San Jacinto Valley students honored in February


The Hemet/San Jacinto Student of the Month program held its most recent recognition breakfast at the Maze Stone at Soboba Springs Golf Course on Feb. 15. Seven local high school seniors were recognized and honored for their character, love of learning and commitment to academics in addition to their involvement in school and community activities and their ability to overcome difficult life circumstances. And they do this all in a setting that honors God, country, family, community and free enterprise. Students are nominated by teachers or other school personnel for making a difference in their homes, schools and communities.

Local program founder and Student of the Month Committee member Karena Zermeno, who also represents one of the sponsors Altura Credit Union, emceed the event. She noted that the all-volunteer committee ensures all money from the program is used on the monthly breakfasts, Student of the Year dinner and scholarships. Backpacks filled with gifts, a Student of the Month award, certificates of recognition and much more were donated by community sponsors to the award recipients.

Each student was invited to the podium to share their personal story, past challenges and future goals with a room full of supporters that included principals, teachers, peers and family members, as well as community and school district dignitaries.

February’s students of the month from Hemet Unified School District are Samuel Carranza, Noah Duarte, Alex Flores, Astrid Howard and Jocelyn Ochoa. San Jacinto Unified’s honorees for February are Denton Capell and Desiree Hernandez.

Hemet Unified School District

Samuel Carranza

Hamilton High School Visual Arts teacher Rose Fickes nominated Samuel. She said since the first day of art class, he was open and friendly and let her know that he was challenging himself this school year. “He has an intrinsic desire to do and learn as much as he can during his senior year,” she said. “He juggles sports’ practices and games and CTE carpentry contests and competitions.” Samuel said family and friends are very important to him and adheres to the saying that alone you’ll be strong but together you’ll be stronger. Samuel holds active roles in clubs and sports on campus and helps his community by volunteering for church functions. “All these challenges help me improve myself,” he said. He plans to earn an engineering degree and become a general contractor. “One of the biggest lessons I’ll be taking with me to college and the rest of my life is that no one but yourself can make the change that needs to happen inside of you, and it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from or what you’ve done, you can change the future.”

Noah Duarte

Hemet High School English teacher Steven Brown is also the football and baseball coach, so he knows Noah in several capacities. He said when the young man had some injuries as an inside linebacker, he had to come back and learn a new position which he excelled at. “He took that challenge head on, and he uses that same determination and work ethic inside the classroom,” Brown said. Noah said that God has never given up on him. “At the start of my junior year, I was cut from the football team for a reason I deeply regretted,” Noah explained. “I remember asking God for two things. I wanted people to know my story and be able to be back on the field.” During this time, his family was evicted from their home, leaving Noah and his family homeless for most of his junior year. He said if he could give one word of advice to anybody going through a similar situation he would say, “Believe in yourself, never drop your head at one moment. I am a living testimony to that.” Noah said his greatest contribution to his community would be that he makes it his mission to befriend all people he encounters. He plans to attend MSJC for two years to study business before transferring to a four-year university after which he hopes to start his own trucking company.

Alex Flores

Tahquitz High School Interim Principal Janice Jones only recently got to know Alex but was impressed to learn that he is on his way to earning the State Seal of Biliteracy, which is a rigorous process. He also went through the process of being reclassified as fluent English proficient while retaining his home language of Spanish. His AP English teacher Stacey Haar said Alex is studying to be a nurse which she feels is outstanding “because he has compassion, kindness, patience and the smarts to make sure that he can heal both the mind and the body of those that he is going to be taking care of.” Alex said that as the older brother of three siblings, he believes his biggest contribution is striving to be a good role model for them. “I aim to lead by example, sharing kindness, determination and integrity in everything that I do,” he said. “I hope to inspire them to reach for their dreams with the same passion and commitment that I have. If the recent years have taught me anything, it is that no matter the situations or settings you are in, it is always in your best interest to make the best of it. That is a lesson I will take with me for the rest of my life, and I hope to share this ideology with those around me because every day can always be a little bit better if you think that way.”

