Dual Language Immersion program a magnet for Denair; first group of students now in sixth grade

The Denair Unified School District is proud of its Dual Language Immersion program, and why not? Now in its seventh year, the popular program teaches students in English and Spanish beginning in kindergarten. The first class of youngsters are now in sixth grade, which is a big deal for the district because it means the program – and, most importantly, the students – made a successful transition from Denair Elementary Charter Academy to Denair Middle School this year.

At Thursday night’s monthly DUSD board meeting, DMS Interim Principal Gabriela Sarmiento and one of her DLI instructors updated trustees on what is happening in the program on their campus.

There are 23 sixth-graders in the program. One of them happens to be Sarmiento’s son, Victor, who also spoke to trustees Thursday night. Victor and his classmates receive 40% of their education in Spanish and 60% in English (there is a higher proportion of Spanish at the elementary grade levels).

The middle school students have three classes in Spanish – history (ancient civilizations this year), Spanish language arts (reading, listening, speaking, writing, grammar rules) and what is known as an “exploratory wheel class” (Spanish literature, Latin culture and more). Their English classes are math, science, English language arts and PE.

Sarmiento, who has a bilingual teaching certificate, was among the staff members who researched curriculum and visited middle schools in other districts to see how they teach students in English and Spanish. She also taught math and science in English to this year’s dual language sixth-graders until last month, when she became interim principal. In addition to learning another language, Sarmiento said there are many benefits to the DLI program.

“Obviously, the ability to read, speak, write fluently in two languages is important,” she said. “According to research, it increases a child’s cognitive ability for critical thinking. One of our goals is to also increase students’ appreciation for diverse cultures. Making students aware of that helps give them an overall appreciation for others.”

Earlier this month, the DLI students created an art exposition to celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a traditional Mexican holiday that honors family and friends who have died. In addition, their studies include culture and customs from 25 other Spanish-speaking countries. The students also have produced fun videos in English and Spanish talking about the program, five of which were played for trustees Thursday night.

Sarmiento said her son is proud to be bilingual and be part of the first DLI class at each grade level. In response to a trustee’s question, Victor said: “I wouldn’t change a thing about the program. I like it just the way it is.”

One of the goals, Sarmiento told trustees, is that DLI students will qualify for the Seal of Bilingual Literacy on their high school diploma, signifying that they truly are proficient in two languages. The seal can be an asset when applying for college or seeking a job.

Superintendent Terry Metzger said the DLI program has become a magnet, attracting students from outside the district to Denair. Of the district’s 1,300 students, 187 from kindergarten through sixth grade are in the DLI program this year, she said. Denair will continue to add classes each year until the current crop of sixth-graders graduates from high school.

“Commonly cited benefits to bilingual education are increased cognitive development and improved memory, which almost always lead to better academic achievement,” Metzger said. “Research shows that students who participate in DLI programs are more keenly aware of how language works so picking up a third or fourth language is not uncommon.

“Participation in DLI programs also increases empathy, flexibility in thinking and social awareness. All of these things help our campuses be great places to work and learn, and they give students real skills for post-secondary success.”

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Voted 5-0 to adopt of comprehensive facilities master plan, a long-range document that provides a road map for the district’s classroom and other building needs well into the future. The three-phase plan could cost as much as $35 million and includes upgrades on every campus — new ag and science facilities at Denair High School, science labs at DMS, replacement of long-term portable buildings, and five new TK and kindergarten classrooms and a staff restroom at DECA. It was created by Caldwell Flores Winters of Emeryville.
  • Unanimously passed a resolution allowing the board to meet virtually if the ongoing COVID pandemic makes meeting in person potentially unsafe.
  • Heard a short report about the state Educator Effectiveness Block Grant. The grant provides $399,790 to the district to support educator effectiveness and teacher training. The money will be split between DHS and DMS ($209,827), DECA ($140,558) and Denair Charter Academy ($49,405).

Denair music teacher planting seeds today he hopes will lead to an entertaining marching band in the future

Fred Steiner has a dream. As the music teacher for all of the Denair Unified School District, he imagines a day when there is a marching band to play at football games, a pep band to appear at rallies and other events, and dozens and dozens of students tapping into and developing a creative gift they never knew they had.

With only 12 students in the music program today at Denair High and just more than twice that at Denair Middle School, Steiner’s vision may seem like it’s a long way off.

