10 retirees, 4 students, superintendent honored in Denair

Thursday night was a time to celebrate at the monthly meeting of the  Denair Unified School District Board of Trustees. Ten retirees – some of whom have worked more than three decades in the district — were honored along with four students and Superintendent Terry Metzger.

The retirees took center stage in front of family, friends and colleagues in the Denair Elementary Charter Academy cafeteria. Each received a crystal clock, a bouquet of flowers from the DHS floral department, sincere thanks for their contributions and warm wishes for a fulfilling retirement.

Together, the retirees have served the district and its 1,200 students for more than 160 years as teachers, attendance clerks and custodians. Some interacted with multiple generations of the same family as students. Recognized were:

  • Janelle Gray, who has taught second grade at DECA for 37 years. “Janelle is funny. She likes to joke around and has as a great sense of humor. She’s very innovative and great with her students,” said Principal Kelly Beard.
  • Patti Morrissey, a DECA teacher for 36 years. “Patti was my mentor teacher,” Beard said. “She took me under her wing when I was starting as a teacher. We were kindred spirits. It was an amazing experience we had. We’re going to miss her sense of humor. She is our musical talent on campus.”
  • John Stavrianoudakis, a popular art teacher at Denair High for 28 years. “True story, I still don’t know how to say Stav’s last name, so he’s Mr. Stav,” said Principal Kara Backman. “We will miss your compassion, your empathy for kids. You are so humble. Kids have learned about you and want to come to school because of you. You’re so valuable in so many things and always a team player for everyone.”
  • Maria Olivas, a former Spanish teacher who became the district’s English Language Development coordinator. “She has been a blessing to our students,” Metzger complimented. “She started so many great things and really helped us connect with all parents, not just Spanish-speaking parents. She always approached her job with a can-do attitude and a smile on her face.”
  • Teresa Winter, a food service worker for 16 years. “Her fierce dedication to the students was obvious in the way she did her meal prep and that she knew every kid,” said Food Services Manager Kim Fuentez. “She was the face of the district during the pandemic because she manned the food distribution line. She represented the best of Denair and Denair food service.”
  • Jeannie Herrington, the attendance clerk at Denair Middle School for 16 years. “She always demonstrated empathy,” said Amanda Silva, a former DMS principal who is now the district’s special education coordinator.
  • David Curnow, a high school custodian for eight years. “If you ask Dave, he’ll get it done,” praised Backman. “Every single staff member and student knows Dave. But if you turn that around, he knows all of them as well. He comes early and stays late. He helps keep DHS safe and we appreciate him so much.”
  • Loretta Blevins, who worked as a special education teacher for seven years. “She’s kind and humble, always willing to do anything for students,” said Silva.
  • Robert LaFountain, a utility worker for five years. “When I took over, I found out how hard it was to keep up with Bob,” said Facilities, Maintenance and Operations Director Mark Hodges. “One minute, he might be mowing the lawn and the next he was cutting down a tree. He always gave his full time to us.”
  • Amanda Storlie, a preschool paraeducator for 3½ years. “She was perfectly fit to be in preschool,” Beard said. “She has a sweet, loving, soft voice and the students really love her.”

Also honored Thursday were four students, all of them seniors at Denair High. Thomas Guzman was given a plaque for being the student representative on the board for the past year while Fernando Quintero, Jazmine Ramirez and Mariana Verduzco were singled out for meeting state standards for bilingual literacy after passing oral and written tests in English and Spanish. They will receive the coveted Seal of Biliteracy on their high school diplomas.

Metzger also was recognized for being named the Association of California School Administrators’ choice as Superintendent of the Year for Region 7, which includes much of Central California. A video that lauded Metzger’s leadership skills during the past two years of the pandemic was shown.

Later in the meeting, trustees demonstrated their appreciation for Metzger by extending her contract through the 2023-24 school year. Her 2022-23 salary will be $176,160, plus a $350 a month car allowance. Metzger has been superintendent since 2108.

Also Thursday, the board heard a report from Metzger about attendance, interdistrict transfers, suspensions and expulsions.

Not surprisingly, COVID impacted attendance figures at the district’s four campuses the past two years. That’s important because Average Daily Attendance (ADA) – which is the percentage of enrolled students who are in class each day – is the primary way the state funds public schools. District finance officials estimate the drop in ADA would have cost Denair $425,000 in the next school year, if the district was not allowed to use the prior year ADA for funding purposes.

All of Denair’s schools have seen fewer students in class this year, especially in December, January and February, when the Delta and Omicron variants of the virus affected kids and teachers. Chronic absences – defined as missing at least 10% of school days – have risen this year to 38% at DECA, 36% at DMS, 36% at DHS and 23% at Denair Charter Academy. Before the pandemic, those numbers ranged from 4% to 11%.

