Despite end of 10-game winning streak, Denair boys still have ambitious goals for basketball season

R.J. Henderson was disappointed but not devastated by Denair’s 55-52 home loss Tuesday night to Mariposa in a matchup of the Southern League’s top two boys basketball teams.

The Coyotes’ coach knows that Denair (12-3) and Mariposa (9-3) clearly are the class of the league, which doesn’t have another team with a record over .500 right now. Henderson assumes that when the two schools next meet Jan. 25 in Mariposa, they likely will be playing to determine whether they share the league title or the Grizzlies keep it all to themselves.

“I still like where we’re at,” said Henderson, whose senior-laden team has won the last two SL championships. “We shot 5-for-16 from the free throw line last night, 5-for-20 on three-pointers and 16-for-43 on two-point shots; we’ve been shooting about 55% on two-pointers. To miss all those shots and still only lose by three? Yeah, the kids are disappointed, but we’ll be all right.”

The loss snapped a 10-game winning streak for Denair, which Henderson said outperformed his expectations during an intentionally grueling pre-season schedule. The Coyotes won the Argonaut Tournament last month, which included a 63-49 victory over a tall and talented Ripon Christian team in the finals. Denair also posted an impressive 57-56 road victory over Bradshaw Christian – a perennial playoff team – and defeated larger schools like McLane of Fresno and Lathrop.

“Bradshaw Christian was big. That kind of set the tone,” said Henderson, adding he would have been satisfied with a 9-5 or even an 8-6 record during preseason. Instead, the Coyotes went 12-2, relying almost exclusively on their “core four” – seniors Mario Plasencia, Cooper Feldman, Connor Leonard and Jack Henderson (the coach’s nephew).

Those four players have played basketball together since junior high and are the primary reason Denair is coming off its first back-to-back Southern League titles in 30 years. The fifth starter is junior Izaihs Plasencia (Mario’s brother). It’s no secret that the Coyotes will go as far as that group takes them this season.

“Those five guys have scored like 95% of our points,” Henderson said. “Long term, I don’t know if that’s a recipe for success, but it’s where we’re at.”

Though the league season has begun, Denair still has two more tough non-conference road games on its schedule the next two Saturdays.

The first is this week at 2 p.m. at Ripon Christian (7-6), which Denair knows will be out for revenge having lost to the Coyotes last month. The next comes a week later at Central Catholic (6-5), another game against a larger school in a hostile environment.

“We treat these non-conference games like a playoff setting,” Henderson explained. “I prefer to play these upper-echelon teams on the road. It will help prepare us for what want to do later.”

The Coyotes’ goals haven’t changed, especially with the success of the past two seasons:

  • Win the league championship.
  • Earn a high Division V playoff seeding with at least one home game and, possibly, a first-round bye. That’s the reason to play a tough non-conference schedule. Beating teams like Bradshaw Christian and Ripon Christian counts when the seeding committee meets.
  • Play a game in March. The only way to do that is to qualify for the NorCal tournament, as Denair two years ago (there were no playoffs last year because of COVID). 

First things first for Denair. Despite Tuesday night’s loss, the Coyotes still are poised to earn a share of the SL crown – if they can return the favor during the rematch at Mariposa in three weeks.

“The effort was there last night,” Henderson said. “Mariposa is almost a mirror image of us. We know their team in and out and they know us. It has developed into a fun rivalry over the last few years. There’s a lot of emotion, but it doesn’t cross over the line. Our kids really want to beat Mariposa.”

Denair Unified will ask state for more guidance regarding mask use, potential vaccination mandate

The Denair Unified School District school board would like some clarity from local and state officials regarding COVID requirements concerning face coverings and, potentially, mandatory vaccinations for students. So would a small but vocal group of parents and community members who attended Thursday night’s board meeting.

In an effort to better anticipate what lies ahead, trustees directed Superintendent Terry Metzger to draft and send a letter to area legislators, the governor, state and local health leaders, and state and local education officials seeking information.

The district’s questions boil down to this:

  • Masks: What are the benchmarks for removing mask mandates from schools? What conditions need to be met to eliminate universal masking in K-12 schools?
  • Vaccines: When will legislators begin to debate mandatory vaccination of students, how will public comment be accepted and will a personal-belief exception be allowed? 

