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22 students honored as overcomers
• Annual ‘Every Student Succeeding’ event
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Adrian Loza, a student at La Rosa Elementary School, was among 22 Ceres students who were honored Wednesday morning during the “Every Student Succeeding” Awards Breakfast. Behind him is Principal Lori Mariani. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Obstacles can often hinder a person for a lifetime. When a student overcomes them, the results can be inspiring and reason to celebrate.

Ceres Unified School District celebrated 22 students Wednesday morning who made a decision to move past the obstacles which individually threatened to cripple them during the “Every Student Succeeding” Awards Breakfast. The event was held at the Ceres Community Center.

The recipients were:

• Isaac Lee Ochoa, Don Pedro Elementary;

• Ibrahim Nagi, Adkison Elementary;

• Lorena Cancino Sanchez, Carroll Fowler Elementary;

• Monserat Alfaro Lopez, Caswell Elementary;

• Demetri Roberts-Hill, Hidahl Elementary;

• Adrian Loza, La Rosa Elementary;

• Manuel Guerrero, Lucas Elementary;

• Alyssa Pacheco, Sam Vaughn Elementary;

• Jayson Castillo-Lemus, Sinclear Elementary;

• John Haynes, Virginia Parks Elementary;

• Daniel Lazar, Walter White Elementary;

• Elijah Avina, Westport Elementary;

• Austin Melman, Blaker Kinser Jr. High;

• Dontrell Harris, Cesar Chavez Jr. High;

• Ezekiel Hawthorne and sister Erin Hawthorne, Mae Hensley Jr. High;

• Ruben and Alina San Nicolas, Patricia “Kay” Beaver Elementary;

• Tristan Sayers, Argus High School;

• Edgardo Lopez Hernandez, Central Valley High School;

• Halley Sexton, Whitmore Charter High;

• Gaber Mohsen, Ceres High School.

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Alyssa Pacheco of Sam Vaughn Elementary School enjoyed breakfast with her mother during the “Every Student Succeeding” program at the Ceres Community Center. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Here is a recap of each recipient and their struggles:

Don Pedro

Isaac Lee Ochoa, a sixth-grader at Don Pedro, was a shy young man who struggled to join in with classmates during recess and was anxious about his academic abilities. Today, he is a gregarious student who is working diligently in class with increased confidence. 

His autism inclusion teacher began to encourage his social interaction at recess while the special education teacher began to build his confidence in school work. Isaac began to show strength in mathematics and began mainstreaming with peers into a regular day class.

School staffers say it would be hard to know that Isaac was once a student who needed many supports to grow academically and socially. Today Isaac is fully engaged in regular school activities. At recess, he is engaged in games and conversation. In class, he works independently within his peer group and will self-regulate and advocate to adult supports as needed. 

Ibrahim Nagi

Sixth-grader Ibrahim Nagi has been adjusting to the learning environment since coming to the United States in 2016 from Yemen. The structure of the school day and a language barrier were challenging. In the last two years Ibrahim has shown progress both socially and academically. As a sixth-grader, Ibrahim has taken control of his academics. He is advancing and often sacrifices his recess and free time to dedicate extra hours for reading help. His teacher, said Ibrahim is “a kind, hard worker who always acts with good intentions. He accepts direction enthusiastically which has led to progress in class. Ibrahim also has the self-awareness to see kindness in his classmates even when their actions are not ideal.”

Ibrahim and his schoolmates have enlightened staff to Islamic traditions.

This year, he has received additional instruction as an English learner which allows him to get designated time on top of regular instruction. 

Lorena Cancino Sanchez

Lorena Cancino Sanchez has worked tirelessly to overcome her challenges, which include poor eyesight that qualifies her as legally blind. Teachers say she has never used her vision as an excuse to not achieve her goals.

An English Language Learner, Lorena came to the United States about three years ago speaking only Spanish. She quickly adapted to her new environment at a young, elementary school age.

Her teacher of the visually impaired said she was impressed to see a child at a young age maneuver her way through a new city and country and overcome challenges.

After undergoing multiple surgeries on her eyes, she is still suffering from poor vision but uses low vision equipment and aids to help her study. She now speaks fluent English and enjoys talking with peers and adults. She is described as a delightful young girl whose smile exudes an ocean of happiness.

Monserat Alfaro

Despite having difficulty learning, Monserat Alfaro Lopez never gives up. She keeps working hard and trying over and over to get things done, typically with a smile on her face. It’s been said she lights up the room and was described as a very quiet, respectful student. She is friendly and is the first to volunteer to help others.

