R.J. Henderson calls them “the core four.” He’s referring to Mario Plascencia, Cooper Feldman, Jack Henderson and Connor Leonard, who have played basketball together since junior high and just helped Denair to its first back-to-back Southern League titles in 30 years.
The Coyotes lost just once in their COVID-shortened season, posting a 9-1 league record and an 11-1 mark overall. Had there been a Division V playoff tournament this year, Denair undoubtedly would have been one of the higher seeds.
Henderson knew his four juniors would be the key to this year’s team, but even he was pleasantly surprised at how well the Coyotes played.
“What a special group,” he said. “I underestimated them. I thought we would take a little bit of a step back given that we only had one senior in our rotation, in our top eight. I thought we probably were a year away. We were led by that core group. They’re gamers. Their ability to compete kind of got us over the top.”
For most teens, spring break is a time to take a break from school, hang out with their friends or even take a short trip to the coast, mountains or Disneyland with their families. Anything that’s relaxing and helps to recharge their batteries before classes resume and the run-up to final exams begins.
Angelina Curry’s spring break this year was like none of that. While most of her peers were thinking of anything but schoolwork, Curry dove deep into a complicated project.
She wrote a book.
The 15-year-old, who will be a junior at Denair Charter Academy this fall, credits her parents and a particularly inspiring DCA teacher for encouraging her to follow her dream, which has culminated in a self-published book entitled “Melting the Ice.”
Now available on Amazon, it is set in South Korea. It is the story of a 21-year-old woman named Kwan who seeks her first job to help pay for her mother’s medical bills. She is hired as a secretary at one of the country’s largest technology firms and ends up working for an emotionally demanding boss.
According to the book description, Kwan “begins to see past his intimidating demeanor and realizes that deep down he is a good person. She starts to wonder, why is he so cold? Can she help him? Will he let her close enough? Can she melt the ice that surrounds his cold, wounded heart?”
The book runs 105 pages and 15 chapters. Curry wrote it from the family’s home computer in their living room in Delhi. She started as early as 6:30 a.m. and often wrote until 7 p.m., taking breaks only for meals.
“The more I wrote, the more it came to me,” she said.
Her editor was her favorite DCA teacher, Karen Sanchez, who provided encouragement and advice when Curry told her what she wanted to do.
“The idea was all hers,” said Sanchez, who has worked with independent study students such as Curry at DCA for the past five years. “I’ve always encouraged her to write a short story. I wasn’t expecting her to write a full-fledged, 15-chapter book.”
Curry has never been to South Korea. The story’s setting, she explained, was inspired by her love of the Korean boy band BTS and the K-pop music genre. The plot reflects her interest in books in which “the guy was cool and girl helped warm him up.” But, she’s quick to point out, “Melting the Ice” is not “an office romance.”
Curry has been interested in writing since she was a student at Hickman Charter School. As a seventh-grader, she picked up a copy of “How to Improve Writing” – which was intended for high school students – and read it cover to cover. She began keeping a diary. Writing, she said, was a way for her to deal with anxiety and emotional issues.
“I want to acknowledge the people who helped me make this happen,” she wrote in the author’s note for her book. “My mom and dad, who are always there to support me, love me and help me take care of my mental and physical well-being and to encourage me to keep at my dream of writing. My teacher Mrs. Sanchez who helped me self-publish this novel and who was the first to read my book and tell me how much she enjoyed it. She is by far the best teacher I have had.
“I would also like to thank my friends who have stuck by my side for the past years and continue to support me and were so excited to read my novel. But most of all, I would like to thank God for helping me get to this point, health-wise, to be able to do all this. I hope you enjoy ‘Melting the Ice.’ ”
When Easter Break was over and the book was written, Curry sent it electronically to Sanchez, who helped with editing. Sanchez also researched self-publishing options on the Internet and identified someone to design a book cover.
“Melting the Ice” has been available on Amazon since May 25. The cost is $3.99, though it’s free for those with a Kindle Unlimited subscription. More than 200 people already have downloaded it or read it for free. It even has four five-star reviews.
Curry, who says her career goal it to become a full-time writer, already has begun her next project, a book entitled “First Impressions: Eternal Love.” Five chapters are written.
“It’s about a guy who has money but is miserable to be around. He’s a photographer,” she said. “One day, a girl who just lost her job is walking down the road, sees a baseball in the gutter and throws it at a tree, but misses and breaks a window in his mansion. That’s how they meet.
