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CUSD honors 20 who overcame obstacles
Ceres ESS 1

School can be a struggle for many children. Life can deal adverse conditions that place significant obstacles in a child’s path to getting a good education. When they overcome, educators take notice.

Because of the pandemic and ban on social gatherings, the Ceres Unified School District continued with its annual tradition of hosting its annual “Every Student Succeeding” recognition program – minus the breakfast and opting for a virtual ceremony instead.

CUSD honored 20 Ceres students who continue making progress despite adversities like illnesses, economic conditions, the death of family members or learning disabilities.

Each students’ struggle was told in an audio-visual presentation that posted on YouTube on March 15 at

The students honored were:

• Autumn Shoemaker, a Don Pedro Elementary School fourth-grader;

• Gianluca Pineda, an Adkison first-grader;

• Joel Apodaca, Caswell sixth-grader;

• Cesar Ayala, a Sam Vaughn second-grader;

• David Ferrel, a Joel Hidahl sixth-grader;

• Jacob Carver, a Whitmore Charter School sixth-grader;

• Lillian Ely, a Walter White Elementary fifth-grader;

• Gianna Carrillo, a Westport Elementary fourth-grader;

• Yahiza Bustos, a Lucas Dual Langage Academy fifth-grader;

• Noel Garcia, a Carroll Fowler sixth-grader;

• Noah Perez, a Beaver Elementary second-grader;

• Ivan Ayala, a Virginia Parks third-grader;

• Ryder Boling, a Sinclear Elementary fourth-grader;

• Giselle Palacios, a Mae Hensley Junior High seventh-grader;

• Esteban Diaz Jr, a Cesar Chavez Junior High seventh-grader;

• William Silva, an Argus High senior;

• Kensy Gallardo Sanchez, a Ceres High junior;

• Sukhmani Singh, a La Rosa Elementary sixth-grader;

• Andres Manzo, a Blaker-Kinser Junior High eighth-grader, and

• Donnie Tonelli, a Central Valley High senior.

The following is a narrative of each child’s educational obstacle.

Noel Garcia

Carroll Fowler Elementary honored sixth-grader Noel Garcia for making great strides in attitude and effort since coming to the campus last year with a temper and physical aggressions. Noel was able to turn things around and has learned how to positively channel his energy and competitive nature towards athletics; he is big into football and basketball.

Noel is described by school officials as being polite to students and staff and greets everyone with a smile. He has exhibited tremendous growth in his academics. He even offers his assistance to classmates when they do not understand a problem. Seemingly happy and helpful even during our Zoom sessions, Noel uses his knowledge to help others. 

Joel Apodaca

Caswell Elementary sixth-grader Joel Apodaca is an English language learner who enrolled at Caswell several years ago after he had experienced a big change in family dynamics and a recent move to Ceres. He was struggling emotionally with this change and the language, making connections, motivation, and attendance all suffered. School officials at Caswell say Joel has come a long way from the boy who would stand outside the school and refuse to come in. He pushed forward and found the courage to show up even when it was the last place he wanted to be. His attendance and academics have improved and he has made connections with peers and staff. “We are nominating Joel because against many odds he has shown courage and great resilience,” one school official wrote.

Autumn Shoemaker

When Autumn Shoemaker began kindergarten at Don Pedro Elementary, she was known to be moody and defiant. As she walked in line with classmates, Autumn would frequently drag along. When her teacher had her walk in a different spot in line, Autumn lapsed into complete refusal with tantrums. Those tantrums increased in her first grade. Autumn’s mood swings led to episodes of throwing herself down onto the floor with bursts of yelling. Autumn became distinctive on site with her flailing limbs and ever-present favorite red boots. Her episodes could happen in the classroom, the cafeteria and the office, and, once Autumn was upset it would take her a long time to calm down. But slowly over time she matured and began to harness her behavior into more productive outcomes. Autumn participated in site social-emotional services and spent time with the site administrative assistant, learning to calm and reset herself.

As Autumn entered second grade, she maintained her creative personality yet turned her energy from throwing fits to embracing school success. She learned to complete her work and express it to her teacher when she was upset about something. Her behavior episodes evaporated. Also during her second grade year, Autumn became a big sister, an event that grew her maturity.

