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As a teen, Caroline Fernandez felt like no one cared about her.

When she got in trouble at school, a teacher told her she was a loser. She ended up dropping out.

"I really needed a teacher to tell me I had potential," said Fernandez, who was raised by her grandmother as a child in the Philippines and by a single mother with seven children during her early teen years in the U.S.

Today Fernandez is the kind of educator she wished she had in her youth, motivating at-risk students at LACOE's one-classroom Azusa community school.

Her outstanding efforts to help all students reach their full potential have earned her the title of LACOE Teacher of the Year for 2016-17.

"Dr. Fernandez consistently goes above and beyond to meet the needs of all her students through an approach that is loving, caring and respectful," said Principal Ray Donahue. "She brings out the best in students and is a real hero."

Encouraged by mentors in her church to pursue a career in education, Fernandez began as a bilingual elementary school teacher in LAUSD in 1990. She joined LACOE in 1996, teaching for three years at IPoly High School in Pomona and then moving into the Cal-SAFE program for pregnant and parenting teens in Azusa.

In 2014, the site became a county community school to serve expelled students and others at high risk of dropping out referred by local districts.

"My first passion was for teaching pregnant teens," said Fernandez, who raised five daughters. "Working with young men was a challenge at first, but I've learned how to successfully combine behavior management and teaching strategies for their benefit."

Fernandez uses a project-based approach to learning, and her colorful classroom is filled with student work and posters with clear expectations. Each student creates a "winning action plan" that sets achievable goals for school and their personal lives.

"Dr. Fernandez motivates us to work … she is a caring and loving teacher who wants us to succeed," said student Rafael.

Fluent in Spanish and Tagalog, Fernandez earned a master's degree in Bilingual Education from Cal Poly Pomona in 1996 and a doctorate in Education from Walden University in 2012.

Her lengthy list of community service and extracurricular activities has focused on empowering and supporting women by directing local ministries, leading workshops and conducting life coaching.

Photos: LACOE Teacher of the Year Caroline Fernandez is recognized for consistently meeting the needs of all her students through an approach that is loving, caring and respectful.

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