“I have a notebook where I want the story to go, but I know they’ll get married in the end.”
There is way more activity than usual this summer around Denair Unified’s four campuses, thanks to enrichment programs and cool weeklong camps targeted at students of all ages.
Nearly 500 K-12 students are participating in various summer programs, which began June 7 and continue through July 2. Although there are some traditional academic classes for high school students who need to make up credits toward graduation, most of this year’s program is targeted at younger students.
“Have fun. Build relationships. Light academics,” explained Superintendent Terry Metzger, who empowered her principals and their teachers to come up with fun, activity-based offerings that would appeal to a broad cross-section of students – many of whom were forced to learn via computer at home for more than a year because of the COVID pandemic.
The result is fewer hard-core math, English and science courses that require students to sit in the classroom and more interactive weeklong camp opportunities that build new skills, interests and curiosity.
Want to learn to fish? There’s a camp for that, complete with a chaperoned visit to a local lake.
Interested in animals? Try Dogs 101, which offers insight into the behavior and different breeds of man’s best friend. Or another class on the many species of animals found in the wild.
Into science and technology? Drone camp might be just the thing. Or a camp based on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
There are three floral courses, from the basics to creating arrangements for weddings. There is a culinary adventure camp to introduce cooking to kids as well as camps on gardening, life on a farm and shop skills.
For those with an artistic bent, there are camps on origami and doodling, music and learning folkloric dances from Indian and Colombia.
There is an America the Beautiful camp to teach patriotic songs and help students appreciate American symbols.
And there are plenty of sports camps, from softball, volleyball and basketball to dodgeball and recess games and strength training. “It has been absolutely amazing,” said Laura Cardenas, the learning director at Denair Elementary Charter Academy who has helped coordinate more than 30 camps across all grade levels. “The kids are really loving it and the staff is really enjoying it.”
She said students of like ages are grouped together in classes of no more than 20, though many are less than that. Students were required to register in advance and prioritize which camps they most wanted to attend. Many of the more popular camps have wait lists.
“The kids are excited,” said Cardenas, who is teaching the Baile dance class. “They come home excited and then wake up the next day and can’t wait to come to school again.”
Patty Morrissey, who has a small group of third- through fifth-graders in her America the Beautiful class, said she’s always wanted to be able to teach something like that.
“I thought it would be fun,” she said. “Kids need to realize what a great country we live in.”
She introduces students to patriotic songs like “America the Beautiful” and “This Land is Your Land,” and also focuses on U.S. symbols like the flag and bald eagle. Anything with a red, white and blue theme.
Ag teacher Holli Jacobsen put her life on a farm students to work building planter boxes that eventually will produce fruits and vegetables that will feed into the district’s food program.
In all, there are 262 students enrolled in summer enrichment courses at DECA, 57 at Denair Middle School and 26 at Denair High. That’s on top of 118 high school students who are in the credit recovery program. Camps and classes run from 8 a.m. to noon each day.
Metzger saw enough enthusiasm from students and staff in the first week that she’s already thinking ahead to next summer – when the COVID crisis hopefully has passed. She would like to see the enrichment program continue.
“It’s in the budget for next year,” she said. “I can see already it’s very popular with students and staff.”
For all the academic impacts the pandemic caused to students and staff in the Denair Unified School District over the past year, the district has emerged in a relatively strong financial position thanks to an infusion of extra state and federal COVID relief money.
District trustees were presented Thursday night with a proposed $18.2 million budget for the 2021-22 school year, which includes $2.33 million in extra state and federal assistance because of the pandemic. Much of that will be spent on one-time expenses – like textbooks, school supplies and technology upgrades – over the next couple of years rather than be plowed into ongoing items like staff salaries, trustees were told.
The upcoming budget also anticipates California finally beginning to catch up on what it owes public schools in payments deferred during the pandemic. The Cost of Living Allowance – a “mega-COLA” in the words of Chief Business Official Linda Covello – is projected to be 5.07%, much higher than in normal years.
That still could change between now and when the state is legally required to pass its budget by the end of June. Denair, like all school districts, has to approve its own budget before July 1, which is why Covello said she planned conservatively when projecting for enrollment and other areas. It’s always easier to figure out what to do when revenue is higher, she said, as opposed to trimming expenses mid-year because of overly aggressive assumptions.