Today, in fourth grade, Autumn is a dedicated student who achieved Honor Roll during distance learning. She is known for her sweet nature, original ideas and her determination to do well in school.

David Ferrel 

David started Joel J. Hidahl Elementary as a struggling first-grader because he didn’t have the easiest early childhood. He began having behavioral problems and was struggling academically. However, in fifth grade David began to turn this around with improved grades and behavior. When he was selected to be on the Student Council, he took the position seriously. David helped to run PAW Pride. As a sixth-grader David has continued his improvement of grades and behavior.

The school staff has noted that it has been a pleasure to watch David mature and grow into an amazing young man.

Sukhmani Singh

La Rosa Elementary sixth-grader Sukhmani became physically challenged with rheumatoid arthritis, affecting her life in many ways. She was unable to do simple things like brushing her teeth, holding a cup, opening the door or walking without assistance. This inflammatory joint disease prevented her from running, jumping and other physical movements. Mrs. Kaur shared, “The arthritis causes the joints to swell, and it gets worse over time. As a mother, seeing my child like this was the most heartbreaking thing I had to face, but she did not give up and we didn’t either. Sukhmani was a fighter.”

Although Sukhmani tried to overcome by going to physical therapy, swimming and attempting to do normal activities like bike riding. A pet dog named Teddy helped Sukhmani become more active by playing with him and spending less time on the couch. However, the pain became so tremendous by her third grade year that she could no longer attend school.

Assistant Principal Arti Narayan helped Sukhmani, after getting a doctor’s note, to spend most of her third grade year as part of the Home and Hospital Program. Teacher Ruth Ramsey worked with the Home and Hospital teacher providing assignments for Sukhmani and monitoring her academic progress. Mrs. Ramsey shared that despite Sukhmani’s trying very hard, her academics were a struggle. Although in great pain, she never complained or said much about it. 

Sukhmani has attended the After School Intervention program in order to get caught up. Now in Norman Honberger’s sixth grade class, Sukhmani has faced the challenge with the pandemic and distance learning but Mr. Honberger said that Sukhmani is “such a sweet student who puts in a lot of effort to maintain her good academic standing.”

Sukhmani continues to take daily medications which enable her to function a lot better. She is even doing gymnastics with an in-home instructor.

Yahiza Bustos

Lucas Dual Language Academy fifth-grader Yahiza Bustos was selected as its “Every Student Succeeding” nominee because she is committed to her education regardless of her food allergy restrictions. 

Yahiza has food allergies, mainly egg and peanut butter products, which has kept her from eating with others at lunch. 

School teachers and staff say that Yahiza loves school and when she heard that hybrid classes were starting she was ready to get back in the classroom. She is committed to keeping safe and focused on her school work.

She has grown to be a very responsible and focused student. She has made great friendships with her class peers and staff. 

Arriving at Lucas Elementary in her kindergarten year, Yahiza has benefited from being a part of a dual language program where her Spanish is valued. The dual-language schedule and collaboration between teachers Marissa Baker and Maria Arellano has also made an impact in Yahiza’s learning. Both the school nurse and health clerk have been very helpful in keeping everyone updated on Yahiza’s food allergies.

Noah Perez

Patricia K. Beaver second-grader Noah Perez suffered a horrible tragedy that would affect any child. In June 2020, on the morning of Noah’s seventh birthday, his family was camping when a tree collapsed on the tent where Noah was asleep along with his siblings and cousins. The tree killed older brother Austin and crushed and pinned Noah’s leg. Noah underwent surgery and faced several months of healing while grieving the loss of his brother.

Noah’s second grade teacher, Josie Mireles describes Noah as a boy with “strength of mind, character, heart, and resilience. He is such a light to everyone around him.”

Before the tragedy, Noah struggled with reading and writing and was receiving intervention at school. He always worked hard to improve his reading skills and this has continued even through times of pain and grief, coupled with distance learning and hybrid learning.

“Noah is a positive, hardworking boy,” said intervention teacher Linda Colasito. “Reading isn’t always easy for him but he never gives up when the text gets hard. He keeps trying different strategies to get things right. He has a great sense of humor and is kind to the others that he works with. He makes great connections with what he is reading. I love his determination and great attitude, and I am proud of his proactive approach to everything.”

