Denair sixth-graders spending the week at Foothill Horizons outdoor camp

Science lessons will come to life this week for 73 sixth-graders from Denair Middle School. The students will be learning about natural history while spending four days at the Foothill Horizons outdoor education camp. The group left Tuesday and will return Friday.

The much-anticipated field trip is one of the highlights of the year for sixth-grade students from school districts throughout the region. DMS Principal Gabriela Sarmiento said her students are eager to explore the same trails, hills and creeks at the 143-acre facility in Tuolumne County that many of their brothers and sisters – and, in some cases, even their parents – experienced years before. 

“Many parents and students look forward to this week since before they enter as new sixth-graders,” she said. “Many of our students have older siblings and sometimes even parents that have previously participated, so for many, the week at Foothill Horizons is their sixth-grade right of passage.”

Foothill Horizons is operated by the Stanislaus County Office of Education and certified by the State Department of Education. The lessons led by naturalists cover ecology, geology, and plants and animals native to the foothills. Students learn how to respect nature and how to cooperate with others.

“Our sixth-grade science teachers don’t teach any specific lessons in preparation for their week at outdoor education, but they do work with students throughout the year to prepare them for their experience,” Sarmiento said.

The district covers the cost of the transportation, but families do pay for the tuition and rooming costs. Multiple fundraisers occur throughout the school year and scholarships are available for those students in need of financial assistance. 

Three sixth-grade teachers from DMS also attend as chaperones and a dozen Denair High juniors and seniors serve as counselors. The high school students stay with the DMS students in their dormitories and assist the teachers and naturalists.

Denair Middle School places 6th in Academic Pentathlon

Led by three-time medalist Chris Torres, Denair Middle School finished sixth Saturday in the 19th annual Academic Pentathlon competition.

The event is organized and hosted by the Stanislaus County Office of Education in Modesto. It tests students on math, fine arts, literature, science and social science. There also are speech and essay tests, plus an exciting Super Quiz competition to wrap up the day.

Students are broken up into three divisions – Varsity, Scholastic and Honors – based on their grade-point averages.

Torres, an eighth-grader competing in the Varsity category, won the most medals of anyone on Denair’s team. He took third in math, fourth in social science and fifth in fine arts. This year’s success capped an impressive two-year run for Torres, who won four medals in 2023.

Denair’s other medalists this year were Juliette Conde (bronze in Honors social science), Daniel Gomez (bronze in Scholastic social science) and Alberto Zatarian (bronze in Scholastic science). Conde’s medal was the first in the Honors division by any Denair competitor in Roxi Lagos’ four years as the team’s coach. She also received a plaque for earning the most points on the team.

“I think we did excellent,” Lagos said. “The thing I was most proud of is that my students showed excellent sportsmanship during the awards ceremony, not only for their teammates but also for the students from other schools.”

The 20 members of Denair’s team began practicing daily in August during their third-period class with Lagos. Denair is the only school to offer a special class for Academic Pentathlon participants. In all other school districts, students squeeze in practices before or after school, during lunch periods or even on the weekends.

The theme of this year’s competition was “Technology and Humanity,” and questions in all the categories involved computers and other aspects of technology. One of the highlights during Denair’s preparation, Lagos said, was a field trip the students took in December to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Lagos said the students worked hard to prepare for the event. Practice consists of a mix of independent reading and note-taking as well as teacher-led instruction in some areas. 

There are also team-building activities. In November, the students hosted a Friendsgiving potluck. And in March, they welcomed back the eighth-graders from last year’s Academic Pentathlon team (students who are now freshmen next door at Denair High) to offer tips and advice on the competition.

“They got to hang out and ask each other questions,” Lagos said of the March reunion.