Monserat has participated in the Resource program for two years, and recently began speech services.

Monserat is a delightful young lady with a beautiful smile that matches her beautiful personality.

She has a very caring nature and enjoys helping both peers and adults.

Demetri Roberts-Hill

Demetri Roberts-Hill is a resilient young man who is getting past significant traumatic events early in his life. In the past three years, he has suffered more loss – including losing a number of individuals who were close to him and who were stabilizing forces in his life – than most children ever experience.

When Demetri entered Hidahl as a fifth-grader, he was experiencing severe PSTD, was withdrawn and visibly shook. Fortunately, Demetri has finally found a level of stability at Hidahl Elementary which he hasn’t felt in years. In months, he began to make friends and feel safe. As Demetri entered sixth grade, he began to take his work seriously. He narrates announcements over the PA system in the morning, has earned the most Accelerated Reader (AR) points, made the Honor Roll and is involved in the Greatness Club.

Demetri can be frustrated and has a difficult time dealing with his disappointment in himself and others. The school staff has watched him learn to recover from his emotions and use the “Twelve Tools” to get himself back into learning. He is actively involved with the “12 Tool Leadership Class.” He has participated in presenting the 12 ToolBox and the Nurtured Heart Approach training to parent groups.

Adrian Loza

Adrian Loza, a sixth-grader at La Rosa Elementary, has faced many medical challenges in his 11 years. Born with a congenital bilateral hygroma, an abnormal mass of tissue on his head and neck area, at 16 months he was receiving injections intended to decrease the size of the hygroma. Multiple surgeries followed.

Despite being in and out of the hospital due to infections and his condition, Adrian kept up with his academics. Over the years, he has benefitted from a nurse, his family, the district’s support services and programs.  Self-conscious because of his condition, a counselor taught Adrian to think about his happiness first and then of others. He started receiving mental health counseling at La Rosa in 2016. He exhibits a positive attitude and exhibits compassionate qualities for others and is always concerned about their welfare. 

Throughout his challenges, Adrian has managed to stay on top of his academics and is considered a “whiz” at math. He says himself becoming a math teacher or an auto dealer like his father someday.  He also enjoys playing video games.

Manuel Guerrero

Manuel Guerrero, a fifth-grader at Lucas Elementary Dual Language Academy, suffered from a turn in life that nobody could expect. Manuel’s father, who showed a great interest in his children’s education and frequently attended Lucas school meetings and events, became the victim of gun violence in Modesto. Manuel’s mother kept the family strong and together and helped him through this time of sadness. Manuel continued to stay strong and showed mom that he was still interested in his learning.  He continues to push forward, continues to play sports, and enjoys coming to school with an excellent attendance record over the last year.  Manuel has benefited from being a part of a dual language program where the Ceres Instructional Norms are directly delivered in daily lessons.

The dual language schedule and collaboration between teachers Maria Arellano and Estefania Cabrera have also made an impact in his bilingual education this year. Student support specialist and Administrative Assistant Daniela Tapia have provided Manuel social emotional support through this dramatic change in his life. Sam Vaughn

Alyssa Pacheco, a fourth-grader at Sam Vaughn Elementary School, was chosen for her hard work and perseverance in transitioning from a more restrictive placement into a general education classroom.

Alyssa has shown rapid social and academic progress. Her reading ability has increased by a grade level in four months and she has done well with Accelerated Reader. Initially Alyssa was always seen playing or hang out with only her sister during school, but now is more apt to socialize and seek out others. While Alyssa is independent in taking care of her needs and managing her material, classmates offer academic support during think pair shares and independent work. Alyssa makes great connections to the learning in class due to the many life experiences her family has given her including activities like swimming with the Dolphins. She has outstanding citizenship at school and consistently demonstrates responsibility, caring, and integrity.

Alyssa attends the After School Education Program (ASES) and the Academic Intervention Program (AIP) where she works with her teacher to receive additional support in English and math. She is on task 100 percent of the time during AIP and uses the Rosetta Stone program 60 minutes a week to further develop her English skills. She is eager to learn and is a prime example of overcoming obstacles in life. She continues to challenge herself in reading and facing her fears. She has a very sweet disposition and cares greatly for her family and friends. She shows empathy toward her peers, and had made many friends since starting at Sam Vaughn.


Jayson Castillo-Lemus

Despite having Spina bifida, low muscle tone, and neurogenic bowel and bladder, Sinclear kindergartner Jayson Castillo-Lemus does not let his condition slow him down.