Noah continues to come to school on his in-person days, participate in distance learning and in intervention sessions. Following surgery in October, Noah only missed two days of school before he returned to in-person instruction. 

Cesar Ayala

Sam Vaughn Elementary second-grader Cesar Ayala was chosen because of his vast improvement in academics and social settings while dealing with medical obstacles.

During his first year at Sam Vaughn, Cesar had a hard time with his studies. He worked closely with support staff and medical professionals to develop a plan to help him more successful. Along with the support of his parents, Cesar has made great progress at school with peer relationships as well as academically.

Second grade teacher Heather Quintanar shared that all her students were facing challenges with distance learning. Although it was something new for all, Cesar Ayala thrived from the start. Not only did he attend all daily Zoom meetings – even when traveling in the backseat of a car at times – he remained highly organized and always prepared with his supplies and packets of work.

Cesar participates in group discussions. Outside of school Cesar loves to draw, and loves to be an artist. He is a very caring individual. He loves the aquarium and also is a huge Star Wars Fan.

Ryder Boling

Sinclear Elementary fourth-grader Ryder Boling was nominated for “Every Student Succeeding” for coming a long way in improving his coping skills and his academics.

Ryder came to Sinclear as a kindergartner four years ago. While in the first grade, Ryder behaved in inappropriate ways and school officials became increasingly frustrated. He frequently shut down when overwhelmed and lacked social skills on the playground. If angry, he would act out toward others in a physically inappropriate way. Ryder’s teacher, Katelyn Denio referred Ryder to a specialist for lessons on using the “12 Tools of the Toolbox” for building resilience, self-mastery and empathy for others. Mr. Matthew met with, taught, and modeled these tools to Ryder over the next two years.

During second grade, Ryder continued to struggle when frustrated. He was doing well in his sessions had tremendous support from his teacher, Kristy Lawrence, but towards the end of the year was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder with hyperactivity. The family worked with physicians to find the right balance of medication to improve the neurotransmitter activity in Ryder’s brain so he could attend to one thing at a time and not be so impulsive.

During the third grade, Ryder expressed anger less and when he felt frustration and anger on the playground, would come to the office on his own accord for some “time away” and to use the “breathing tool.” Teacher Nicole Schultz did a great job supporting and encouraging good choices from Ryder and he made strong academic and behavior progress.

At the beginning of fourth grade, Ryder was not progressing in academics as well as he had in the prior school year due to distance learning. Since Nov. 16 when students were allowed to return to campus twice a week, teacher Kristina Fliflet sees Ryder making positive strides academically.

Ivan Ayala

Virginia Parks third-grader Ivan Ayala has experienced a lot at such a young age but remains a sweet, loving, kind and funny boy. 

Ivan’s home life has been in transition and he struggled to manage the emotional control needed for him to fully participate in daily school routines and procedures. Ivan has grown leaps and bounds socially and emotionally. He has grown academically and pursues interests such as math and science. He excels in math, but he has learned to keep a good pace and persevere with the challenges of ELA lessons.

This is Ivan’s second school year at Virginia Parks. He once struggled to maintain relationships and follow school routines and structure, but is now thriving. Behaviorally, Ivan has learned to communicate his needs to the adults. He is now adapting across environments and staff. He actively seeks out friends to play with both in school and last year during the afterschool program. When he is having a rough time, he expresses himself in a more positive way and accepts help from staff. He enjoys learning and being a part of a group.

After months of distance learning, Ivan was eager to be back at school interacting with both staff and peers. During the first class meeting, he shared how happy he was to be back at school and how difficult the pandemic had been for him. He was so excited to be on campus that he eagerly followed all school rules, including wearing a mask during lunch to engage in conversation with teachers and peers. He seeks out staff members just to say hello.

During instruction, Ivan is always the first one to share his answers and explain his thinking and he loves to earn class points for engaging during instruction. Ivan is an extremely bright and intelligent student. He brings a positive attitude to class, is respectful and pleasant and serves as a great role model for other students.