Here is the full list of Denair’s team members, with the student’s year in school in parentheses:

Avery Andrion (7), Alexa Colon (7), Juliette Conde (7), Eli Daniel (7), Daniel Gomez (7), Ashton Homen (8), Isaac Lagos (8), Logan Lagos (7), Taylor Leib (7), Jude Moody (8), Julia Reynolds (7), Luke Scalph (7), Kaycee Shriver (8), Chris Torres (8), Joplin VanGaalen (8), Zoey Vrioni (7), Logan West (8), Makenah Wideman (8), Blake Wood (8) and Alberto Zatarain (8).

“It was our biggest team yet,” Lagos said, “and we hope to grow it next year.”

Free vision screening coming to Denair on Monday

Denair students will have access to free eye screening on Monday thanks to a partnership between a local nonprofit organization and a national health company.

The program is known as Glasses 2 Classes. It offers free eye screening and same-day glasses for up to 200 students of all ages per district. The Optical Academy of New Jersey runs it and Turlock-based Legacy Health Endowment is underwriting the cost of the clinics next week in Denair and four other school districts in Stanislaus and Merced counties.

At each clinic, Optical Academy’s mobile vision team will bring its state-of-the-art equipment to a school site to provide students with free eye screening and examinations. If students need glasses, they are made onsite that day and provided at no cost. 

The Denair clinic will begin at 9 a.m. in the Denair Middle School library. All 200 slots are spoken for; there is no room for additional sign-ups at this point.

The district partners with the Denair Lions Club annually to conduct vision screenings in the required grade levels and the Lions connect students who need glasses with local optometrists. But not all students are screened every year.

“The Optical Academy is a great opportunity for parents and teachers to refer children who appear to be having vision issues to be evaluated by a team of professionals so that correction can happen quickly,” said Denair Unified Superintendent Terry Metzger. “This is another great service to our students and families made possible by our generous partner, Legacy Health Endowment.”

Jeffrey Lewis, President and CEO of Legacy Health Endowment, said Glasses 2 Classes has the potential to positively impact hundreds of lives.

“Being able to see correctly is critical to any student’s success in or out of the classroom,” he said. “We are happy to be able to bring a proven program such as Glasses 2 Classes to this area.”

Abby Ayoub, founder of Optical Academy, praised LHE for providing the money to put on the clinics.

“Without partners with passion like the Legacy Health Endowment, we can’t deliver these crucial onsite mobile vision services,” Ayoub said. “We are extremely excited to serve students in the comfort of their school and engage them in making their glasses.”

Denair golfer Gonsalves to play at CSU Stanislaus

Denair senior Ethan Gonsalves won’t be going far to attend college. Thursday, the Coyotes’ standout golfer signed a letter of intent to play at Cal State, Stanislaus, the Division II school located just a few miles west of Denair.

“Since I’ve always lived so close to Stanislaus, going there was always on my mind,” Gonsalves explained. “I get to stay close with my family, I’m able to get a higher level of education, and all while getting to continue to play high-level collegiate golf.”

In the past two years, Gonsalves has blossomed into arguably Denair’s top golfer ever.

As a sophomore, he finished fourth in the Sac-Joaquin Section Small-Schools tournament, earning him a spot at the Masters tournament. Last season, he improved on those results – winning the Small Schools tournament with a 1-over-par 73 at The Ridge Golf Course in Auburn against roughly 110 other players. He again qualified for the Masters tournament, where he tied for seventh by shooting an even-par 72 at The Reserve at Spanos Park in Stockton, narrowly missing a chance to play in the NorCal tournament.

Gonsalves’ average score last year was 3 over par, making him the player to beat in the Southern League. Already this season, he won the Oakdale tournament against some of the best players in Northern California.

“One thing that sets Ethan apart from most of the golfers in this area is that he is an athlete,” said Denair Coach Greg Gaudio. “There are some great youth golfers in the high schools in the Central Valley. Excellent youth who really play well. However, when all of the top golfers are climbing up and down hills carrying their clubs on their back, I think Ethan has a slight advantage over some of these top players because he is a natural athlete.”

At Stanislaus, Gonsalves will join one of the nation’s top Division II programs. The Warriors compete in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, where they have a long tradition of success. 