“Those numbers are disappointing, but not surprising,” Metzger told trustees. “We had hundreds of kids in quarantine some weeks. As we look ahead, we’re trying to figure out how to use before- and after-school programs to reach some of those students who have missed so much school.”

There have been 44 students suspended for a day or more this school year, equal to pre-pandemic numbers. There have been no expulsions. Denair High has had 29 suspensions and the middle school 14. Almost all have to do with students being caught vaping, Metzger said.

“We are already addressing vaping in a variety of ways and are working on a plan to deal with it more strategically in the fall,” she said.

Regarding interdistrict transfers, Denair still has more students leaving than transferring in. Metzger said the majority have to do with parents wanting their children to be in other districts because of child-care issues.

This year, the district approved 156 elementary transfers, plus 90 from DMS and 180 from DHS. Those numbers are 103, 52 and 103, respectively, for the 2022-23 school year. Conversely, 94 students have transferred into the district this year and there already are 82 approved for next year.

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Approved a contract for 2022-23 school year with Lozano Smith of Sacramento to be the district’s legal representative. Hourly rates range from $135 for a consultant to $350 for a senior partner.
  • Heard a report from Hodges outlining summer maintenance and facilities plans, including work on a girls bathroom at DMS, landscaping and tree-trimming projects, painting, moving the Coyote Cup of Kindness coffee cart from outside the district office to the high school, and updating the staff lounge and bathroom in the district office.
  • Listened as Metzger described training that will be offered for teachers and staff prior to the next school year.
  • Approved an audit of the district’s financial practices that affirms the district is compliant with the laws it is required to meet.

Committed Coyote program inspires student athletes to become role models

There are 17 student athletes involved in Denair High School’s Committed Coyote program. Some are the best players on their teams; others aren’t. But they all have one thing in common – they are leaders among their peers.

The Committed Coyote program seeks to leverage and amplify that influence to a larger segment of the campus population to underscore some critical health messages aimed at teens – drugs, alcohol and vaping are harmful to academic as well as athletic performance; sleep, hydration and good nutrition are essential for growing and active bodies; and mental health awareness and stress relief play an important part in any teen’s life.

The athletes and their advisor – veteran teacher and coach Darrin Allen – meet daily in Room 204. The students don’t sign up for the class as much as they are nominated by their coaches and teachers or recruited by each other during open lunches held twice a month. Together, they watch and create videos and other social media contact aimed at students or plan events to convince their classmates to embrace the Committed Coyote philosophy about making wise and healthy choices.

“It’s all about being a role model and living to a higher standard. It’s about being a leader and being accountable,” explained Mario Plasencia, a senior basketball standout who was the Most Valuable Player of the Southern League last season and also made MaxPreps’ Division V All-State team. “The whole process is to create advantages you’re going to have the rest of your life.”

Committed Coyote is modeled after a program created by John Underwood, a former international distance runner and coach of many Olympians. He used principles developed by the Navy SEALs to prove his theory that athletic performance can be improved with proper sleep, nutrition, and an alcohol- and drug-free lifestyle.

A few years ago – before the pandemic temporarily closed Denair’s campus and so many others across the country – some former SEALs came to Denair to help introduce the concepts of the program. Their message resonated with Plasencia and others who were among the first to sign up to be Committed Coyotes. And while COVID temporarily impacted their ability to interact in person, the students remained loyal to the program and its objectives.

“Committed Coyote grew stronger through the COVID experience,” said Denair High Principal Kara Backman. “The students allowed a difficult time to be a learning opportunity and used this to capitalize on teaching their peers what they could be doing. This significantly supported our student body’s mental health, physical health and behavioral health. I am very proud of them.”

One of the pillars of the program that most resonated with senior Caitlin Warda was the importance of sleep for teens.

“I try to get eight to 10 hours a night. I need that for the development of my body,” said Warda, who is active in cheerleading, volleyball and softball. She expects to continue to implement the lessons learned as a Committed Coyote when she pursues her education at Cuesta College, where she will play volleyball while studying to be a nurse.

Senior Shaylin Gomes – a member of the volleyball, basketball and track teams in addition to being a cheerleader – has been part of the program for two years. She said her interest was piqued when she heard Allen talk about the important of nutrition and sleep on adolescent bodies. She admits that fatigue is a consistent issue for her because she must rise at 5 a.m. to feed her pigs and goats.

“It’s helped me keep a positive mindset, not get distracted and eat well,” said Gomes, who will attend Fresno State next fall and major in veterinary science. She also was impressed by some of the trainings the students attended where she learned “how drugs and alcohol affect your brain.”

Junior Isaac Martinez is a football, basketball and track team member who was invited by Allen to join the program this year. He learned that concussions affect teens’ brains in ways similar to drugs and alcohol and that sleep is more important than he ever appreciated. He also is looking forward to attending a statewide conference in Anaheim in July to pick up ideas from other high schools who have their own versions of Committed Coyote.