Lillian Ely

Now a fifth-grader, Lily Ely arrived at Walter White Elementary School in the middle of her first grade year with many struggles. She often was unable to handle her emotions and was prone to extreme temper tantrums. Each time she became disappointed or frustrated, she would be overwhelmed with anger. She was academically low achieving as well. She has faced many barriers in her short life, which include being raised in an environment in which she and her family have faced many hardships.

The staff at Walter White continue to work together to provide Lily with social emotional, academic and physical support. The Walter White team have worked diligently to keep the communication going with her family and offer as much support as possible.

In third grade, Lily was placed in the All-Star mentoring program where a mentor encouraged her with academic and behavior goals. A transformation began to take place as the year progressed. As Lily continued in the All-Star mentoring program in fourth grade she created a wonderful bond with her mentor. Her leadership ability also began to shine. Her compassion to help others is evident this year in the way she embraces new students at our school. She could be seen taking them under her wing and ensuring they were not alone. Her leadership abilities continue to shine, as she serves on the Student Council.

Lily puts forth effort to learn, lets the teacher know when she is struggling, or when technology difficulties interfere with learning, and when she needs to reset for social/emotional regulation. She has shown resilience to regulate emotionally, even during the difficult struggles.

Jacob Carver

Whitmore Charter School sixth-grader Jacob Carver has experienced a difficult childhood but that hasn’t stopped him from doing his best. Jacob was born with a rare congenital disorder that causes multiple joints to become permanently fused in a bent or straightened position which can impact range of motion. Doctors initially believed when Jacob reached the age of 11 or 12 he would need to have surgery. Although he has a club foot and his hips are bent outward, he hasn’t needed surgeries and has surpassed anyone’s expectations as he moves around on his own.

Jacob and his family have had many ups and downs. Jacob was traumatized when his parents divorced when he was seven. He would lash out at school by throwing things, running away, yelling and hiding under desks. But during his fifth grade year, everyone noticed a change. With the support from his teacher and resource specialist, Jacob started building confidence. He began listening in class and hanging out with his classmates. When something didn’t go his way, Jacob didn’t run or yell – he waited.

Jacob is now a sixth-grader at Whitmore and transitioned into middle school during a pandemic which hasn’t slowed him down. Jacob has seven classes in which he shows up for his Zoom meetings and completes his work. He is earning straight A’s and has a positive attitude. He has built a strong bond with his homeroom teacher and is continuing to excel. His heart for others shows as he has volunteers to walk a neighbor’s dog because she suffered a broken leg in the mobile park where he lives. Jacob also enjoys volunteering at his church to work the soundboard and help out at church functions.

Gianna Carrillo

Gianna Carrillo, a fourth-grader at Westport Elementary looks like any other child on campus – happy, smiles easily and works hard. However, beneath her smile, Gianna has overcome numerous challenges in her young life. Gianna exemplifies resiliency, determination, and often is able to maintain a positive outlook despite the challenges that have come her way.

When first enrolled at Westport as a kindergartner in the spring of 2017, Gianna struggled adjusting to the classroom and often hid, lashed out, cried and struggled to feel safe. Supporters often offered comfort to ensure Gianna she was safe but Gianna often felt powerless and struggled to find the words to let staff know how they could best support her. Unfortunately, there was a series of events that unfolded towards the end of her kindergarten year that led her to be placed in foster care for the next couple of years.

Westport welcomed Gianna back to the campus last year. This time she would come to school each day with a smile, holding her head high, and giving school her best efforts nearly every day. Though life is not always easy for Gianna, she is back with her mom and happier than ever. She has the support of her teachers, clinician, and the support staff. Gianna feels confident in her abilities to better cope with the world around her and is doing what she can to make strides towards no longer needing the support of ED. Her mask cannot hide her smile, her grit, and her determination to be a survivor and thrive here on site and in her world.

Andres Manzo

Andres Manzo, an eighth-grader in the SpEd-ED program at Blaker-Kinser Junior High School, has dealt with severe anxiety as well as other mental and emotional issues which have hindered his progress in school. In the past when “Dre” was feeling overwhelmed or pressured he would leave without permission or refuse to do his work. He was quick to join in with others who were having difficulty, so he himself got in trouble and could on occasion be aggressive and belligerent.

