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Cesar Chavez Junior High dedicated with leader's niece
Cesar Chavez Junior High School was dedicated Saturday, allowing Ceres Unified School District to thin out student populations when school starts its new year in August.

Rebecca Chavez of Sacramento, a niece of Cesar Chavez, spoke at the dedication ceremony. She runs two pre-school day care centers.

"My tio (uncle) Cesar was a big believer in education," said Chavez. "but his vision of education went beyond personal ambition and individual desire. He reminded us that, 'We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and our own.'"

"It was neat to see such a nice turnout," commented state Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, a former Ceres School Board member. "Our community takes a lot of pride in our schools. Ceres gets it."

The new $35 million, 19-acre campus located at Whitmore and Eastgate avenues, will help CUSD trim the size of student populations at existing Mae Hensley and Blaker Kinser junior high schools. CUSD Superintendent Scott Siegel said the existing junior high schools are too big for comfort. Ceres currently has a junior high population of about 1,700 roughly split between the two existing schools. A third junior high means three schools of approximately 600 students within two years.

For the first year of operation, only about 230 seventh-graders - including 20 to 30 special education students - will be housed at the school. All seventh-graders living in the nearby Eastgate community will go to the new school. The district also plans to adjust school attendance boundaries since Mae Hensley Junior High School is pulling more numbers than Blaker Kinser. Siegel said the district will continue allowing parents to place their child in Ceres schools outside their attendance boundary whenever possible.

Virginia Parks sixth-grader Israel De La Hoya toured his future school, along with his mother Maritza. Maritza attended Caswell, Mae Hensley and Ceres High.

"I appreciate the opportunity he's having coming to a new school," she said. "I'm proud to be a Ceres resident."

Added Israel: "I really like this school. The campus is so nice and big. It's pretty cool."

The new campus consists of 39 classrooms within six modular classroom buildings, built in a cost-effective construction mode that resembles Berryhill, Hidahl, Sinclear, Adkison and La Rosa campuses. Chavez also has a multi-purpose room, an office/library/computer lab building, track, full football field, and baseball and softball diamonds. A gymnasium is being constructed and should be complete by winter break.

Brittney Crocker will teach Science at Chavez. She'll transfer from Blaker Kinser.

"I'm very excited," Crocker said. "It's a gorgeous school. The staff is amazing. I can't wait to get started."

CUSD Supt. Scott Siegel said opening the school is not a major financial burden on the district since the teaching staff is being sent from the two schools along with the students. He said the added costs come to a "few hundred thousand dollars" with the hiring of additional support staff.

"Some costs are absorbed by taking some support staff over to the new school," he said. However, new staff positions include the principal, office manager, head custodian, library/media clerk and a secretary.

Jose Beltran will serve as the school's first principal. A 1991 Ripon High graduate, Beltran has served as principal of Virginia Parks and Walter White elementaries. Beltran has worked for Ceres Unified since 2006 and spent the previous 12 years teaching in Riverbank.

"It's amazing from the groundbreaking to where we're at now," he said.

CUSD officials desire small junior high campuses, citing research that indicates that the junior high age group experience bears a lot to do with the high school drop-out rate.

"Our reasoning is this," said Siegel. "Junior high is where we see a lot of change in student outcomes. In elementary school, you have an adult with you at all times. Junior is is a very transitional time and all of a sudden instead of one adult, you have seven teachers and that's where you can feel disconnected. On a smaller smaller campus "everybody will know the kids better. When there's trouble we can see it and head it off before they take off on another path."

Siegel said existing portables at Mae Hensley will be vacated and powered off, kept for future use and that some may qualify for removal or modernization.

CUSD is also planning for Lucas Elementary School on a 14-acre Roeding Road site west of Mitchell Road; and Walt Hanline Elementary School on a parcel on South Central Avenue south of Central Valley High School. State hardship money - given to districts which have reached their bonding limits - is expected to come in for the $15 million Hanline campus and $12 million Lucas Elementary. Siegel said money could freed up by the state in the next few years, two years at the earliest.

Controversy dogged the beginning of the new campus. CUSD trustees caught flak for naming the school for the late Mexican-American farm labor leader since the board strayed from its policy of naming schools for local persons who made a difference in the lives of young people. Runner-up names of local persons included Wayne Salter, the Moffet-Long family, and long-time teacher and coach Phil de la Porte, among others. Over 30 school districts in the state already have named schools for Chavez.

"I don't think we can underestimate his impact," Siegel said.