Irene White Receives 2020 Spirit of Laguna Award


Photo by Melinda Hawkins

Irene White (left) participates in a cooking class with students Mia Rommerswinkel (middle) and Zoey Bullington (right). This class was with LBHS vocational students at the Assistance League.

Uma Bhatia and Diego Lapayese-Calderón

Congratulations to Irene White, the recipient of the Spirit of Laguna Award! She is the LBUSD Director of Special Education and has earned the award for constantly going above and beyond for all of her students. Ms. White truly embodies our community’s spirit of giving and kindness. 

I am humbled and honored to be this year’s recipient of the award. To me there is no higher honor than to be looked upon as someone who will go the extra mile to serve others in whatever capacity is needed,” said White. 

White is a universal helper who serves not just families and students—but also everyone around her. 

“One of the most outstanding qualities that Irene possesses is her ability to support our families and staff. People from every facet of the district bring their concerns to her door and she is always there to lend a sympathetic ear, offer creative solutions and give her unwavering support,” said Kristina Smith, a special education teacher who has worked alongside White for three years.

White is unique in her flexibility, openness and kindness. She is dedicated to this district and every single one of her students. This attention to detail and spirit of giving is evident in all her actions. 

“Honestly she embodies the true spirit of Laguna, because with Irene, every student really does matter every day!  I have never teamed with anyone who is so willing to work around and through obstacles to put things in place that provide specific, direct support to every student,” said special education teacher Mindy Hawkins.

White has changed the lives of countless appreciative parents and students. She wholeheartedly committed to the students she impacts, aiding them throughout their educational and personal journeys.

“Mrs. White helped get our daughter into a wonderful Adult Transition Program in the Capistrano School District which is wonderful for Arianna and our family. She has become an advocate for our daughter and a force for our future,” said parent Kerry Nugent.

Every student in every community has their own individual set of needs that could affect their performance in school, and, in turn, their future. Having experienced the school process as a parent, White brings a well rounded approach to support the entire person. She has made incredible contributions to ensure that every student has an equal chance to succeed in high school and beyond. 

“While raising my own two boys, I found the school system to be less than accommodating during a difficult patch and swore that I would never be that adult that left any parent or student feeling hopeless or with nowhere to turn. I make decisions and recommendations for students as if they were my own and believe that no matter what the challenge, we have the ability to figure it out,” said White.

White shows immense care for her students daily. It’s always hard to make students excited and motivated to learn, but White manages to maintain a level of enthusiasm and happiness for those she helps. 

“Mrs. White always makes me feel happy. She is a very kind and beautiful person,” said senior Cecelia Djerf. “She has helped me with my schooling for all my years at Laguna.”

One of White’s greatest projects is leading the School Readiness Program, which targets the parents of children from age zero to five. The program prioritizes Parent Education and Provider Education. Parent Education has the parent and child together and provides learning opportunities, while the Provider Education entails reaching out to Pre-K teachers and childcare providers to create a community that can help in early learning.

“In my 13 years in education, I have never met a director that is more involved than Irene is,” said Smith. “Irene takes an active interest in the people that work in her department, and she is always there to provide the support that they need, no matter what time of day.”

White had years of experience prior to becoming the Director of Special Education here in the LBUSD. While working as a school psychologist in the Westminster School District, White was recruited for a role for the West Orange County Special Education Local Planning Area (SELPA). White was then inspired to get her Admin. Credential, which eventually led her to serve as Program Director, Director, and SELPA Director for the West Orange County Consortium for Special Education (WOCCSE). When Nancy Hubbell, the former Director of Special Education in Laguna Beach, was promoted to Assistant Superintendent, White jumped at the opportunity and was selected in 2006. Her experience translates into great strategies that she and her team have for captivating students. 

“Our instructional aides are the best in the state. I absolutely love each of them. They have individually stepped up their game and have independently done research, created specialized materials to teach concepts virtually as well as dedicated countless additional hours to their students,” said White. “They too have had to learn new technology tools to teach concepts virtually. To put this into perspective, think about a preschool kid with an attention span of less than 10 minutes.  Dancing, using music as well as attractive visuals had to be employed.”

She is especially proud of her Special Education (SPED) team, which is her group of assistants, teachers, school psychologists, service providers and instructional aides. White is extremely appreciative of her award and values her team’s integral roles. She is optimistic about the future and continues to extend her goals. 

“Irene’s motto is that there is no hurdle too large that we cannot surmount as a team. It is this vision that drives the decisions that we make in our department,” said Smith. 

Irene White is the perfect recipient of the Spirit of Laguna Award. Her dedication and hard work constantly set her apart. We are truly lucky to have her in our district and can’t wait to see all the great work she does next!

“Irene’s commitment and dedication to the families here in Laguna Beach knows no bounds,” said Smith. “Every student in the LBUSD is impacted (whether directly or indirectly) by decisions that she makes every day, and we are all better off because of her commitment to education.”