Although Denair Elementary Charter Academy was not in session this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, a number of students still received calls from Principal Sara Michelena on Monday to notify them of the unexpected death of their fourth grade teacher Mark Selee.
Over the weekend, Selee died of an apparent heart attack while traveling away from his home. Selee is the second educator to pass away suddenly as para-educator Elizabeth De La Rosa succumbed to injuries when she was hit by a pickup in Turlock while walking in late October.
Their deaths, coming so close together, have been a tragic and emotional blow for their colleagues as well as their students.
“To lose two in such a short time is heartbreaking,” said Michelle Bush, the district’s director of student support services.
Selee, 44, had worked on the elementary campus since 2002. He was in his second year as a fourth grade instructor and previously had taught physical education. He also oversaw the student safety patrol in front of the DECA campus each day.
“He was one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met,” said DECA Principal Sara Michelena. “He was absolutely kind to everyone. He was the one who always took troubled students under his wing and worked with them, without judgment.”
“I had numerous requests to put kids in his class. Parents just loved him. First and foremost, he just loved his kids. He always wanted to make sure their needs were meet. He challenged students and still made kids feel accepted,” continued Michelena.
Michelena said Selee had “an amazing work ethic.” It was easy to tell where he was, she added, because his “distinctive” laugh often could be heard all across the campus.
“He always found something to be happy about. He was like everyone’s brother,” said Michelena.
Michelena spent Monday calling the families of all of Selee’s current students. And though the DECA teachers are off this week, she invited everyone to a meeting Tuesday afternoon to talk and plan for next week. She said grief counselors will be on hand for students and staff, and roaming substitute teachers will be available for teachers who need a break during the day.
An outdoor candlelight vigil is planned for 6 p.m. on Wednesday on campus. Selee is survived by his wife, Beth, and sons Alex and Peyton.
“Mr. Selee was an energetic and talented teacher who was adored by everyone, especially his students,” said Superintendent Aaron Rosander. “We are absolutely heartbroken for the Selee family, and his passing is a devastating and irreplaceable loss to Denair Elementary Charter Academy.”
On the DECA Facebook page, people remembered Selee for his impact on children at school and as a coach for the Turlock Sea Dogs Swim Team.
“I’ve known Mark since high school. He was my daughter's fourth grade teacher and our boys played little league baseball together,” wrote Michelle Mays Van Fleet. “He had such a contagious laugh and smile. Such a great human being. He will be missed greatly by all who knew him.”
“I'm very honored to have known this man. His smile and his happiness have left an unforgettable impression on my children. He will forever be in our hearts and on our minds,” Amanda Howry posted.
Stayce Meadows Baptista wrote: “My daughter had him for fourth grade. She truly was inspired by him and that passion followed her as he urged her on the pool deck. We are deeply saddened by this.”
De La Rosa, 66, had been para-educator at Denair Middle School for more than a decade. Known as “Miss D” to her students, she focused primarily on special education children, rotating between classrooms throughout the day.
“She just had a spark about her and she exuded that love to the staff and students. She had a zest for life,” recalled Bush, who as the middle school principal hired De La Rosa in the early 2000s.
“She just assisted the teachers and, most importantly, worked with students,” Bush added. “She did whatever was necessary. She helped all students. That’s the beauty of what she was. If there was an opportunity that presented itself to help any student, she was there.”
“She just had a passion for this age group,” said special education teacher Jody Lee. “She told me, ‘This is my place. This is where I should be.’ She was able to connect with them and understand them. It didn’t matter what level of disability, she was able to get through to them and make them feel comfortable. She was able to evaluate what their needs were and figure out how to best teach them.”
Rosander said De La Rosa’s commitment to children was an important part of the service provided to special education students.
“In the old days we might have called her a teacher or special education aide,” he said. “Of course, today’s employees receive a great deal more training and are truly para-educators. They do a great deal of tutoring and one-on-one assistance with students in harmony with teacher instruction. Elizabeth was loved by her students and made a big personal and educational impact on our pupils. She is missed.”
De La Rosa is survived by her sons, Sam and Armando, daughter Belinda Putnam, three grandchildren, three brothers and two sisters.