Sanchez scoring goals in bunches
as Denair boys try to defend soccer title

At its best this season, the Denair boys soccer team looks every bit as tough and talented as last year’s squad, which tied for the Southern League title and won a Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI championship before losing in the first round of the NorCal playoffs.

The Coyotes’ teamwide ability was on full display Tuesday, when they crushed Ripon Christian 6-0 behind three goals from Angel Sanchez, two from Justin Hernandez and one from Diego Padilla.

The victory lifted Denair into first place in the ultra-tight Southern League, where five schools have only lost a single game nearing the halfway point of the rain-delayed league schedule. The Coyotes (4-1) are in the lead, followed by Orestimba (3-1), Gustine (3-1-1), Waterford (1-1) and Delhi (1-1-1).

Denair’s only league loss was 3-2 to Orestimba on Dec. 13. The two schools meet again Jan. 30 in Denair in what could be a showdown for the league title.

Overall, it has been an up-and-down season for the Coyotes and first-year coach Antonio Padilla. Denair’s record sits at 7-8-3, but that’s misleading. Four of the losses, unfortunately, came as forfeits because the Coyotes unknowingly used an ineligible player. On the field, they actually won three of those matches and tied the other.

“It’s over. It happened. That’s life and you learn,” said Padilla.

Sanchez, a senior, has been the spark on offense all season. He leads the team with 28 goals and six assists, ranking him among the top point producers in the entire Section. He was one of the best players on last year’s team as a midfielder when he had 12 goals, but has blossomed as a scorer this year with a move to striker.

“He’s a good influence on the other players,” praised Padilla.

The coach’s sons – Diego, a junior, and Goliath, a freshman – are the next-leading scorers with six goals each. They’re followed by Emanuel Renteria and Justin Hernandez, who both have scored five times, and Tim Hernandez and Octavio Valla with four goals apiece.

The Coyotes’ offense has been prolific, averaging more than four goals a game. That statistic is slightly misleading because 48 of the team’s 65 goals have come in five lopsided shutouts — 17-0 over Big Valley Christian, 7-0 over Hilmar, 9-0 and 7-0 over LeGrand, and 8-0 over Ripon Christian.

Padilla – an experienced coach whose background is with recreational, traveling and indoor teams – said his advice to his players is simple.

“I want them to play hard and enjoy the game,” he said. “That’s my philosophy. … Brains over power, that’s what I encourage.”

With the wet weather throwing a wrench into the league schedule, Padilla is doing his best to make sure his players aren’t worn out. For instance, because Denair plays three times this week – at Ripon Christian on Tuesday, home against Waterford on Friday and at Delhi on Saturday – the coach started mostly backups against RC.

“Those guys have been practicing hard and deserve a chance to play, too,” he explained. “They played in the first half. It was 0-0 and then our other players came in for the second half.”

Padilla will continue to monitor playing time the rest of the regular season in an effort to avoid fatigue and injuries. He recognizes that Denair – because of its success last year – will continue to have a target on its back against almost every opponent.

“I told our players early on that maybe we have a little pressure, but it’s a new year and you have to enjoy every game,” Padilla said. “Every day is a new day. They played very well last year and we’re trying to do it again.”

Music, art take center stage at Denair school board meeting

Traditional academic subjects such as math, English, reading, science and history understandably receive much of the attention on school campuses and in the community. Students’ ability to learn and apply those lessons will help shape their lives for years to come.

But no less important are outlets for creative expression such as music, art, drama and even speech. At Thursday’s meeting of the Denair Unified School District board, trustees heard from students and teachers about the positive impact of two of those programs – music and art.

“Music benefits students’ social and emotional health and encourages teamwork,” explained Fred Steiner, who teaches music to hundreds of students across all grade levels in the district. 

He was accompanied at Thursday’s meeting by four high school students — Marcos Corral  (saxophone), Jonathan Coronel (sax), Angel Trujillo (trombone) and Kaden Prine  (trumpet) – who entertained the audience with a short snippet of the Denair High fight song “On Wisconsin.”

Steiner, who came to Denair in the 20-21 school year after many years in Southern California, has focused on growing the number of music students across the district. This year, he has more than 300 at the elementary level and dozens more at the middle and high schools, plus Denair Charter Academy. 

