Denair Unified dedicates an entire school day
to the mental health of its students

Denair Unified Superintendent Terry Metzger believes the mental health of high school and middle school students is so important that she devoted an entire school day to it Monday. There were no academic classes Monday at Denair High School, Denair Middle School and Denair Charter Academy. Instead, there was a wide-ranging program that featured a captivating keynote speaker, breakout sessions where students learned creative ways to cope, plenty of information from more than two dozen local agencies poised to help teens and their families, and a campus wide barbecue lunch.

The overarching message to students? You’re not alone in whatever you may be experiencing and there are others standing by ready to help. All you’ve got to do is ask.

Still, mental health remains a topic that many people are uncomfortable talking about or even acknowledging. The barriers are many – lack of confidence, misplaced pride, embarrassment, the feeling no one else could possibly understand the anxiety, depression or other emotions that cause too many people too much pain.

“The stigma is still alive and well – if you’re struggling mentally, there’s something wrong with you. And nothing could be further from the truth,” said Metzger.

Monday’s high-profile guest was Dr. Julia Garcia, a motivational speaker who has appeared before hundreds of audiences to relay a simple message – you’re not alone and in order to become the person you most want to be, you have to be able to ask for help.

Dr. J – as she calls herself – talked openly about her own family story growing up in Arizona that included a mother with addiction issues, a father who spent time in jail and she herself dealing with anger and depression. Even so, she earned a college soccer scholarship, but found herself in a dark place after she badly hurt her knee.

“I was so angry. And when I got hurt, I didn’t have sports anymore,” she told students. “So I partied. I didn’t want to feel anything. I got suspended. I almost lost my scholarship that I worked my whole life to get.”

Garcia said that “real strength is dealing honestly with emotions.”

“What happens when you keep it inside? It exploded,” she said of herself. “I almost didn’t survive until the age of 20. It’s a miracle I’m still alive. I was putting myself in life-threatening situations.”

The answer, Garcia explained, was to recognize she needed help – something she encouraged the hundreds of Denair students in the audience to do as well.

She then used some fun yet serious exercises involving students to underscore the theme. One involved challenging two soccer players to try to score a goal blindfolded – difficult to do alone but made easier when they were allowed to call friends from the stands to help them.

Later, she asked students to each write answers to a series of questions about what they were feeling at a tough moment in their lives, what kind of emotional support they needed and why they might have hesitated to ask for help. Without identifying anyone, she read some of their answers – including from a girl who said her older sister had tried to commit suicide and then the girl did, too.

“Thank you for being brave enough to share that,” Garcia told the audience.

Later, she asked students to stand if they come from a home touched by divorce, addiction, abuse, anxiety and depression, or even suicide. Each time, dozens of students rose from their seats in the gym.

The point, Garcia explained, was not to embarrass anyone but to remind them how everybody is dealing with something. Then she asked students to turn to those next to them and say, “I see you. I’ve got you. You’re not alone,” and to hug or high five them. 

Over and over, she hammered home the message that it’s OK and honest to feel various ways … and that it’s important to ask others for help.

“The first time I went to counseling, I was determined not to cry,” Garcia said. “I was tough. … Now, my life is amazing. Things got better with my parents. The one into drugs is clean now and is my best friend. The one who went to jail is out now and is my best friend. … I’m not perfect, but I’m passionate because I don’t just hold it in anymore.”

Across the district, Metzger has put a premium on providing mental health services for students as well as staff since she came to Denair in 2018.

The district has ongoing relationships with the Center for Human Services, Hazel Health and La Familia, all of which provide various levels of access to counseling and other mental health services. There are full-time mental health clinicians on staff in addition to counselors assigned to each campus. In the fall of 2021 — after students and staff had returned to campus following many months of COVID-inspired distance learning — Metzger worked with Legacy Health Endowment of Turlock to secure the services of Stanford University psychiatrist Dr. Neha Chaudhary, who conducted a series of video-based discussions with students, staff and families around the topic of mental health over many months. 

During that time, Metzger also formed a Youth Mental Health Advisory Committee with about 15 students so she could hear directly from them about what they were feeling, thinking and hearing. Those conversations with students resulted in the formation this school year of the NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illnesses) Club, another way for Denair students to bring weekly attention to mental health issues. 