But what gives him hope are the 45 fifth-graders taking beginning band this year. Those youngsters – who are learning to play clarinets or blow saxophones, trumpets and trombones or keeping the beat on percussion – are the foundation upon which Steiner intends to build Denair’s musical program.

No doubt, COVID has impacted Steiner’s ability to foster a music culture since he arrived in the summer of 2020 from Southern California. It’s tough to teach a child to play an instrument via distance learning, which Denair was on from March 2020 through most of the last school year. But a lack of continuity among music teachers has also had an impact. Steiner admitted as much at a recent meeting of the school district’s Board of Trustees.

“I only had two eighth-graders playing instruments last year,” he said. “I was wondering why there were only two or three kids per grade level. I asked an eighth-grade trumpet player what happened. He told me that when he was a fifth-grader, there were 45 kids in band. So, I think part of it’s because I’m the third music teacher he’s had since the fifth grade.

“My message to the board was that it doesn’t look too impressive today, but we’ve got 45 at fifth grade and that’s the light at the end of the tunnel. We must retain them. That’s our future. We basically need to have some continuity around here and keep the same teacher for more than two years in a row. If we do that, we’ll be flourishing.”

If anyone can engineer such a turnaround, it would be Steiner. As the district’s only music instructor, he energetically bounces between the high school, middle school and elementary campuses every day. He spends 90 minutes each morning at Denair Elementary Charter Academy teaching 350 second- through fifth-graders for 30 minutes at a time. The lessons focus on the fundamentals of music – rhythm and beat, tempo and pitch. He uses sticks and bells and clapping – even dancing – to engage the youngsters. Singing – because of COVID – is less frequent than it otherwise might be.

“I try to get them up out of their seats. It’s good to get kids moving,” he said.

Introducing younger children to music also supports Steiner’s long-term goal.

“The more I contact these kids and their parents at an early age, the more I can convince them that music is something they want to do,” he said. “I get know every kid.”

By fifth grade, most children are big enough that band instruments can be introduced. This year’s beginning band includes about half the fifth-graders at DECA.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was right at my goal,” Steiner said. “How many will stay with it at DMS? I’m working my butt off and really focused on — above and beyond anything else — making good choices to reduce attrition. You’re going to have some (losses) for a number of reasons. But all things being equal, I ought to be able to hold on to 75% or 80% of them reaching high school.”

In four years, this year’s beginning group of fifth-graders will be Denair High freshmen. If Steiner can keep 25 or 30 of them involved with music – and then keep it going year after year – his dream of building a vigorous, thriving music program that includes a high school marching band will be realized.

In Palos Verdes – where Steiner came from – he had what he calls a “high-powered high school band” for 17 years. Replicating that in Denair is years away, which Steiner acknowledges. It also means competing for kids’ time against other extracurricular activities like sports, FFA, drama and speech.

“Let’s say half of the kids starting this year make it to sixth grade next year. We’ll have a legitimate sixth-grade class,” he said. “In three years, we could have 80 kids in middle school band. Right now, we have 30. … In seven years, there should be 100 kids in the high school band.”

Steiner knows that achieving his dream will be a team effort. Elementary teachers who engage kids with singing and dancing can help inspire a love of music. Guidance counselors such as Elise Domico at DMS and Brittany Heinsaar at DHS also can steer students toward music electives.

“Real leaders, especially in education, have a long-range vision,” Steiner said. “If we can stick with it, the results are almost impossible to mess up. … We’re moving in the right direction. Want the kids to have a quality experience and teach them well. We’re on the right track. We’ve just got to stay the course.”

Denair campuses excited to celebrate Red Ribbon Week 

Next week is Red Ribbon Week at schools across the country. Red Ribbon Week began in 1980 as a way to discourage drug, alcohol and tobacco use among children while promoting healthy behaviors. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan was one of the original proponents.

The campuses in the Denair Unified School District have a number events planned starting Monday. All are being coordinated by staff as well as student members of the PHAST (Protecting Health and Slamming Tobacco) Clubs. The national theme this year is “Drug Free Looks Like Me.”

In 2018, Denair High finished third in Stanislaus County in the contest for best decorated campus. The previous year, the Coyotes were second in the county.

Here is what is happening on each campus during the week:

Denair High School

  • Monday: ’80s dress up day.
  • Tuesday: Camouflage day.
  • Wednesday: Dress as your favorite celebrity.
  • Thursday: Wear your Halloween costume.
  • Friday: Purple and white day.

