a group, we constantly challenge each other to create a community of learners and to find ways to maximize every student�s academic potential and personal responsibility. Our high test scores reflect the staff’s dedication: the school’s API report shows steady and sustained growth in student achievement. The overall 2006 API score increased by 8 points, going from a base of 915 in 2005 to 923 in 2006. This is among the top 1% of California schools. Our CST and STAR scores reflect similar phenomenal levels of student achievement.

Our school’s top-tier academic performance is not based purely on excellence of academic instruction. We believe having a strong school culture makes the difference between good and great student achievement. That’s why everyone at Pioneer talks about “The Pioneer Way” and why character education is woven into all our activities, inside and outside the classroom. This year, our students’ outstanding community service projects have been recognized through a Milken Family Festival for Youth Award. At Pioneer, caring for each other and our community is part of becoming responsible young adults.

Pioneer is truly a special place to learn and to be a part of a vibrant, exciting community. I am extremely proud to be a part of the success of this wonderful place.

Mike Mattos , Principal