And Monday, the district’s focus on mental health inspired an entire day devoted to the topic.

The goal, Metzger explained, was to let all students know that “if they need help, there are supports. There are caring adults in their lives.”

“They need to be comfortable reaching out for help,” she said. “That’s the only way to be the real you. That’s how to be a happy, successful adult.” 

Programs like Monday’s are important, Metzger said, “because they generate enthusiasm and reach a wide audience. … They also give us a common language with the kids that they can better understand and make it easier for some of them to ask for help.

“Many kids will also find a connection to another student that they didn’t even know they had.”

‘Every 15 Minutes’ presentation makes powerful impression on students about the dangers of drinking and driving

A dramatic recreation of a fatal car wreck involving five Denair High teens sent a powerful message to their classmates about the dangers of driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The grisly scene on the grassy space west of Denair’s football field in which three teen-agers “died” was coupled with 15 obituaries read in class on the same day for 15 other students who had been “killed” in DUI or drug-related collisions. Red roses were left at their desks and their chairs remained empty the rest of the day. Headstones with all the students’ names were erected where everyone could see them. An emotional memorial service with tributes to the teens was held the next day.

The situations depicted did not happen, but the shock, sadness and grief they generated felt all too real for students and staff. And that was the point of the Every 15 Minutes program, a partnership of the California Highway Department, school districts, first responders, hospitals and local businesses whose goal is to reduce alcohol- and drug-related traffic incidents involving youth.

The intent, according to the CHP website, is to challenge teens “to think about drinking, driving, personal safety, the responsibility of making mature decisions and the impact their decisions have on family, friends, their community and many others.”

“I would say there was a significant impact on the student population and their emotions,” said Denair High Principal Breanne Aguiar.

Denair High has participated in Every 15 Minutes every four years for quite a while, assuring that each student will be exposed to the message once during his or her high school career. A 24-minute video chronicles all the events of the first day this year. A portion of the video was shown at the March meeting of the Denair Unified Board of Trustees, where a hushed silence fell over the room as scene played out.

“I’ve witnessed the program a few times and it doesn’t get any less real each time,” said Trustee Ray Prock Jr.

Preparation for the program was a monthslong process, Aguiar said. The students involved in the wreck or to have obits read about them were chosen by staff in advance. They represented different grades and levels of notoriety on campus. They and their parents were sworn to silence ahead of time, had to attend a meeting with a CHP officer to learn more about the program and didn’t know what role they will be playing until the morning of the event, when they met at the nearby Connecting Point Church of the Nazarene to have the necessary makeup applied (if they were in the crash scene). 

Even most Denair staff are kept in the dark about Every 15 Minutes, so when the disaster drill rang at 9:15 a.m. and more than 270 students and about 35 teachers and staff members were quickly directed to the field, few knew what to expect.

“We wanted it to be a shock for everyone,” Aguiar explained.

The scene was gruesome. Two cars – one driven by Diana Chavez, the other by Chris Hernandez – had hit head-on. Chavez lay sprawled on the hood of her car, having been thrown through the windshield. She was pronounced dead at the scene. Her passenger, Emanuel Renteria, was critically injured.

Alisa Gomez, a passenger in Hernandez’s car, survived the wreck along with him. Another teen riding with Hernandez, Brandon Corona, lay in the back seat, badly hurt. As Gomez frantically rushed from car to car, screaming in anguish as she saw the nature of the injuries, Hernandez wandered around in a fog because he had been drinking alcohol and/or was high on opioids.

As students and staff watched from the bleachers over the next 45 minutes, Denair fire personnel and other first responders arrived and began working on Renteria and Corona in an effort to save their lives. An ambulance raced in to take Renteria to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto. Soon, the “whoomp,” “whoomp,” “whoomp” of a medical helicopter could be heard. It landed in the field and the EMTs quickly loaded Corona onboard for the flight to Doctors.

Tragically, neither boy survived, despite the best work of doctors of nurses in the emergency room. The video shows the lead doctor calling the time of death after resuscitation efforts failed.