Metzger expects to have a final version of the letter ready for trustees to sign next week. It will be sent soon after and posted on the district’s website.

Masks have been required on all California campuses since some students began returning earlier this year. School districts have no choice in the matter. The rules are established by the California Department of Public Health, Metzger explained to trustees and those in the audience Thursday night. The district’s attorney and insurance carrier also have warned Denair Unified could be in legal jeopardy if it doesn’t follow the state rules.

That didn’t dissuade about a half-dozen speakers – including one tearful student – from pleading with trustees to drop the mask mandate.

“This is about government control and school districts are being held hostage,” said Marie Stucker, whose daughter became emotional when talking about being forced to wear a mask in class. 

Andrea Bennett cast the issue as one of “parental choice.”

“We don’t oppose those who want to wear masks or get a vaccine; we want to make our own choices,” she said.

Any push toward mandatory vaccination of all students – something Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested earlier this fall – clearly was opposed by those in the audience Thursday. Metzger and Board President Ray Prock Jr. cautioned that a vaccine mandate for students could only occur after being debated and voted on in the Legislature, and then signed into law by the governor.

“We expect it to be a legislative process, not an edict from the governor, despite what he said a few months ago,” Metzger said.

Without an urgency declaration by lawmakers, Prock doubted any vaccine mandate could take effect before Jan. 1, 2023.

Metzger said it would up to the Legislature whether to include a personal-belief exception for parents to cite in not vaccinating their children – if and when any mandate would be passed in Sacramento. Such exemptions used to exist for other mandatory vaccinations students must have to enroll in school, but were abolished in 2015, she said.

“We want legislators to consider how a vaccine mandate will affect in-person learning,” Metzger said. “As it stands right now, not having a personal-belief exemption would require students to go to independent study. We know that works for some families, but not for most families.”

The superintendent also said that in the past month, the health community has begun to shift from calling COVID a “pandemic” and begun referring to the virus as “endemic” – meaning, like the common cold and the flu, it’s likely here to stay.

“It means we will be dealing with COVID for a long time,” Metzger said. “We need long-term guidance.”

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Listened to a report from Metzger on the district’s mental health programs, which have been recognized as among the best in the state. The district has four counselors, one psychologist, one full-time and one part-time mental health clinician, and one student assistance specialist on staff. The positions are paid for by a combination of state and local funds, plus partnerships with Legacy Health Endowment in Turlock and the Center for Human Services in Modesto. Metzger said concerns remain about the mental health of some students who have exhibited signs of stress, anxiety, anger and even suicidal thoughts during the pandemic. Social media often exacerbates those feelings, she said. Among other things, the district offered a three-hour workshop for all students last fall and will provide three more hours next semester. Mental health services also are available to teachers and other staff members.
  • Heard the first interim budget report, which revealed that district enrollment is 67 students lower than the 2021-22 budget had projected. Most of that decrease (61 students) is the result of lower attendance at Denair Charter Academy. Fewer students translates into a drop in state funding of about $140,000.
  • Accepted the resignation of Chief Business Official Linda Covello, effective June 30, 2022, at the end of the current school year. Trustees also voted 5-0 to approve a plan to replace the CBO position with a Director of Fiscal Services/Chief Business Officer. Recruiting for that opening will begin in January, with the goal of hiring someone in time for them to cross-train with Covello and help develop the 2022-23 budget before she leaves. The district expects to save $37,000 in salary with the new job classification. 
  • Voted 5-0 to appoint Trustee Ray Prock Jr. to be board president and Trustee Carmen Wilson to be board secretary for the next year. Trustee Regina Gomes was appointed to the Stanislaus County Committee on School District Reorganization.
  • Unanimously approved offering $2,000 bonuses to teachers and staff members who let the district know by January if they intend to retire at the end of this school year. Early notification allows the district to better plan for the next year’s staffing needs, Covello said.

Coyote Cup of Kindness coffee cart recognized by regional magazine for its impact

Destiny Silva is not quite sure exactly what voters in 209 Magazine’s annual readers’ poll were thinking of when they voted the Coyote Cup of Kindness coffee cart run by her Denair High special education students as the second-best community festival or event in 2021, but she’ll gladly take the recognition.