Things like jumping, running, walking, and even standing take much effort for Jayson. He struggles with some of the PE activities but other than that, he is an active participant in classroom activities and has exceeded staff expectations. He has a positive and compliant attitude with staff and others. He struggles at times to stand from a seated floor position and yet, prefers his place on the carpet with the other students rather than use a chair. He brings joy, wit, and a contagious smile to all he encounters.

Jayson comes to school on a daily basis with a contagious smile and positive attitude that dwarfs any of the difficulties. He does not allow his condition to stand in his way of being an active participant in his class, encouraging his classmates, and taking the leadership responsibilities available to him. He is an excellent example to everyone he encounters that life can give you some difficult situations, but your will, attitude, and spirit can overcome. 

John Haynes

John Haynes began Virginia Parks as a third-grader who struggled with self-control and awareness of his emotional state. He struggled with expressing emotions, impulsive behavior and dealing with anger.  Last year was extremely challenging for John as he was in and out of hospitalization for his emotional well-being. In class John would shut down, place his hood on his head and refuse to do any work. The school team put academic supports in place for him and his mother worked closely with medical and school-based teams to put accommodations in place to support John.  

John continues to overcome obstacles and improve his behavior and academics.  His teacher reports that John is frequently on top of school work, works well with his study peers and follows directions. He has had no behavioral issues and has now currently made honor roll for first trimester.

John is deserving of this award as he demonstrates perseverance and grit as well as use the coping strategies taught. He is a caring and loving child who faced challenges that he initially did not know how to change. This caused anger and frustration. However, with a different perspective he learned to make positive choices.

Daniel Lazar

The first day of the 2018-19 school year was Daniel Lazar’s first educational experience. He had not held a pencil nor been a part of a group of peers. Daniel arrived with a happy heart, open mind, and grit. He has overcome barriers which have included being raised by a single father who loves him but lacks a support system. While his dad worked to support them both, Daniel attended various daycare situations but was not exposed to literacy or number sense.

School staff was very worried in August about all of the content and skills he had not yet had the opportunity to learn. He has exceeded the expectations of both his teacher and intervention teacher because he possesses the drive to make gains and a growth mindset about learning. He now knows all of his letter names and sounds, can count to 120 orally, and has memorized over a dozen sight words. In less than four months, Daniel has made more progress than some students make in a year. Daniel was immediately assessed and began receiving small group intervention to help fill the many gaps he had for 30 minutes per day. This, coupled with strong first-time learning and Tier 2 interventions in the classroom, allowed Daniel to grow at a fast pace that has not slowed.

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Walter White Elementary School student Daniel Lazar shakes the hand of Ceres Unified School District Board Trustee Jim Kinard as he was honored at the “Every Student Succeeding” Breakfast. The event was held Wednesday morning. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Elijah Avina

Elijah Avina is Westport’s nominee due to his perseverance and strong will to succeed. In the loss of both of parents as a small child, Elijah had the support of his grandparents and extended family.

His challenges were primarily emotional in nature with so much personal loss and sadness. Elijah has benefited from the support of staff members, especially after Elijah’s father (who was mostly an absent parent) was murdered when Elijah was in fourth grade. That year, Elijah also lost a classroom friend to a house fire. The school has helped him with homework as he is an English learner and nobody in the home speaks English. 

Elijah is an extremely well-adjusted child who continues to thrive and experience school success when many individuals in his situation would be overwhelmed and shut down. Elijah comes to school each day with a smile and a willingness to work hard. He diligently prepares for assignments and participates in class. Elijah is always looking out for others, is a good friend and a great student.

Austin Melman

Blaker-Kinser Junior High School honored eighth-grader Austin Melman who gives his best every day to ensure his success.

Austin has been receiving special education services since he was in second grade.  He has struggled academically and behaviorally for many years.  When Austin first came to Blaker as a seventh-grader, he struggled to pass his classes and was often times in the office with behavioral problems.  During his seventh grade year Austin had 30 incidents and this year he has only had one which is an outstanding improvement.  

School staff has seen an immense improvement; he has earned a 3.8 Grade Point Average.

When you ask Blaker staff about Austin, many will agree with his health teacher when she said, “Austin is remarkable. He brings joy to my life and my health classroom every day. Austin begins eighth period by greeting all students at our door. During class, he is a role model and conducts himself with great pride. He exhibits kindness, respect, maturity and consideration at all times.”