Even though the injured students’ families had been warned in advance what to expect, the emotional impact was jarring. Renteria’s father was so distraught upon seeing his “dead” son covered with real-looking blood at the hospital that Emanuel was told to “wake up” to reassure his dad that he was OK. Likewise, Chavez’s sisters were jolted when they had to identify her body at the coroner’s office.

Hernandez, meanwhile, was handcuffed in front of his peers and taken to the Stanislaus County Jail, where he was booked for DUI and placed into a cell.

Grief counselors were brought to the school to work with any students who needed them. Many teachers used the Every 15 Minutes program as an opportunity to talk with teens about what they saw and felt. Students also were encouraged to write letters to their peers who had died.

Later, all the students involved in the exercise and their parents were invited to a meeting where they could talk about their feelings and share their emotions. 

The day after the pretend collision, a memorial service was held in the Denair High gym for the students killed in the wreck. The headstones were relocated there. Letters written by the students and their families members were read. Hernandez also read a letter, expressing his remorse and sorrow. A woman who had caused a real-life DUI fatal collision in Contra Costa County a few years ago also spoke, warning again about the dangers of drinking and driving. When she was finished speaking, she removed her outer layer of clothing, revealing an orange prison jumpsuit, the one she wears as an inmate of the Women’s Correctional Facility in Chowchilla.

“I think the memorial service was where the message really hit home for a lot of students,” said Aguiar.

To watch the complete first-day video on You Tube, click this link

Minimum days for teacher training, collaboration
will be on Wednesdays in the 2023-24 school year

Denair Unified School District board trustees voted unanimously Thursday night to alter the schedule at Denair Elementary Charter Academy as part of a continuing effort to address lagging student performance in English and math.

The switch moves minimum days each week from Friday to Wednesday. The shorter day – when classes get out at 1 p.m. – allows for two hours of teacher training and collaboration after students are gone. Under the current schedule, Superintendent Terry Metzger said attendance trends indicate that more students are absent on Fridays and that staff development hasn’t been as effective.

“There’s definitely a feeling over the past few years that it’s OK to miss on Friday because it’s just a minimum day,” Metzger told trustees in explaining the move.

“Perhaps the most important reason is that in our district, 30% of our kids are proficient in English and 10% of our students are proficient in math,” Metzger added. “We have a moral imperative to do better. That means looking at instructional minutes. That means looking at curriculum. That means looking at staff development. And that means looking at how we structure our calendar. … We send a message when we do midweek collaboration that Friday is not an ‘easy’ day.”

The move does not require negotiation with the union representing teachers, some of whom began a petition drive to oppose it. One instructor, Kimberly Evans, told trustees that teachers were surprised when the plan was announced recently. The move aligns Denair with other local school districts who also have minimum days on Wednesdays to conduct teacher training, but that didn’t convince Evans.

“We have done so many things as a small district to stand out,” she said. “Why would we want to do something just to fit in?”

DECA parent Jason DeMuro – whose wife is a teacher at the school – expressed concern that parents weren’t surveyed about the schedule change. He also suggested the move likely won’t increase attendance on Fridays.

“I think one of the things to consider is that if parents are taking their kids out of school, they’re going to do it on a Friday anyway. They’re going miss more time,” he said.

Another parent, Andrea Bennett, wondered about the quality of teaching on Fridays if they no longer are minimum days.

“If teachers are exhausted and can’t sit through professional development on Friday, what’s going to happen when they have to teach after lunch on Friday?” she wondered.

Trustees, however, weren’t swayed by any of the opposing arguments. Moments after the board voted 5-0 to make the change effective in the 2023-24 school year, most people in the audience got up and left the meeting.

Metzger – saying “we are in the business of educating kids” – defended the move as being one factor among many that will drive improved student performance.

“The children are waiting,” she said. “We knew pre-COVID that what we were doing wasn’t working for everyone. I remember saying that if we come out of COVID doing the same things, we will have failed. Change is uncomfortable. I get that. Changing from Friday to Wednesday has pros and cons. I believe the pros outweigh the cons.”

The move at DECA means teacher training on Denair’s other campuses also will happen on Wednesdays instead of Fridays next year, though the other schools do not do it on a weekly basis.