“At the primary grades, students get an opportunity to open their minds and be a little more expressive. We focus on fundamentals of music,” Steiner explained. “At middle school and high school, we move to building skills on their instruments and performing.”

The enthusiasm and interest are contagious as band and music students respond to opportunities to play at the Denair Gaslight Theater, in the Turlock Christmas Parade or at other events.

“I think it’s fun and exciting to play at the football games because you play in front of a lot of people and get to watch the game,” Coronel said.

Art students also were in attendance Thursday, joining first-year DHS teacher Hudson Berdino during their presentation.

Berdino told trustees that there are a range of art courses – from Art I through III to Art Design and AP Art – that allow students of all experience levels and abilities to flex their creative muscles using various mediums.

“The arts are valuable because our student’s stories are valuable,” Berdino explained. “Their abilities to think, challenge, critique and create for themselves are crucial.”

Asked about the benefit of art classes, Denair High senior Genevieve Orozco said, “Art gives us a chance to be creative. Art makes school much more fun, and allows a chance to express ourselves without always being told exactly what to do.”

Kira Dotson and Lupin McIntire, who attended the meeting, showed off their own portfolios with trustees and the audience. Both indicated that art may be something they want to pursue as a career.

“There are lots of exciting things happening in art,” said Berdino. “These kids are insanely talented and I’m so proud of them.”

In addition to music and art students from DHS, board members also listened intently during another presentation of high interest at the high school – the dress code.

Interim Principal Breanne Aguiar and senior Natalie Bailey explained how discussions that began last spring led modifications about the types of clothing and accessories that are allowed to be worn on campus. The changes are more in the form of tweaks rather than major overhauls of the policy set by the board, which says that “a student may not remain at school or at a school function dressed in a manner that creates a safety hazard for said student or for other students at school, and/or when the dress constitutes a serious and unnecessary distraction to the learning process or tends to disrupt campus order.”

“We felt there were some things that were outdated or unfair,” said Bailey.

Superintendent Terry Metzger said the new policy – which board members unanimously supported – is less ambiguous for staff, which is important because “they’re the ones who have to enforce it.”

The goal, Aguiar said, was to “try to find a balance as to what’s appropriate.”

The new policy will be in place on a trial basis through the spring semester. Assuming there are no major issues, it is expected to be extended into the next school year.

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Approved the promotion of Laura Cardenas to be the interim principal at Denair Elementary Charter Academy. She has been the school’s learning director the past few years.
  • Heard a report from Metzger about the district’s results on the state’s academic performance tests in the 2021-22 school year, which are reported on the California School Dashboard. It’s a compilation of several data points that show a snapshot of our district,” Metzger explained. “The data points don’t tell the story of what’s happening day in and day out in the district. There are so many great things happening for students and we provide a tremendous amount of support for students and families as they are dealing with the lingering effects of the pandemic. Student disengagement, mental health and wellbeing concerns, and family hardships are all things that require attention and support as we prepare students for success after graduation, specifically that they are literate in all content areas.”
  • Approved a minimum wage increase to $15.50 per hour for entry-level employees represented by the California State Employees Association.
  • OK’d the Senior Trip on May 14-15 to Disneyland for the members of the Denair High Class of 2023.

DECA features quality education and top teachers in a challenging and supportive environment

Denair Elementary Charter Academy offers a vibrant, engaging and safe educational environment for its nearly 600 students. It also features a widely respected Dual Language Immersion, which has been a magnet for parents who want their children to learn English as well as Spanish.

The campus includes students from transitional kindergarten through fifth grade and is overseen by first-year Principal Marilu Canu, an experienced educator whose goal is to create a supportive and consistent academic environment.

“We want to make sure everything matches, that everything is connected,” Cano explained during a presentation about DECA at Thursday night’s monthly meeting of the Denair Unified School District Board of Trustees.

DECA offers many complimentary programs and activities intended to build not just academic skills among students, but social/emotional well-being, a college-going atmosphere and an appreciation for other cultures.

All students – not just those in the DLI program – are regular participants in a language lab, where they are taught Spanish. The Academic Adventures program exposes them to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts as well as the arts. There are intervention programs in place to quickly identify struggling students and get them extra help in specific areas. Each Wednesday, students wear T-shirts representing their favorite college in an effort to build interest at a young age.