“The coach at Stan State is Brandon Christianson,” Gonsalves said. “I’ve been reaching out to him since my junior year and we had talked about maybe being part of the team in the future. During the beginning of this year, he gave me a full tour of the campus, and now we’ve solidified a deal to be part of the team.”

Denair food service worker makes an impact; will represent Stanislaus County in state competition

Want to put on a barbecue for a few hundred Denair students? Candida Baldwin can handle it.

Need to come up with an emergency plan to feed students in a nearby school district? Ask Baldwin.

Want an employee who represents the best qualities of so many on the Denair food services staff? Baldwin is the one.

In fact, in her 12-plus years preparing literally tens of thousands of meals in the Denair Middle School kitchen, Baldwin has proven she can deftly rise to any challenge at any time, always with a smile on her face.

A couple of her favorite sayings are, “I love happy tummies,” and, “Not all superheroes wear capes. Some of us wear aprons.” Both can be heard in this video about Denair’s food program.

Baldwin’s contagious enthusiasm combined with her loyalty to her co-workers and dedication to nutrition needs of Denair’s students earned her the district’s nomination for the Every Employee Making a Difference competition. Not only was Baldwin recognized at an awards ceremony hosted by the Stanislaus County Office of Education, she was chosen to represent the county in the state competition in the Food and Nutrition Services category later this spring in Sacramento.

Baldwin’s supervisor – Food Services Manager Kim Fuentez – can’t sing her praises enough.

“Every day she arrives at work, she brings her knowledge of cooking and happy spirit to the kitchen,” Fuentez said. “Her tasks are daunting, as she must ensure the coordination of the lunch meals for

Denair Middle School, Denair Elementary Charter Academy, and Reyn Franca School. 

“She takes her job seriously and makes sure everything in the central kitchen is flowing smoothly. When preparing meals for our middle school, she adds her special touch to make every meal inviting, tasty and nutritious.”

Baldwin takes special pride in making meals from scratch, which is one of department’s goals. Whether it’s beef fajitas, tri-tip sandwiches, baked drumsticks, minestrone soup, BBQ pulled pork sandwiches or Portuguese beans, Baldwin’s goal is to please students.

“I love to cook. I really do,” she said. “I like coming in here and cooking from raw, like fresh, home-made food. I like showing the kids new things they don’t normally taste or making something and they say, ‘It tastes just like my abuela’s.’ ”

Baldwin, like the rest of the food services staff, played a big role during the COVID lockdown, preparing and then distributing much-needed meals from the parking lot. Many of Denair’s 1,200 students rely on the district to provide breakfast, lunch and even an after-school snack. That was amplified during the pandemic.

“We weren’t just feeding our kids, we were feeding families from Turlock and Modesto,” she said. “I wish we could have done more, but we did the best we could.”

A couple of years ago, Baldwin’s big heart was again on display when the nearby Hickman School District needed help. Its food vendor gave it a two-day notice that it couldn’t provide any food for a few weeks. When Fuentez found out, she and Baldwin sprang into action to save the day.

“Honestly, Dida and I went into their kitchen and did what we normally do, figuring out a way to feed kids,” Fuentez said. “It was nothing out of the ordinary, except our concept about feeding kids was expanded to include kids from another district.”

Recalled Baldwin: “There was no way we were going to let an entire district not have food. What else were the kids going to do? We had to help.”

That response was much appreciated by Hickman Superintendent Trish Anderson, who thanked Fuentez and Baldwin in a letter to Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger.

“During our collaboration with your team,” Anderson wrote, “it was never once about adults, and how much work it was going to be to add us to Denair’s schedule.  Their conversation was strictly about kids and the nutritional needs of students.”

Baldwin never imagined such selfless acts would be recognized with the Every Employee Making a Difference award.

“I was speechless, to be honest,” she said about finding out she had been nominated. “I’m a very shy person. Going to the county, I was very nervous. I told Kim, I just like to hide in my kitchen and feed my kids.”