“I’ve been trying to recruit other athletes,” Martinez said. “I tell them it will help them excel.”

During a presentation at the April meeting of the Denair Unified Board of Trustees, the students showed videos they have made and shared some of the other benefits of the program.

  • It helps get your head in the game and stay focused
  • It combats peer pressure
  • It helps you and your team
  • It inspires others to do the same
  • It keeps you motivated

The Committed Coyotes also have made presentations to Denair Middle School students, participated in the anti-drug Red Ribbon Week and attended a countywide conference with like-minded students.

“This is an amazing group of kids,” praised Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger.

Eight of the current Committed Coyotes are seniors who will graduate this month. Allen said he hopes to replace all of them and add a few more student athletes. He has room for as many as 22 in the next school year. To that end, the group already is planning another after-school recruiting event before school ends – something like the football tailgate party they held last fall or the watch party in the Denair gym they organized in March when the boys basketball team was in the NorCal playoffs.

“I know there are other student athletes who would benefit from this program,” Allen said. “It’s all about reinforcing the importance of making good choices. It’s also a great way to re-establish our school community after all we’ve been through with COVID the past two years.”

Denair Unified hires new IT manager

Once, Chue Lee’s dream job was to design video games. But with competition fierce and jobs scarce in that industry, he pivoted to education in 2015 after graduating from college. A succession of increased responsibilities through two Central Valley school districts has led him to Denair, where he has been hired as the district’s new IT manager.

“Chue impressed the interview panel with his enthusiasm, tech knowledge and skills, and his understanding that the tech department is critical to supporting teaching and learning,” said Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger.

Lee arrives in Denair after five years with the Kerman Unified School District near Fresno, where he steadily rose through the IT ranks after being hired in 2017. Before that, he worked in the Merced City School District in the city in which he grew up.

It was Lee’s sister who first got him interested in technology as a career. She was into app development for Apple devices and pushed him to do the same. He attended DeVry University in Pomona,California, graduating in 2015 with a degree in software development with a concentration in web game programming.

He returned to Merced after college, but after six months of not finding opportunity in the video game field, Lee turned to education. He hasn’t looked back since.

One of his strengths, Lee said, is working with administrators and teachers to extract and analyze student test data. In Kerman, which has about 5,500 students, he also developed a program to purge student and staff accounts each year, saving that district about $6,000 a year.

The pandemic put a premium on technology, with students across the country forced to move to distance learning for part of 2020 and 2021. It also put more pressure than ever on IT staffs, who had to make sure teachers and students could stay connected.

“Distance learning was a lot of work,” Lee said. “We had plans for something and all of sudden they would change and we had to rethink our thought process.”

In Denair, he will manage the district’s small IT team, which is responsible for all the tech needs of the 1,200 students, plus the staff, administrators and others who are dependent on computers.

“Basically, everything that requires the IT department,” he said.

Until his job interview, Lee had never been to Denair. All he knew was it is east of Turlock. What he is sure of is that his new job means he will cut his daily commute from his home in Merced in half – from 100 miles roundtrip to Kerman to 50 to and from Denair.

“I’m looking forward to spending less time in the car each day,” Lee said.

Denair Elementary Charter Academy’s new principal will share her passion for education with staff, students

Marilu Cano believes in the transformative power of education – for herself and her students. Her achievements as a teacher and administrator are directly related to being a lifelong learner, and it’s that curiosity and thirst for knowledge that she hopes to pass on to her own students.

Cano will have that opportunity in July when she becomes the new principal at Denair Elementary Charter Academy. She will replace the popular Kelly Beard, who announced earlier this spring that she will be moving out of state after this school year.

Cano has been the principal of El Capitan Elementary School, a K-6 campus in the Delhi Unified School District, the past two years. Before that, she spent many years as an administrator and teacher at public and charter schools in Madera. She has extensive experience working with students learning to speak English. And, like DECA, her current campus has a Dual Language Immersion program.

Cano is bilingual, as are in her three adult children and grandchildren.

“It is so important today for children to be able to speak another language, especially when they’re older and looking to begin a career,” she said, adding that she was drawn to DECA because of the reputation and quality of its Dual Language program.

“DECA reminds me of my other two sites,” Cano said. “What I liked the most about it is it has Dual Language, but it is done differently. I’m interested in learning more about how that works.”

Cano’s impressive rise up the teaching ladder consistently has been fueled by her determination to learn new skills. She was already teaching English as a Second Language in Madera when she graduated from National University in Fresno in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in addictive disorders. She received her master’s degree in cross-cultural teaching from National University in 2005, then earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Fresno State in 2019. Most recently, she was part of the superintendents’ academy organized by the Association of California School Administrators.