There will be activities during the week, including visits from the Army, Marines and Fire Department. There also will be fun games and music at lunchtime Friday with many neat prizes, including tickets to the last football game that will include a free taco truck tailgate.

Denair Middle School

  • Monday: Don’t snooze in the fight against tobacco and drugs. Wear pajamas.
  • Tuesday: Catch the drug-free wave. Wear your favorite beach clothing. Flip-flops OK, but no swimsuits.
  • Wednesday: Wear pink and green together. Pink is to recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month; green is the color of the PHAST club.
  • Thursday: Spirit Animal Day. Spirit animals are a guide t o health choices. Bring your favorite stuffed animal to school.
  • Friday: Scare away tobacco and drugs. Wear Halloween costumes (no full face masks, face paint or weapons allowed).

There will be numerous lunchtime activities to help educate students about the dangers of drug, tobacco and alcohol use. There also will be educational announcements through the daily bulletin. The  campus will be decked out in red ribbons as well.

Denair Elementary Charter Academy

  • Monday: Sleep tight and don’t let the drugs bite! Wear pajamas and bring a stuffed animal.
  • Tuesday: Howl away drugs! Wear your coyote spirit gear. 
  • Wednesday: Drugs are crazy; stay away! Wear crazy hair and crazy socks.  
  • Thursday: Be a good sport; stay off drugs! Wear sports team or athletic apparel.
  • Friday: Say “boo” to drugs! Students can wear their Halloween costume. 

Denair High athletic facilities to be renamed Denair Lions Sports Complex in recognition of club’s service

Decades of service to the community and the school district will be recognized and honored Friday night when the athletic facilities at Denair High School are formally renamed the Denair Lions Sports Complex.

The ceremony will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the parking lot at Jack Lytton Stadium just before Denair’s final football game of the season against Waterford.

Founded in 1949, the Denair Lions Club has been a longtime supporter of the Denair Unified School District and its students. Many of the Lions Club members are graduates of the Denair school system as are their spouses, children and grandchildren.

Through the years, the Lions Club has completed many significant and important projects at the high school. Lions Club members purchased and installed football, baseball, softball and basketball scoreboards. In 2020, the Lions Club bought new LED lights for the football stadium and members spent multiple weekends installing them.

“When I came to Denair in 2018, it was quickly apparent that the Denair Lions were a strong and positive force in the community,” said Superintendent Terry Metzger. “Club members are well-connected to the schools and they care about our programs and students. 

“I attend several club meetings each year and have found the Lions to be genuinely interested in what’s happening in the district and eager to help wherever they can. I’ll also say that they are not afraid to ask hard questions, which I really appreciate because it helps us improve the way we serve our community.”

In recognition of all that the Lions Club has done for the school district, three black metal arches will be dedicated Friday — one over the football parking lot, one over the back gate of the football field and one entering the gym. All will say Denair Lions Sports Complex.

The signs were built and donated by T.J. McDonald, owner of West Steel and Plastics. Inc. of Turlock.

The Lions Club members’ generosity extends to more than just the athletic facilities.

“This collective group of giving men provides for our families during the holidays with both Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday dinner baskets and our elementary students enjoy their enormous Easter egg hunt,” said Denair High School Principal Kara Backman. “We also have an amazing partnership with Dr. Plett and the Denair Lions Club to support students who need prescription glasses.”

All current and former Lions Club members have been invited to Friday’s ceremony.

Denair administrative shuffle: Silva once again leads special education, Sarmiento takes over as DMS principal

Amanda Silva and Gabriela Sarmiento began new duties this week in the Denair Unified School District.

Silva, the principal for the past three years at Denair Middle School, returned to the district office to become interim director of special education. She will oversee special ed programs for the 247 students at the district’s campuses. Sarmiento, an English teacher at DMS, stepped up to replace Silva as interim principal.

Superintendent Terry Metzger complimented Silva as “absolutely the right person at the right time to fill this role.” Silva served in the same capacity for two years before becoming principal at DMS in 2018.

“There had been a revolving door of principals at the middle school. Supporting the school and organization as a whole was why I went to DMS,” said Silva, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a credential to teach moderate to severe special ed students and a master’s degree in educational leadership.

She praised the commitment of the DMS staff and is proud of the relationships she has built with students and staff. 

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