Since his class has come back onto the campus recently this year, he has worked extremely hard and made huge strides both socially and academically. Classroom staff has praised Dre for his success and offering him incentives for positive performance. Where he used to have great difficulty remaining in his seat, doing work and following directions in general, he has made amazing progress in working through his difficulties and asking for the help. His growth is noticed and his mother has reported improvements at home as well.

Dre has been working with the other students in his class to help agriculture teacher Amanda Bailey maintain the school garden. Andres is proving to be a good worker and has the garden looking great again.

Giselle Palacios

Determination is a term that Mae Hensley Junior High seventh-grader Giselle Palacios exhibits on a daily basis. She is a glowing inspiration, a model of resilience, and a wealth of positivity.

Giselle has had to overcome many obstacles yet, one thing has remained constant: Giselle’s will to thrive. As a young child, Giselle had to move from home to home (sometimes shelter) making her feel displaced and without a real place to call her own. After being separated from her younger sister, Giselle closed herself off from the world. With the support of her aunt and family, Giselle now has a stable home. Giselle has become self-aware, independent and cognizant of her decisions. She is focused and has a drive to excel in school and life.

Giselle credits her success to the support from her aunt and the school support. Giselle has worked with caring adults including student support specialists, school psychologist, and school administrators both at her elementary school and junior high school. Since her transition to junior high school, Giselle has embraced her new setting and has made great connections with her teachers and support team at Mae Hensley. She attends all of her Zoom class meetings, and takes advantage of extracurricular activities; she joined the virtual PhastJV Club and looks forward to joining CJSF. 

William Silva

Argus High School senior William Silva came to Argus High at the beginning of his junior year of high school. Like most of the students who transfer to Argus, William was behind in credits and not on track to graduate from high school by the end of his senior year. He is now on track to graduate early and plans to continue his education at Modesto Junior College. 

Because of challenges at home and the bullying he experienced at a prior high school, William was dealing with many obstacles and struggling with academics and behavior. Added to these challenges is the fact that William has a learning disability, it was a wonder that he still managed to be at school every day.

However, William has taken every opportunity to change his mindset regarding school and his education. Since attending Argus he has maintained a 4.0 grade point average every single grading term. If his grade falls below an A he seeks help and resubmits assignments until he’s earned an A. He completes assignments and stays in contact with his teachers. When other students have struggled to attend Zoom classes and complete assignments, William can be counted on to attend and get the work done.

William enjoys participating in fun activities to engage his peers and build a positive school culture. He offered positive quotes to add to the weekly advisory bulletin to encourage his peers to have grit and never give up on their goals.

He has been a member of PHAST Club and the Argus/Endeavor School Site Council. William was the 2020 student participant for the Rotary Speech contest. William shared that a highlight of his life was being in front of the Ceres Rotary Club to give his speech. He strives to be a good person, citizen and to make a difference in his community. He was selected as one of the “Students of the Quarter” last year and again this year at Argus High School. He has attended school field trips and always took advantage of listening to guest speakers regarding colleges and career fields. During distance learning, William attended the weekly virtual Fire Pit activities; even though at times he was the only student attending, he would have a great time interacting with staff members by playing different online games. During the spring 2020 crisis learning time, William would email his teachers and the administrative team an inspiring daily morning email greeting that many times ended with a motivational quote.

Donnie Tonelli

This year, Donnie Tonelli will be graduating from Central Valley High School, however during his freshmen year he did not appear to be on track. Donnie came to CVHS as an incoming freshman returning from expulsion. He had been expelled in junior high and had to attend a military school prior to high school. Donnie struggled in the adjustment to high school and was failing courses. He had a team of teachers, coaches and administration supporting him to get to his high school diploma.

Over the course of high school, Donnie has completed over 35 credits of credit recovery courses, and has been taking an additional zero period course all four years, that begins at 6:45 a.m. Donnie maintained at minimum a 2.0 GPA to stay eligible to participate in varsity baseball, which is a passion. His involvement in sports provided him with several adult role models all on “his team,” wanting him to be successful.

The next three students went on to represent CUSD at the ACSA Region 7 and the Stanislaus County “Every Student Succeeding” awards program.