Dontrell Harris

Dontrell Harris is a resilient young man who experienced significant traumatic events that at an early age disrupted his family life. Fortunately, Dontrell has found a level of stability and normalcy in Ceres that he has not experienced for some time. While at Cesar Chavez Junior High, Dontrell has played basketball in his seventh and eighth grade years. He showed growth and motivation when working with the team. In his PE class, he is reported as being one of the MVPs.  He leads warm-up activities and helps with PE equipment when needed.  He is very respectful towards teachers and classmates, all who look up to him. 

Dontrell’s basketball team has played a significant role in helping him succeed.  The team has given him a sense of family and unity.  Dontrell has grown as an athlete and enjoys the sport of basketball.  The basketball team has also motivated Dontrell to maintain his grades so that he is eligible to be on the team.  His teacher Ms. Thomsen also assists Dontrell with classroom assignments from other classes to ensure that Dontrell is submitting and comprehending his work.


Ruben & Alina San Nicolas

Ruben and Alina San Nicolas have been students at Beaver Elementary since 2014.  They will be among its first junior high graduates in 2019. In the last five years, the brother and sister have not only grown academically, socially, and emotionally, but have also grown to become leaders on campus. This year they have had to overcome hardships which include drastic changes to their family life. In the beginning of the school year, they moved in with their aunt and were separated from younger siblings. Despite this change, they continue to come to school with positive attitudes. They have improved their work, often going above and beyond by asking for extra credit and both are maintaining a 3.0 GPA. They are great examples of perseverance for future leaders. Both Ruben and Alina participate in Journalism class where they write articles for the PKB newspaper and yearbook.  In addition, they participate in Genius Hour projects through the leadership program. As part of Alina’s Genius Hour project, she is working with a small group of first-graders in the after school program to support them academically and engagement in school leadership activities. 

Tristan Sayers

Tristan Sayers has been homeless, placed in foster care, attended 10 different schools, has a learning disability, and is a teen parent. Tristan entered Argus High School as a junior deficient in credits and struggling with regular attendance. She was abusing substances, running away from home and harming herself. In spring 2017, Tristan became pregnant and decided she needed to make positive changes for her child and herself. She is enrolled at Argus as a fifth year senior and in Ceres Adult School. She will earn her high school diploma in June.

Tristan has a strong support system at Argus High School and has benefited from smaller class sizes and daily communication with staff.  She receives academic support from the Learning Center and emotional support from a Student Support Specialist.  In addition, Tristan attends Argus classes while her 14-month-old son, Marshall is cared for in onsite daycare.

Tristan has overcome a history of academic, attendance and emotional issues and posted strong academic gains.  Her perseverance and dedication to achieving success makes Tristan a positive role model for her son and the students at Argus/Endeavor.  

Edgardo Lopez

Edgardo Lopez, a 17-year-old Central Valley High School student, has overcome environmental, economic and emotional challenges.

He spent his first 15 years in El Salvador with his grandmother while his mother was in the United States to work and send home money. The separation from his mother became an emotional challenge. When he was 16, his mother was able to provide some financial support to bring him to the U.S. but Edgardo was faced with the difficult decision of leaving behind his grandmother – the only mother he had known.

He journeyed alone to the U.S. and dealt with gangs and drug dealers. At the border he was detained and held for 45 days. In the refugee center, he and offered basic classes such as math, English and U.S. History. 

Edgardo is involved in church. Helping in church brings Edgardo fond memories of attending church with his grandmother in El Salvador. 

Edgardo is a student more determination, drive and perseverance than many adults possess. He did not let language barriers prevent him from having the opportunity to attend college in order to reach his goal of obtaining a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration and one day having his own business. Edgardo’s hope is to be able to create many jobs for people through his business.

After learning English in roughly a year, Edgardo faced the choice to enter into college-prep English with his English only peers or continue in ELD. Edgardo make the choice to push his self into a college-prep English class to continue to pursue his dreams. He has since earned good grades.

The choice to enroll in college-prep English further shows that Edgardo pushes himself to succeed beyond the minimum. He chooses to set high expectations for himself and to do whatever he can to meet those goals.

His dream is to study business administration so he can own a business, support his family, and provide jobs to others.


Halley Sexton

Halley Sexton has shown tremendous growth over the years despite losing a sister to cancer.

Before her sister’s illness, Halley had poor school attendance, was struggling academically, and was withdrawn. She has now come into her own, is striving to do well academically, and is taking chances on people again. She continues to push herself, attends a social event, and has a love of drama.

Halley was placed in AED to bring her failing core grades up to meet graduation requirements. Her mother has been a constant support. She would stay up and help Halley with her homework on nights that she was scrambling to meet the deadline. Her mother has definitely been her number one supporter.