Twice a month, campus-wide assemblies are held featuring presentations and performances by students. In addition, 25 youngsters from all grade levels are honored as VIPs for their good behavior and rewarded with Coyote Cash, which can be spent in the Coyote Cave on fun stuff.

One of the fun daily activities is Coyote Chit Chat, a time for teachers in each classroom to interact with students using a fun toy known as Bug the Butterfly. Five students ranging from third to fifth grade demonstrated the drill Thursday night with DECA learning director Laura Cardenas. 

As each held Bug, Cardenas asked them what qualities they admired most in Bug. A third-grade girl named Harper replied that “he never gives up, he has courage and he always tries his hardest.”

Cardenas also asked the children to rate their day on a scale of 1-5 (5 being the best), an exercise teachers use to find out information that may influence a child’s mood and behavior on a given day, she said. The youngsters also were asked which super power they most wanted to have; they responded with flying, having laser eyes, being fast or being able to teleport themselves to a different place.

Trustees, too, had a chance to hold Bug and respond to the questions. To a member, they all said their days got better thanks to the students’ appearance at the meeting.

“It went from a 4 to a 5 because of this,” Trustee Crystal Sousa told the students. “Thank you.”

A second presentation Thursday night dealt with the district’s efforts to provide a full range of academic and emotional counseling as well as mental health services to students. Mental health clinician Lina Villegas, six other staff members and a student shared stories of how the district’s programs have made an important impact.

The foundation of the district’s efforts is what is known as the Multi-Tier System of Support (MTSS), which provides consistency across all grade levels and ages.

The first level, Tier 1, deals with students’ social skills and behaviors like disengagement from staff, peers or their studies. Responses include involving parents to help their children, encouraging students to become more involved in extracurricular activities and providing additional academic support.

Tier 2 includes concerns about things like vaping, healthy relationships, stress and anxiety, family dynamics and issues of self-esteem. Students could be referred for individual or group counseling, and substance abuse intervention.

The final tier is the most serious and includes students with depression, who have been sexually abused, are suffering from grief and loss, or may have expressed ideas about self-harm or thoughts of suicide. Responses included counseling (including parents) and even referrals to outside agencies.

Board members were impressed by the breadth of mental health services offered in the district.

“I have never seen the whole Denair mental health team together,” said Trustee Kathi Dunham-Filson. “This really provides a perspective on the amount of resources that are available. We serve our kids the best through a team approach.”

Denair offers more comprehensive services than most districts thanks to a long-standing partnership with Legacy Health Endowment. The district began working with LHE to address the mental health needs of students prior to the pandemic and LHE continued to underwrite much of the cost of staff training and support, services for students, and parent education.

The district also partners with La Familia Central Valley, which provides some clinical services for students and staff. The district has also been awarded a CalHope grant and a Mental Health Student Services Act grant.

“We are using these grants to support social emotional learning and mental wellness through staff training opportunities, purchases of instructional materials and resources, and connections with other organizations that will help us continue the work,” Superintendent Terry Metzger said.

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Celebrated outgoing board member Regina Gomes with a plaque, flowers and tributes. “In every decision you made, the kids were always No. 1,” Metzger said to Gomes, who served for five years. Taking her place was new Trustee Billy Myers, who won election in November and was sworn in Thursday.
  • Elected Carmen Wilson as board president for the next year. Sousa will serve as clerk. Dunham-Filson was elected to represent Denair on the Stanislaus County Committee on School District Reorganization and also nominated to represent the region as a California Association of School Boards delegate.
  • Approved the first interim budget report, which includes actual figures from July 1 through October 31 as well as projections of financial activity through June 30. Daisy Swearingen, the district’s director of fiscal services, said district enrollment sits at 1,300 students, down 11 from expectations. While DECA and Denair Middle School have more students than projected, Denair High is down 11 and Denair Charter Academy has 47 fewer than budgeted. The good news, Swearingen told trustees , is that because DCA’s teaching staff is paid hourly, the district hires fewer teachers and spends less on salaries when enrollment temporarily declines.

Billy Myers will join Denair Unified board this week

Billy Myers, soon to become the newest member of the Denair Unified School District Board of Trustees, has lived in the community his entire life. He graduated in 2010 from Denair High School, where during his junior and senior years he was the student representative on the board at a perilous financial time for the district.