Gianluca Pineda

M. Robert Adkison Elementary School first-grader Gianluca Pineda overcame severe anxiety over the course of his kindergarten year. Once struggling to even leave the classroom for lunch or any other activity outside of class, he began to overcome his fears and anxiety and started to flourish with the help of many staff members.

Then in March 2020, California had the shutdown of schools and Gianluca was no longer able to see his friends and teachers in person. He could have regressed, but he continued to thrive.

In late spring 2020, Gianluca was diagnosed with E. coli and was transferred to an intensive care unit in Roseville to be given a blood transfusion. A kidney specialist said he needed surgery and dialysis and Gianluca remained in the hospital for a month for a slow recovery. During this time, the school sent care packages, and notes of encouragement. He is still recovering and has a weakened immune system.

Gianluca has a positive attitude, is thoughtful, has a calm demeanor and has great artistic abilities. He has a passion to serve as the class “DJ” and brings the class together with the great songs he chooses for us to work along with.

Esteban Diaz Jr.

Cesar Chavez Junior High seventh-grader Esteban Diaz Jr. was honored for overcoming multiple medical problems.

As a third-grader, Esteban began experiencing constant medical issues: first, his tonsils were removed and missed six weeks of school because his appendix was removed. Due to these issues and absences, he struggled through fourth and fifth grades. While trying to catch up, he was dealing with regular headaches and stomachaches. In the sixth grade, Esteban started experiencing regular ear infections, which led to tubes twice being put in his ears. He began to struggle and lose motivation. The headaches and nausea persisted, but now he was having trouble seeing out of one eye which led to the March 2020 discovery of an aggressively cancerous brain tumor.

Surgeons were unable to remove the entire tumor and doctors discovered two lymphomas: one in his neck and one in his abdomen. They were able to remove the lymphoma in his neck but not in his abdomen. Esteban spent the summer very sick and in and out of Madera Children’s Hospital for treatment. Treatment lasted eight weeks. The lymphoma in his stomach went away and the radiation helped with the brain tumor. They amped up chemo treatments to boost his immune system but that resulted in painful sores on his toes and hands that made it difficult to do simple physical chores. 

The doctors did not want to stop the treatments and in November found that the tumor was shrinking. Esteban never gives up, always smiles, is kind and positive, maintains high academic standards and regularly makes the honor roll. When asked who helped him get through tough times, he quickly shared that it was his mom and dad, Rosa and Esteban Sr., brothers Julius and Damian, friends Alexander Gardea and Wilfrido Ramirez, and sixth grade teachers Marlene Arredondo and Myrna Calderon.

Kensy Gallardo Sanchez

Ceres High School junior was recognized for the award for overcoming obstacles since arriving in the United States with her mother in July 2018.

Kensy and mom fled their home country – leaving behind her father and brother – to be safe from the risk of being extorted by gangs and the threat of violence. Regardless of the dangerous atmosphere Kensy grew up in, she was ambitious and determined to attend school daily and fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. After her uncle was murdered by a local gang, word was that Kensy was the next target. That same day, Kensy and her mother packed their bags, said their goodbyes and fled in the middle of the night to avoid the gang after them. They left behind everything and traveled on foot to Mexico, and finally from Mexico to the United States as refugees.

Once in the U.S., Kensy was separated from her mother and placed in a detention center. Kensy had endured emotional trauma and physical exhaustion. Nonetheless, she was reunited with her mother and soon after was enrolled at Ceres High School as a freshman. She quickly adapted to the new environment. From the very first day of school, she was determined to learn English and excel in schoolwork.

As a student in a new high school and country, Kensy was enrolled in all grade-level courses and successfully ended her first semester as a 4.0 student. She is enrolled in AP courses and is currently still earning a 4.0 GPA. Kensy has always stood out from the rest; she goes above and beyond to help others around her and is a positive influence on her peers.

Ceres High has been fortunate to have a positive role model and mentor to other EL students who share similar struggles. Kensy was recently reunited with her father and brother after two years of being separated. Although their future in the U.S. is uncertain, she continues to strive for a better life and always has a high standard for herself. Kensy is currently A-G eligible; her goal is to attend a University where she would like to study education and fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. She will be the first in her family to earn a high school diploma and move on to post-secondary education.

(Students not pictured are Ivan Ayala, Andres Manzo and, William Silva.)

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