Other highlights of the 2023-24 calendar include:

  • The first day of school will be Wed., Aug. 9.
  • School will be out all of Thanksgiving week.
  • Christmas break will be Fri., Dec. 22 through Fri., Jan. 5. There will be a teacher training day on Mon., Jan. 8 with classes resuming Tues., Jan. 9.
  • Spring break will be Fri., March 29 through Fri., April 5.
  • DHS graduation will take place Fri., May 24.

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Accepted the second interim budget report given by Daisy Swearingen, the director of fiscal services. She expects Denair Unified to end this budget year in June with $1.1 million in cash and projects a similar balance in June 2024. Enrollment is forecast to grow by 4% next year and 2% in 2024-25. Swearingen also proudly told the board that Denair received positive certification for its budget status from the Stanislaus County Office of Education.
  • Unanimously adopted a student transportation plan that qualifies Denair for $110,000 in state funding to underwrite its bus routes. The district will pay Storer Coachways of Modesto about $270,000 this year to run two bus routes, which will not change. The new plan prioritizes students in grades TK-6 as well as low-income students outside of one mile and students in grades 7-12 outside of 1.5 miles.
  • Voted in favor of a new $188,000 master services agreement for the 2023-24 school year with the Stanislaus County Office of Education. The county office contracts with school districts like Denair to provide services such as coordination of substitute teachers, audiology, a board-certified behavior analyst, information systems assistance, and administrator and teacher training. The county’s cost represents an increase of about $16,000 from this school year. 
  • Congratulated Holli Jacobsen and Anajanzy Montoya for their appointments as the new learning directors at DECA and Denair High, respectively, starting with the next school year. Jacobsen currently is a high school ag teacher while Montoya is the district’s English Learning coordinator.
  • Approved a trip to Ohio for four Project Life special education staff members, who will go to Butler Tech for two days of professional development. The estimated cost is $6,000. 

Denair boys lose in shootout in NorCal soccer playoffs

A magical season ended in frustrating fashion Thursday afternoon for the Denair High boys soccer team, who went to extra time before falling to Gridley in a shootout in the NorCal Division V semifinals.

The game was tied 2-2 at the end of regulation play thanks to two goals by Denair’s Angel Sanchez, one in each half. Both of Gridley’s goals came after free kicks that were awarded after one of the numerous fouls called on Denair players.

Neither side scored in the 15 minutes of overtime, though Denair got three shots on goal.

In a shootout, each team alternates five shots with players going one-on-one against the opposing goalie.

As the visiting team, Denair went first and Manny Renteria quickly found the net for the Coyotes.

Gridley scored to tie it 1-1 and then Denair’s Tim Hernandez unluckily hit the crossbar with his shot.

Gridley’s next shooter was successful for a 2-1 lead before Denair’s Goliath Padilla was stopped on his kick.

Gridley kept the pressure on with another successful shot to make it 3-1. Sanchez cut the lead to 3-2 with a goal for the Coyotes, but Gridley clinched it on the next shot to take a 4-2 lead with only one kick remaining for Denair.

It was a tough way for the season to end for Denair (17-11-4), which finished third in the Southern League but played its best in the playoffs, winning its second straight Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI championship and making it one round farther in the NorCal Tournament than last year’s team.

“It’s pretty disappointing. Very, very hard,” said first-year Denair coach Antonio Padilla. “It’s one of those things. It hurts. We played such a great game against a very good team.”

Padilla took issue with the officials, who penalized Denair’s defenders with six yellow cards for aggressive play. 

“It’s sad. It was out of our hands,” Padilla said. “It could have been a 2-0 game but the refs called fouls and they scored. Gridley flopped a lot – at every single contact – and the refs gave us yellow cards.”

All the foul calls caused some of his boys to “play with hesitation,” Padilla said.

Sanchez — who finished with 51 goals in 32 matches, making him one of the top scorers in the state and nation – put the Coyotes on the board first with a goal about 15 minutes into the game. Gridley tied it on a free kick a few minutes later and the game went to the half with the score 1-1.

Despite their frustration on defense, Padilla told his players at halftime to “just play their game and have fun.”