“I was really shocked yet very humbled to learn the news considering we were running up against the Asparagus Festival and the Chocolate Festival, which are two huge events,” admitted Silva, the driving force behind the Coyote Cup of Kindness program when it debuted three years ago.

In reality, Coyote Cup of Kindness finished behind only the Lodi Grape Festival in the voting – a very impressive showing that speaks to the growing popularity of Denair’s program.

The goal of Coyote Cup of Kindness is simple – teaching important life skills to students with intellectual or developmental disabilities who often are dismissed as unemployable. To accomplish that, the students each day staff a coffee cart just outside Denair Unified’s administration office on Lester Road.

Silva began the program in November 2018 with five students. Today, it has grown to 19 students serving coffee, other drinks and snacks – all with a smile and an extra dose of kindness.

How popular has the service become? On a typical day, the students make more than 100 drinks during the afternoon rush alone. In the morning, parents dropping off their children have become regular customers. An app allows teachers and other staff members to place orders remotely; students then deliver them at the times requested.

Clearly, the program has clicked with the public, in person as well as on social media. Coyote Cup of Kindness has its own Facebook page with 785 followers and an Instagram page with 2,313 followers. 

“We are so proud of the students involved in Coyote Cup of Kindness,” said Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger. “The lessons that it teaches are important and long-lasting. And the fact that it has grown in popularity each year says a lot about the support from our community. It’s very rewarding to see its positive impact on our students as well as their customers.”

The Coyote Cup of Kindness cart is open Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Friday from 7 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. It also makes special appearances at Denair High athletic events as well as other community events.

Denair marching band performs in Turlock parade

The Denair High marching band may be small, but it still is mighty.

With only 15 musicians – including four from the middle school – the marching Coyotes are dwarfed in size by a typical high school band. But what they lack in numbers, they more than make up for in energy and enthusiasm.

So when band director Fred Steiner signed them up last month to appear in the annual Turlock Downtown Christmas Parade, the young musicians embraced the challenge. With barely a month to prepare for last Friday’s parade, Steiner and his students met weekly after school to practice and get used to the coordination needed to walk in formation while playing an instrument.

“There was no choreography, but there’s definitely a skill to marching and playing,” Steiner said.

So what was his assessment of Friday’s performance?

“It went as well as anyone could have hoped it would go,” he said Monday morning. “I believe the kids had fun. The only remark I heard in the aftermath was, ‘Wow, that was a lot of work.’ In my view, that’s a good thing.”

The parade route snaked through downtown Turlock and eventually wound up after a mile and a half at the Stanislaus County Fairground. At various points, Steiner said fans were lined up 20 people deep.

The Denair band basically rotated through two songs – a drum cadence to keep everyone in step and the crowd engaged, followed by an arrangement of “Jingle Bells.” Steiner estimates the students played the song at least a dozen times in the 40 minutes or so it marched.

The band – including two seventh-graders and two eighth-graders – featured woodwinds, saxophones, a couple of trumpet players and two drummers, plus someone jingling bells.

Steiner is a marching band veteran. His teaching career includes leading high school bands in Southern California with 70 or more members playing in major events, including the Orange Bowl Parade in Miami.

“Honestly, I have done so many parades in my career – some small, some big,” he said. “I always say things are going to come up and you roll with it. But nothing came up. The kids did exactly what was expected. There were zero issues.”

It was actually the second time this fall the band has performed. It also appeared in the Denair Homecoming Parade in October.

Steiner has a vision to rekindle a band tradition at Denair High. As the music director for the entire 1,300-student district, he already has embarked on a mission to introduce music to every child – with a larger goal of creating a marching band with 40 or more musicians.

Monday morning, he already was receiving positive feedback from his elementary students who attending the Turlock parade on Friday night and proudly watched as the Denair band marched by.

“That bodes well for us building excitement and enthusiasm for band in Denair,” Steiner said.

What’s next for the band members? Steiner has plans for an indoor concert in late January. And he said Denair will have a pep band for at least five varsity boys basketball home games after the first of the year.

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).