Still, the proposal 2021-22 budget – which trustees are expected to take action on at a special meeting June 10 – is quite a bit different from the bare-bones $14,539,016 spending plan enacted in June 2020 when all the financial implications of the COVID crisis were still uncertain. That budget projected spending about $800,000 less than the year before while dipping into reserves by $151,000.
Contrast that to the situation now, when Covello anticipates the district will finish the next school year with a fund balance of $1,471,443.
“It’s likely we’ll have carryover COVID relief funds from federal and state since we won’t spend them all next year,” she said.
As in most years, most of the proposed 2021-22 budget is devoted to people – salaries and benefits account for 75% of the spending. If not for the extra government money, that share would be closer to 80%, Covello said.
Despite an uptick in new residential construction within the district’s boundaries, Covello is planning for an increase of just three students across the district’s four campuses. The proposed budget projects Average Daily Attendance will be 1,256 students.
“It’s a conservative number that doesn’t really account for any growth we may have,” she said. “We also know some students left the district last year because of COVID. We don’t know how many of them may come back.”
When classes resume in August, Superintendent Terry Metzger expects almost all students to return to campus. When Denair reopened classes for face-to-face instruction in mid-April, about 85% of students returned. The rest remained on distance learning.
In the next school year, distance learning for all grade levels will be coordinated through Denair Charter Academy, Metzger said. DCA offers home schooling for K-8 students and independent study for high school students.
Metzger also said bus service will resume in August for students who qualify.
In other action Thursday, trustees:
Held a moment of silence for the three family members killed in a house fire in the early morning hours of May 30. Sergio Inostros, 25, Mason Mulgado, 8, and Bennet Inostros, 3, lost their lives. Mason was a student at Denair Elementary Charter Academy.
Congratulated the Denair High Class of 2021, which graduated all 63 of its seniors on May 28. Principal Kara Backman said all the students participated in the Sober Grad night party that same night.
Voted 5-0 to spend $77,000 of lottery money on a new science curriculum for Denair Middle School and Denair Charter Academy.
Held a public hearing on the 2021-24 Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), a strategic document that lays out for parents and the community how the district will spend the millions of dollars it receives each year from the state. Metzger said the driving objective for the next three years is that all children will have a foundation for post-secondary success. That means preparing high school graduates to enter a two- or four-year college, or having the skills to go directly to the military, a trade school or another kind of vocational field in order to begin their professional careers. The 2021-24 LCAP will come back for board approval on June 10.
Added courses in kinesiology and anatomy/physiology to the Health Science Career Technical Education (CTE) pathway at Denair High.
Applied for a $20,528 Agricultural Incentive Grant from the state, which will be used to “to create and develop programs that motivate students to accept challenges, take pride in their achievements and work to their highest potential.” The district also received a $20,000 Farm to School Innovation Grant, which will fund a program in which students grow fruits and vegetables that will be used in the district’s food program.
Approved two upcoming student trips: June 22-25 to Disneyland for members of the football program and a FFA leadership retreat Aug. 5-7 in Camp Connell.
Heard a report on mental health services provided by district in the past year for students, their families and staff. Metzger said 341 students in all age ranges were helped with issues like anxiety and depression, substance abuse, anger, self-abuse and health/hygiene.
Pureza Avila is the Denair High School Class of 2021 valedictorian thanks to her 4.09 grade-point average. The salutatorian will be Brielle Prock, who compiled a 4.03 GPA over four years.
is set for May 28 at Jack Lytton Stadium. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. and
the ceremony begins at 7 p.m. This year because of ongoing COVID
concerns, seniors and their families will sit on both sides of the
stadium to space people out. All seating will be pre-assigned and
printed on graduation tickets (each graduate will receive six
and Prock recently
took time to answer some questions about their high school
Obviously, the Class of 2021 has had a much different educational
experience because of the pandemic and a year of school held
primarily via distance learning. How do you think that will shape you
and your classmates?
the pandemic, we all learned new skills and developed values that
further shaped our character. This year definitely made us stronger,
open-minded and more caring towards each other. These intangibles
will help us be more successful in life as we enter adulthood. As I
state in my valediction: “While
we all have individual aspirations, varied skills and definitely
different levels of motivation, we have learned that what we do
possess is a boundless capacity to care for each other. We also found
a way to dig deep, conquer our fears and achieve goals, even if those
goals were just set yesterday.”
I think that this past year
made our class realize what real life will be. Once we walk