Astrid Howard

West Valley High School Principal Gerardo Zavala introduced Astrid as an amazing Mustang, a scholar athlete who has spent the last four years in theater and dance. She aspires to be a dance teacher in a private studio but also serve as a high school theater teacher because theater gave her a forum to express herself. Astrid’s AP U.S. History teacher Bridget Greely nominated her and praised Astrid for being captain of the dance team, a Thespian officer, leader on the varsity volleyball team and a volunteer at her community church while enrolled in multiple AP and IB courses. “I frequently tell my students that it does not matter how rich, how powerful, how smart or how funny you are if you don’t know how to treat your fellow human being well,” Greely said. “And that is why Astrid stands out. She is kind and caring and she has the character that I know will change any community she is in, just as she has done for West Valley High School. When Astrid was nine years old, her father retired from the United States Air Force and the family moved from Turkey, where they had lived for about four years, to Hemet, where they lived with her grandmother who had Alzheimer’s for more than seven years. Astrid said listening to her stories of her own childhood helped her adjust to the culture shock of moving to America. Astrid said, “She inspired me to continue my passion for sports and theater. When she was no longer able to form sentences or be alone for long period of time, I would remember the kindness and sincerity she demonstrated towards me back when she was not overcome with this terrible and unforgiving disease and in turn I would listen to her even if it was just gibberish. I grew to love this woman more than I realized even though she didn’t remember who I was. I felt she was a vital part of my life.”

Jocelyn Ochoa

Alessandro High School’s top choice this month is Jocelyn who enrolled as a senior, facing some academic adversity with only about 100 credits at the beginning of the year. Principal Matthew Centofranchi said she is currently on track for early graduation in March. “She immediately engaged in our CTE welding program,” he said. “Jocelyn is one of those students who fully embraced that pathway when she came to Alessandro. She was able to tap into some dormant abilities that she had within her that maybe she didn’t realize prior to being in the welding program. She is able to tap into this silent confidence she has to be a leader in a field that she is going to pursue. It’s been great to see that growth.” Instructor Josh O’Neal, who built the program, said, “Jocelyn is probably better than 90 percent of most male welders that I’ve ever seen. In the welding and auto mechanics world, she has emerged as a beacon of inspiration and a testament to the power of self-direction and motivation.” Jocelyn said Alessandro High School changed her life with the friendly and supportive teachers she found there. “Life gets hard at times,” she said. “Not everything is easy but over time everything gets put in its place.”

San Jacinto Unified School District

Denton Capell

San Jacinto High School’s honoree for February is Denton, who is described by Principal Kristi Coulter as a “phenomenal young man whose potential walks in the room before he does.” She continued, “He’s a young man who is not defined by the obstacles of his life but has a vision for his life and knows where he is going.” She also noted that he is one of the school’s top football players. English teacher Senait Tesfai said she nominated Denton because of his good character. “He is someone who always greets me with a smile at the door of my classroom,” she said. “He’s always polite and respectful and it’s the little things that mean the most at times, especially as teachers.” She said another reason she chose Denton was because through a nonfiction narrative assignment he revealed the adversity he has overcome in his life. “Judging from his positive attitude, it was clear to me that rather than give up, it only made him stronger and more determined to succeed,” Tesfai said. “Denton has shown himself to be a diligent and intelligent student who comes to class every day ready to learn and humbly asks for clarification when needed. His leadership skills are evident as he carries out academic discussions and leads in group projects. He’s also happy to share his ideas and express his thoughts with the class.”

Desiree Hernandez

Mountain Heights Academy chose to honor Desiree as their Student of the Month. Her independent study teacher Gabrielle Henderson said this type of learning requires a lot of self-motivation and Desiree was always self-motivated since enrolling two and a half years ago. “I was even more impressed when I found out she has started her own business, and it’s based on her love of reading,” she said. Desiree said she believes one of her biggest contributions is to her family. “I’m the eldest of three daughters,” she said. “I am forever trying to better myself for them. I have made it my goal to be someone they can look up to, confide in and come to when in need.” Desiree is currently attending Mt. San Jacinto College studying business administration. While continuing her job as a small business owner, she wants to transfer to a four-year university, launch a second business, finish writing her first book and hopes to create a course to help others learn how to start and grow their own business.”

Recipients of the Hemet/San Jacinto Student of the Month award for February are, from left, Jocelyn Ochoa, Noah Duarte, Samuel Carranza, Denton Capell, Astrid Howard, Desiree Hernandez and Alex Flores. | Photo courtesy of StylePhotography by Alex Tapia

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