In 2014, Halley was in the seventh grade when her sister Lyndsey found out she had ovarian cancer. Halley and her family would often stay at Stanford for weeks while Lyndsey was receiving treatment. It was hard seeing her sister go through chemo, her parents upset, and still try to complete school work and maintain her grades. Her sister’s death in March 2017 sent the family into grief and Halley failed several core classes. She also didn’t open up about her loss.

This year, Halley’s junior year, has been a whirlwind of change. Although she mourns the loss of her sister, she realizes the importance of a good education. She attended summer school to make up high school credits and never missed a day, even earning an A grade in Biology. She is currently attending night school and even gave up her role in the school play to stay focused. Halley is currently maintaining an A/B grade point average and is an inspiration to many. She is a strong young lady, and one day hopes to become an esthetician. 

Ezekiel Hawthorne &

Erin Hawthorne

Ezekiel Hawthorne and his sister Erin, at the ages of 11 and 13, have suffered tragic tragedy and loss that no child should have to encounter. They grew up in a life of poverty while living with their mother, who struggled with addiction, and felt the hardship of an absent father. Due to their mother’s struggles, Ezekiel and his sister were forced to live with multiple family members throughout various states, attending more than 13 schools between kindergarten and their current placement at Mae Hensley Jr. High School.

In the summer of 2018, the children lost their mother to cancer. Despite the trauma, hurt, and instability, they never lost hope. With the help of their aunts, teachers and friends, Ezekiel continues to find reasons to smile and thrive academically every day. Ezekiel is actively involved in athletics at Mae Hensley. He participates in lunchtime activities and has flag football tournaments. Both siblings are cared for by their aunts Janice and Christy, who are in the process of adopting them. 

Ezekiel has maintained passing grades this year and is looking for ways to improve academically. Ezekiel has even stayed after school with teachers to get extra support to make sure he stays caught up on all assignments.

Ezekiel is an outstanding student and can often be seen socializing with friends, playing football or basketball or talking to new students. 

With the help of aunts, teachers and friends, Erin continues to find reasons to smile and thrive academically every day.

Erin has maintained passing grades this school year and is always looking for ways to improve academically. 

Despite many social/emotional challenges and educational setbacks, Erin has earned Principal’s Honor roll each quarter of her eighth grade year. To meet this goal, Erin has attended tutoring and works on her assignments in ASES to make sure all her work is accurate complete. Erin takes pride in her work and is committed to her education. Erin has also worked with Ceres Unified Social Skills facilitator Danielle Krauss to help her develop social skills to navigate personal relationships. Erin excels in social skills and is now a social butterfly on campus with a very diverse group of friends.

Erin has attended each Soroptimist workshop offered on campus, is actively involved in Warrior Sing Choir and has performed at Ceres Unified annual Singsational event. Erin is an amazing young woman who has worked tremendously hard to overcome family hardships, personal conflicts, and the loss of her mother.

The fact that Erin is in Special Education doesn’t faze her. She is determined to thrive and her grit is admirable. Erin has demonstrated growth at Mae Hensley and is on track to promote to high school.

Gaber Mohsen

Gaber Mohsen arrived in the United States in 2016 after being separated from his parents for three years. After waiting for many years, the 16-year-old was granted a visa to come to the U.S. in hopes of starting a new life and escaping the violence and poverty he was living in Yemen. Gaber remembers witnessing bombings and the sounds of gunshots in the night.

Upon arriving to the U.S. as a refugee, Gaber experienced a multitude of obstacles ranging from language barriers, poverty, and the distress of being in an unfamiliar land. Nonetheless, Gaber learned to adapt to a new way of life and was determined to speak, read, and write English.

As a new student at Ceres High School, Gaber took on a full schedule of college prep courses and successfully passed them. He attended tutoring every day during lunch and after school. In addition, Gaber has given up every summer to attend summer school in order to earn his credits needed for graduation and to continue practicing English. Gaber has quickly become one of the highest performing English Learner students at CHS. Gaber has stood out because of his leadership, maturity, and determination and has become a mentor to new students from foreign countries with similar backgrounds. Currently, Gaber is serving as an EL teacher assistant where he helps emerging EL students with the basic English language acquisition. 

Gaber will be graduating with honors in June and plans to attend Modesto Junior College to earn his general education credits and will transfer to a university where he will be studying engineering. Gaber will be the first in his family to earn a diploma and move onto post-secondary education.