Denair Unified expands and updates its kitchens thanks to more than $546,000 in grants

The Food Services Department in the Denair Unified School District has a well-earned reputation for churning out plenty of tasty options each day. The quality and breadth of its menu consistently draw rave reviews from hundreds of students of all ages.

And now, thanks to more than a half-million dollars in grant money it has received, the department is focused on serving even more youngsters from its kitchens on the elementary, middle school and high school campuses.

In the past year, district officials have aggressively applied for a variety of state and federal grants to help subsidize much-needed kitchen improvements. Their perseverance has paid off, with $546,222.98 flowing into the district. That money has been put to good use.

  • At Denair High School, two double-stack convection ovens have been installed. On order are two cold box speed line units (a self-serve refrigerated unit for items such as pre-made salads), two milk boxes and a salad bar. The district is soliciting bids for a walk-in refrigerator and freezer, which will be located just outside the kitchen door.
  • At Denair Middle School, two double-stack convection ovens already are in place and a hot speed line unit is on the way.
  • At Denair Elementary Charter Academy, two retherm units have been installed and the district wants to add two salad bars and one hot speed line.

New appliances to replace obsolete ones also have been added at all three campuses. In many cases, the district has until June 2025 to spend the grant money.

“Better ovens, cold serving lines, milk coolers — these contribute to a better-tasting and more enjoyable meal,” explained Kim Fuentez, the district’s Food Services manager. “Without the funding we’ve received, we wouldn’t be able to do half the upgrades our kitchens need.”

The new equipment will allow the district to continue to grow what already is a popular food and nutrition program, which is free for all students. Between the three campuses, Denair currently serves more than 400 breakfasts, nearly 900 lunches and about 375 after-school snacks each day.

“We anticipate that we will be serving 500 meals at minimum at DECA alone with the new equipment,” estimated Daisy Swearingen, the district’s chief business official. “The new equipment would allow DECA specifically to create a more diverse menu. At DHS, the cold boxes at DHS will allow us to offer more cold meal options. At DMS, we will be able to offer actual salads (chef, sesame chicken, crispy chicken, chicken Caesar, etc.). Our kids at DMS love salad, so this will continue to expand the program.”

The Food Services Department also produces meals for Denair Charter Academy students as well as those at the Reyn Franca School across the street from the high school.

Commercial food equipment isn’t cheap. Items such as ovens, refrigerators and cold and hot serving lines can cost tens of thousands of dollars each. Smaller items, while less expensive, still add up. The beauty of the grants is that they have enabled the district to replace obsolete kitchen equipment without affecting the general fund.

“They allow the district to address immediate needs such as failing equipment without impacting the general fund, which is important because it allows the general fund to prioritize ongoing operating expenses such as employee salaries,” Swearingen explained.

For more on the Food Services team, please click on this link to a 3-minute video. It was produced using some of the grant money.

DUSD Parent University Program Participants Receive Mental Health First Aid Certification

In collaboration with Stanislaus County Behavioral Health & Recovery Services, Denair Unified School District is proud to announce that 17 parents from across the district completed their Mental Health First Aid Training in mid-September. Mental Health First Aid is an 8-hour public education program that introduces participants to the unique risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems in adolescents. It also builds an understanding of the importance of early intervention and teaches individuals how to help an adolescent in crisis or experiencing a mental health challenge. The certificate is valid for three years.


Short-handed Denair falls to RC
in Southern League football opener

Anthony Armas understands and appreciates his responsibility to coach this year’s Denair High football team the best he can, despite some harsh realities that are not going to change. Namely, the number of players and their experience.

The first one isn’t going to change and the second one will only come with time.

Friday night, when the Coyotes hosted Southern League powerhouse Ripon Christian, they had 13 varsity players in uniform. It takes 11 to play a game. Ripon Christian suited up 25. That numerical advantage certainly was one part of the reason the Knights coasted to a 49-0 victory in a game in which a running clock was instituted in the second quarter.

“It’s tough, obviously,” admitted Armas, who had four players sit out with various injuries. “We had games in previous years when we finished with 12 guys.”

What did he tell his healthy players in such a situation?

“That we’re going to play hard. That we still expect them to do their assignment,” he said before Monday’s practice. “Magically, we didn’t get anyone hurt (against RC). We’ll see after practice how many might be able to go this week.”

It has been a strange opening month for the Coyotes. They had their first preseason game on Aug. 19 called at halftime because of lightning strikes near Jack Lytton Stadium. That resulted in a 14-6 loss to Big Valley Christian of Modesto. Then they had two weeks off before posting their only victory, 20-0 on the road against Riverbank.

The next varsity game was supposed to be Sept. 8 against Bret Harte, but it turned into a JV-only contest because the Bullfrogs pulled the plug on their varsity program this fall. That meant Denair’s three seniors had to watch while the 43 freshmen, sophomores and juniors played together for that week only. The result was a resounding 40-0 win for the Coyotes and, possibly, a hint of better days to come for the football program.

“Everybody at those three grade levels got some experience,” said Armas, who because of the combined rosters actually had reserve players standing next to him on the sideline for a change. “It felt weird, but it was pretty nice.”

The rosters were separated again against Ripon Christian – not great news for the varsity, but not altogether a bad thing for the JVs, who battled hard before falling 14-7. It was the Coyotes’ first loss of the season.

“They’re looking good. It’s definitely a glimmer of hope and a lot of people are talking about it,” said Armas of the JV team, who paused before acknowledging reality. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t help the varsity on Friday night.”

This week, Denair (0-1, 1-3) plays at Gustine (1-0, 1-3). The Reds posted an impressive 36-6 victory on the road at Mariposa last week in their SL opener.