“I’m very passionate about learning,” said Cano, who enjoys listening to Audible books as she commutes to and from work from her home in Madera. “I’m always looking for opportunities to learn.”

Cano also describes herself as “very systematic and organized.” She can’t wait to meet with her new staff once she starts in July.

“I’m envisioning taking the pulse of school and working with the learning director so we can work on English language development,” she said. “I’m also looking forward to working with teachers on what systems we need to put in place to support them.”

Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger said Cano impressed the interview panel (made up of parents, administrators, teachers and staff) with her “organization, communication and strong instructional leadership.”

“She is coming to Denair with wonderful experience as a principal and English learner coordinator,” Metzger said. “She is bilingual and has worked with Dual Language programs, which will be a huge benefit for DECA.”

Beard announced last month that she will be moving to Texas this summer with her husband, daughter and mother to be closer to their extended family. She has been a fixture at DECA since 2003, when she began as a first-grade teacher. After 13 years in the classroom, she became the principal at Denair Middle School for one year, then returned to DECA as principal in 2017.

“What I love most and am most proud of is the family feel of Denair and the relationships between stakeholders,” Beard said. “Everyone is always willing to go above and beyond and work together to do what is best for students.” 

It’s official: Classes will begin at 8:30 a.m. for all Denair students in the next school year

When the next school year begins in August, all Denair students will be able to get an extra 30 minutes of sleep. That’s because, as expected, Denair Unified School District trustees agreed Thursday night to start school at 8:30 a.m. on all four campuses. The current start time is 8 a.m.

Denair officials really had no choice. A new state law says high schools cannot begin classes before 8:30 a.m. in an effort to address concerns that teen-agers chronically do not get enough sleep. In Denair’s case – with students at all grade levels sharing bus services on two routes – there was no realistic way to have elementary and middle school children start at one time and older students start at another.

“We’ve been talking about this for quite some time,” said Superintendent Terry Metzger. “We considered input from students, parents, staff, the community and our legal counsel.”

No class time will be lost since the end of the school day also will be pushed back by 30 minutes.

Maintaining the same start time for all campuses means that parents who drive their children to and from school will not be forced to do multiple drop-offs and pick-ups, Metzger said.

In conjunction with the revised schedule, the district will expand its before- and after-school academic options. At the March board meeting, Metzger stressed that the Extended Learning Opportunities Program (ELOP) is not a replacement for child-care services currently available. Rather, she explained, it is an effort to mitigate the ongoing academic issues for students associated with the two-year COVID-19 pandemic. The district expects to receive about $845,000 annually in federal funding for the program.

Possible ELOP services could include tutoring, homework help, reading practice, opportunities for middle and high school students to talk one-on-one with teachers or to work on group projects in the library.

Parents will have to register their children for ELOP. Metzger expects as many as 500 students will participate. The federal money will cover the full cost of the program, including staffing, she said.

“This is not child care,” Metzger stressed. “It is intended to be instructional.”

Later in the meeting, Metzger outlined this year’s summer school plans. Classes will run from June 2-30.

More than 500 students participated in 2021 after missing out on face-to-face class time with teachers because of the COVID pandemic. A similar number of students are expected to enroll in classes this year.

The summer program is divided into three areas – credit recovery for high school students in danger of not graduating, summer enrichment for kindergartners through eighth-graders (and some high school students) and a 20-day program for selected special education students.

The enrichment programs will begin June 6 and feature many of the same weeklong camps with smaller class sizes that blend academic themes with electives that are popular with students. Classes will run from 9 a.m. to noon. Registration will begin in May.

“The purpose of summer enrichment is to re-engage students to learning and to build relationships between students and staff through fun activities,” Metzger explained. “We will continue to focus on social-emotional wellbeing and having fun while still including an academic component.”

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Voted 4-0 (with Trustee Crystal Sousa absent) to spend $7,000 to poll between 250 and 300 registered voters in the district on whether they might support new school bonds to build or upgrade facilities. Caldwell Flores Winters – which developed the district’s facilities master plan – will conduct the poll by phone and email in multiple languages in the coming months. Any bond proposal is unlikely to be on the ballot before 2024.
  • Unanimously approved an adjustment in developer fees to $4.79 per square foot of residential construction and $0.78 per square foot of commercial/industrial construction. The new fees go into effect in 60 days and are in line with what is allowed by the State Allocation Board.
  • Voted in favor of the Denair High Class of 2022 senior trip to Disneyland on May 14-15.
  • Recognized two Denair High coaches – R.J. Henderson in boys basketball and Miguel Hernandez in boys soccer – who were named coaches of the year in the Southern League in their respective sports. Both teams qualified for the Northern California playoffs this season after capturing league and Sac-Joaquin Section championships.
  • Approved resolutions designating May 1-8 as National Teacher Appreciation Week and May 15-21 Week of the Classified Employee.