“It was a rough time,” Myers recalled. “I was in board meetings until 1 or 2 in the morning.”

Fortunately, the district survived that difficult period and now finds itself in an era of growing enrollment, a balanced budget with a healthy reserve, and far more stability among staff and administrators.

“I see a lot of positivity. I want to keep that ball rolling,” said Myers, who won election to the board in November and will be formally sworn in at the Dec. 8 meeting. He replaces Regina Gomes, who did not seek re-election after one term.

Myers’ connections to Denair run deep. His parents and grandmother still live in the community. He is a past president of and remains active in the Denair Lions Club. He served on the Municipal Advisory Council for eight years. His younger brother is a student at Denair Charter Academy.

Joining the school board seemed like a natural way to continue his community service.

“The good thing about coming in at this period is that I don’t see anything that’s an immediate issue that needs to change,” Myers said. “There are a lot of good things happening in the district.”

Along with his family, Myers owns Myers Trucking Company in Turlock. He also is the Chief Financial Officer of the California Tow Truck Association. He has a degree in accounting from CSU Stanislaus. That business background gives Myers an appreciation of and an ability to analyze the district’s budget, but he said he doesn’t have any specific goals as he begins his board tenure.

“The biggest think is knowing I serve the people of Denair and their interests,” he said. “I want to keep the lines of communications open. When there is contention, it’s often because people aren’t in the loop and don’t know what’s going on.”

Thursday’s Denair Unified meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the board leadership room.

Denair heard about a day in the life at Denair High School

The 287 students at Denair High School are one busy group of teenagers. In addition to a full range of academically challenging classes, there are sports teams, clubs, music and speech, leadership and other extracurricular activities to fill up their days. Wherever their passions may lie, there is probably an organization and opportunity to nurture it.

The breadth of the offerings at the high school was on full display during a presentation Thursday night by Interim Principal Breanne Aguiar, one of her instructors and three of their students at the monthly meeting of the Denair Unified School District Board of Trustees.

The group began by showing a student-produced video entitled “A Day in the Life of a Coyote,” which portrayed a typical day on the campus. Set to music, it journeyed from the main office through various classroom settings, student assemblies and other popular events, and included testimonials from students about what they like best about the school.

None of the fun stuff, however, is meant to detract from Denair High’s primary mission, which as Aguiar reminded trustees is to prepare students “to achieve college, career and vocational success.”

That only happens with a quality staff and an education structure that teaches not only critical thinking skills and important academic concepts, but also exposes students to a range of possibilities beyond high school. Key in that effort, Aguiar explained, are the six Career Technical Education pathways (ag mechanics, ag science, animal science, criminal science investigation, floral design and patient care) that allow students to take classes that could prepare them for good-paying jobs in the future. In addition, Denair students have access to Career Inspiration Center in Empire run by the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

Aguiar also touched on other key academic components on campus, including targeted support for students who need additional help in math or English, credit recovery programs to help students catch up and a special education program that features Project Life (where special ed students learn key skills through work at six local employers). In addition, there are social and emotional support systems that can address students’ mental health needs.

Students Paige Wilson, Wilder Diaz and Rylee Gonsalves told trustees about the importance of the many extracurricular activities on campus, which includes nearly 20 clubs as well as sports for boys and girls.

Teacher Darrin Allen described the impact of the Committed Coyote program he advises. It includes 30 students from all grades who agree to model positive behaviors and leadership. 

Aguiar also talked about continuing to build a culture of inclusion, diversity and respect at Denair High. Importantly, that includes expanding opportunities for high school students to mentor their younger peers next door at Denair Middle School.

The high school presentation was the first in a series of deeper dives into campus life that will come before trustees. In future months, board members will hear from leaders and students at the middle school, Denair Elementary Charter Academy and Denair Charter Academy.

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Voted 5-0 to approve the School Plans for Student Achievement at the high school and middle school. They lay out specific goals and objectives and ways to achieve them at each campus.
  • Heard a short report from Superintendent Terry Metzger on the VIA heart health screenings held Nov. 6 at the middle school. The Bay Area group saw 128 people ages 12 to 25 and identified eight cases that required follow-up, including one that may have been life-threatening, Metzger said. The screenings took about 40 minutes. They were paid for by the EMC Health Foundation of Turlock.