That advice paid off about 15 minutes into second half when Sanchez again beat the Gridley defense and found the right side of the net.

“Both his goals were beautiful,” Padilla said.

But Gridley tied the game at 2-2 on another free kick a few minutes later, setting the stage for extra time and, eventually, a disappointing finish for Denair.

Still, Padilla said there is much to celebrate this season for the Coyotes.

“I’m really happy for all the good and positive things that happened,” he said. “I feel good for the players. It was a team. I was happy to be their coach and enjoyed every single moment. The kids played with their hearts.”

Third-seeded Gridley (14-6-2) moves on to play No. 1 Leadership (14-3) of Hayward in Saturday’s NorCal championship match.

Denair’s defense dominates in 5-0 victory
in first round of NorCal soccer playoffs

Angel Sanchez and the explosive offense grabs a lot of attention for the Denair boys soccer team, and rightly so. Sanchez’s 49 goals are among the top individual performances in the entire country and a big reason Denair has scored 116 times this season.

All that offense often overshadows and equally important part of the Coyotes’ success – their defense, which dominated again Tuesday in Denair’s impressive and rain-soaked 5-0 road victory over Bakersfield Christian in the first round of the NorCal Division V playoffs.

The victory vaults No. 7 seed Denair (17-10-4) into the semifinals Thursday against No. 3 Gridley (13-6-2), which defeated Venture Academy of Stockton 2-0 on Tuesday.

The game against Bakersfield Christian (12-14-3) was the 13th time in 31 matches this season and third in a row that Denair has held an opponent scoreless. In many cases, the Coyotes’ suffocating defense prevents other teams from even getting close enough to try a shot. That happened again against the Eagles, with goalie Sergio Torres only called on to make two saves because the defenders in front of him – Manuel Renteria, Johnny Tehandon and Nico Zavala – formed a wall Bakersfield Christian couldn’t penetrate.

“Our defenders all played very well,” praised Denair coach Antonio Padilla.

The Coyotes’ offense, meanwhile, kept the pressure on Bakersfield Christian throughout the match, which was played in a steady rain.

Denair scored first about 10 minutes into the game when Goliath Padilla squeezed a left-footed kick into the corner of the net.

“I think it was a shock for the other team,” said Antonio Padilla of his son’s goal.

Less than a minute later, Sanchez – playing despite suffering from a cold and a sore ankle – beat three defenders to score on a cross from the right side.

“It was a beautiful goal,” Padilla said.

Denair kept the pressure on, successfully maintaining possession of the ball while frustrating the Eagles’ offense.

“I told our boys that if we control the middle of the field, we control the game,” said Padilla. “That’s what we did.”

The Coyotes struck again at the end of the first half when Tim Hernandez scored off a corner kick. Ahead 3-0 at halftime, Padilla gathered his team under a canopy to avoid the rain and talk about their second-half strategy.

“I told them to keep playing hard,” he said. “I said, ‘We won first half. Congratulations for that, but we still have 40 minutes more. Have fun and play hard.’ ”

Denair never was threatened in the second half. The Coyotes scored on another corner kick when Diego Padilla found the net early in the second half, then added a final goal by Jose Valle Villa late in the game.

Bakersfield Christian – which was physical the entire night – let its frustration show in the second half, earning three yellow cards for rough play.

So now Denair – the two-time Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI champions – moves on to face Gridley, the winner of the Northern Section. It means another long bus ride Thursday for the Coyotes, who didn’t get to bed until after midnight Tuesday after the three-hour trip home from Bakersfield.

“It was a long drive, but worth it,” said Padilla, who planned to meet with his team Wednesday to review any video he could find of Gridley. 

His said his players may do some light stretching, but otherwise he wanted them to stay off their feet as much as possible.

“Rest and sleep. That’s the most important thing for us,” he said.

While Denair and Gridley will square off in one Division V semifinal match Thursday at 3 p.m., the other semifinal features No. 1 Leadership (13-3) of Hayward against No. 5 Marshall (12-3-3) of San Francisco. Leadership shut out Williams 5-0 while Marshall edged Winters 2-1 on Tuesday.

The Northern California finals are scheduled Saturday at 5 p.m.