Denair superintendent discuss student test scores
and what district is doing to raise them 

Like many public school districts in California, Denair Unified has an issue with low test scores. Superintendent Terry Metzger, with her typical candor, addressed the results during a lengthy presentation to her Board of Trustees on Thursday night.

“Many people don’t want to talk about low performance, but if we don’t talk about it how can we improve?” she said. “We have to recognize it and figure it out.”

Each spring, students in grades 3-8 and 11 take state-mandated tests in English and math. Students in grades 5 and 8 as well as high school juniors or seniors also are assessed on their science knowledge.

In math, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards consistently drops as the years go by – from 20% of last year’s third-graders to just 3% of 11th-graders. The results are better in English, with the meets or exceeds percentages ranging from 23% to 35% on the tests taken last spring. In science, 16% of fifth-graders, 33% of eighth-graders and just 9% of high school students met standards in the most recent exams.

No tests were taken in 2020, when the pandemic interrupted face-to-face instruction and forced students and staff into a distance-learning computer-centric environment for nearly a year. Not surprisingly, when testing resumed in 2021, scores were lower across the board. The impact on students not meeting with teachers in person was obvious.

“While we’ve seen some small gains on state test scores across the district, there is no consistent pattern of improvement,” Metzger explained. “Based on preliminary data, most grade levels are performing a little above or a little below the pre-COVID data in English. In math, scores are generally still below pre-COVID performance.”

All students are tested – including those for whom English is a second language. Predictably, that also skews the district’s results lower. Metzger acknowledged that “the data show that our English learners are not making adequate progress in learning English.”

So what is being done to address the issue of low test scores?

Metzger said that even before COVID struck, school and district administrators were honing in on what areas of instruction needed improvement and what strategies would best support student academic growth.

“When the pandemic hit, we had already made some curriculum adoptions, started working on systematic and explicit early literacy instruction, and refining our multi-tiered systems of support,” she said.

When students and staff returned to campus in 2021, there was a lot of attention devoted to mental health. At the same time, Metzger said the district restarted its efforts to improve instruction by focusing on authentic literacy, power standards (standards that have strong connections across multiple grades and/or content areas), and on its grading and feedback systems.

Principals already have begun to scour the latest batch of test scores to analyze which strategies appear to be making a difference.

“We need to stay very focused on teaching and learning this year, asking ourselves about what is working and what is not working,” Metzger said.

Though the state has released the latest data to districts, it is not yet available for public review. Parents who are interested in knowing their child’s results can access them via the Aeries portal on the district website.

Earlier in Thursday’s meeting, trustees enthusiastically endorsed the formation of clubs focused on mental health on three campuses – Denair High School, Denair Middle School and Denair Charter Academy.

The clubs go by the acronym of NAMI for National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization. It provides advocacy, education support and public awareness so that all individuals and families affected by mental illness can build better lives.

School officials and students who spoke to the board stressed that the clubs are not a place to be diagnosed, participate in group therapy or label members as having mental illness. Instead, the monthly meetings are a chance to discuss and learn about a particular mental health topic in a safe, supportive and inclusive environment. The goal is to raise mental health awareness and reduce stigma on campus through peer-led activities and education. 

The club is open to all students – those with mental health conditions, those with family members with a condition, or students who are interested in a profession in the field of mental health, social work and advocacy.

A NAMI Club pilot program began in the last school year included 42 students (21 at DMS, 17 at DHS and four at DCA). The hope is to grow membership this year.

In other action Thursday, trustees:

  • Ratified a new contract with the California School Employees’ Association, which represents about 100 employees who are not teachers or administrators. The deal includes a one-time 4.5% salary bonus for 2022-23 for CSEA members – the same as was given to all other employees earlier this year. The contract runs through 2025.
  • Approved two out-of-town trips for students. The first is Sept. 22-24, when 13 students from Denair High’s FFA program will go to Camp Sylvester in Pinecrest to develop leadership skills. Instructors Roger Christianson, Aimee Snell and Christian Obando will accompany them. The second is Oct. 6-8, when 15 students who are part of the Committed Coyote program will attend a Youth Summit in Anaheim that includes a night in Disneyland. They will be accompanied by instructors Anthony Armas, Christy North and Zach Cherry. The program and conference will be funded through Stanislaus County Behavioral Health.
  • Swore in Zachary Christianson, a junior at Denair High, as this year’s student board member.

New Employee Profile: Marcus Hake

This is one in a series of Q&A’s with employees new to Denair Unified in 2023-24.

Family: Wife, Nicole

School: Denair Elementary Charter Academy 

Subject taught: Second grade

Experience and education: Third-year teacher BA in sociology.

What attracted you to Denair? I was attracted to Denair because I went to school here K-12 and I worked here as a special education para while I was attending college.

What most inspires you about teaching? Being able to be a positive male role model for the students who need it in my hometown. 

What is a challenge you look forward to tackling this year? Learning to work with my second-grade class should pose an interesting challenge since I have worked with sixth-graders the last two years. 

What is your favorite teaching tool or activity? My favorite activity is participating in brain breaks with my students. It completely brings the energy back into the lesson when needed!

What do you want your students to remember? To always be kind to other students because you never know what their story is.

How can parents support what you do? Being open for communication and ready to support their students by helping me learn about what drives their child to succeed.

What would surprise people about your job? Teachers are just as much students as they are teachers. The profession is constantly evolving and adapting to create greater success for students. It feels like the most rewarding career in the world because of this. 

What do you do for fun?  I enjoy exercising and playing video games with my friends online.