Summer 2016
Stanley C. Mantooth, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
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Ventura County's Graduating Seniors Impress and Inspire
As the 2015-16 school year winds down and summer break gets underway, we want to introduce you to some of the remarkable Ventura County students who are celebrating their high school graduation.

You'll meet a Rio Mesa High School student who hails from a remote Mexican village and picks crops on the weekends to help his family survive while pursuing his dream of a college education. You'll also meet a Buena High School student who won a full scholarship to USC despite living without her parents and an ambitious student from Newbury Park High School who isn't letting a serious medical condition stand in her way.

All of the students profiled in this edition of Focus on Education have amazing stories, and so do the thousands of others who are receiving their diplomas this year. Many were inspired to overcome great odds by a dedicated teacher, a caring counselor or a supportive coach. We take this opportunity to honor the many students and educators who demonstrate so clearly the power of education to change lives.  

Stan Mantooth
Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
Jose Luis Mendoza - Rio Mesa High School
Working the Fields Inspires Student to Focus on his Education

While many of his peers fill their weekends with sports and friends, Jose Luis Mendoza doesn't often have that luxury. Instead, he reports to work for grueling ten hour shifts picking strawberries, peppers and cilantro in the fields of Ventura County. "It's really hard because it's like a race. You want to earn a lot and you want to beat those who are faster than you," he says. "It's a like having a competition all day. You don't get a rest."

Fleeing poverty, Jose Luis's family came to Oxnard from a remote village in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico when he was eleven years old. When his parents discovered he was too young to be employed in the fields, they enrolled him in school. It wasn't easy at first because English isn't his second language, it's his third. He grew up speaking an indigenous Mixtec dialect before learning Spanish and then English.

Cuba Montero, his counselor at Rio Mesa High School, says, "It's very unique and special to see someone who's now actually trilingual. He's a minority of the minorities because he is of the indigenous population of Mexico. So to me, he's a double survivor and has overcome even more odds and obstacles."

Jose Luis says picking crops motivated him to dedicate himself to school and expand his opportunities. It took a while to convince his parents his time was better spent studying than working when they faced the daily challenge of putting food on the table. "In the beginning they said education doesn't make any money for you, but as time went by I told them how education can change your life and they changed their mind. Now they support me in whatever I do."

This fall Jose Luis will attend CSU East Bay in northern California. He plans to study environmental science and dreams of returning to his village in Oaxaca to help the people there build better and more prosperous lives. 
IrieAnn Harris - Buena High School
Unstable Home Life Motivated Her to Build a Better Future

IrieAnn Harris had no choice but to grow up fast. Due to family problems, she says the responsibility of caring for her three youngest siblings fell primarily to her. "I would get up, go to school, come home right away, watch the kids until they went to bed and clean the house and make food and do homework," she says. Then last summer, she says her mom moved away with the younger kids. She says it's been years since she's seen her dad.

Ventura Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Michael Babb with IrieAnn Harris
She's been living with friends and relatives, and despite the instability at home, she's achieved great things as a student at Buena High School in Ventura. She has a near-perfect grade point average and earned a QuestBridge scholarship, which gives high-achieving low-income students a full ride to elite universities. She will attend USC in the fall and dreams of becoming a teacher. In January, Ventura Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Michael Babb presented her with the "Most Inspirational" student award. She also finds time to volunteer at Casa Pacifica, which provides support services to families in crisis.

She credits her success to the positive role models in her life, including her half-sister's father and her US history teacher Norma Saatjian. She also says the AVID program that helps underprivileged kids with the college application process was invaluable. "AVID taught me everything I didn't learn at home and that would be too hard to figure out online," she says. "It teaches you how to be a successful student."

Instead of repeating mistakes made by some of the adults in her life, IrieAnn says she has learned from them. "Everything from life choices to mannerisms to how to raise a child. I learned what not to do and what I didn't want my life to be like, so that really motivated me to go the other way."
Elise Maier - Newbury Park High School
Brain Tumor Doesn't Stop this Grad from Pursuing her Dreams

Elise Maier was in seventh grade when the first sign of trouble appeared - for unknown reasons, she had trouble speaking. At the hospital, they assured her parents it was nothing serious. But after it happened again, an MRI revealed a golf ball-sized tumor on her brain. "It was pressing on the speech area and the motor area of my brain," she says. "On the worst days, I had about ten seizures a day."

In fear for her safety, her parents temporarily took her out of school until a she could have a surgery that removed the tumor. But even with the tumor gone, the seizures continued. Another surgery followed to remove the scar tissue, but the seizures didn't stop. So she recently had a surgery to implant what she calls a pacemaker for her brain that could end the seizures for good.

Through it all, she's maintained a positive attitude and a grade point average that will put her on a path to her chosen career. She plans to become an electroencephalogram (EEG) technician, performing tests that detect abnormalities in the brain's electrical activity. In addition to keeping up her grades, she's been active in Girl Scouts, dance and the marching band at Newbury Park High School.

Throughout her six year ordeal, Elise says her friends have been by her side. "Once I had a seizure at the homecoming dance and they helped me off the dance floor. I love them so much and I try to stay positive for them, but it can be really hard. Sometimes I think I shouldn't have to be taking all these pills and that this is not what a normal high schooler would do."

Elise says her biggest champion has been her mom. "I can always count on her. She's been in the hospital with me every time. She helped me every time I had a seizure. I can't explain how much she means to me."
Sonia Martinez - Phoenix School
Foster Child Going to College Thanks to Supportive School Staff

Sonia Martinez hasn't lived with her parents since she was five. She's been in foster care since she was 13. Her behavioral problems got her removed from her high school. "I'm in foster care and I was having some trouble with friends and my living situation wasn't permanent. It was just hard for me to feel accepted and I was going through a lot of stuff emotionally," she says.

But after a difficult journey, things are looking up. She says it all started to change when she transferred to VCOE's Phoenix School in Camarillo, which specializes in helping students with emotional and behavioral issues. "It's changed tremendously. I'm a totally different person," she says. "When I first came here, I still had a lot of trouble behaviorally and I've changed for the better."

Sonia says the staff at Phoenix give her the kind of academic and emotional support she could never get at a traditional high school. "It's been great. The staff have really been the thing that pushes you. They're always there if you need to talk and they don't let me give up." Sonia's teachers at Phoenix say she's become a role model for other students and they recruited her to help orient new students to the program.

Her home life has also improved now that she's found a foster family that fits. She says, "They take very good care of me. They have their own two kids that are around my age and they're fabulous. They feel like my family, so it's really nice to finally feel like I'm accepted and where I belong."

Sonia has landed a part time job at Vons. She plans to attend Moorpark College before transferring to a four-year university. She's undecided on a major but is confident that, with all she's overcome, her future is a bright one.
Veronica Landeros - Santa Paula High School  
Migrant Student who Mastered English is Headed to Berkeley 

When Veronica Landeros entered Santa Paula High School as a freshman, she was taking special courses for English language learners. By her senior year, she was taking advanced placement English and had won admission to UC Berkeley.

Veronica Landeros with her Santa Paula High School counselor Rocio Bravo Chaves
Veronica was born in Santa Paula but moved to Mexico with her family when she was eight. When she returned six years later, she had to adjust to a community, school system and language that had become completely unfamiliar. She benefited from a special program that helps migrant students and joined the speech and debate team, which boosted her confidence and leadership skills. She has now become an advocate for other migrant students.

Veronica was accepted to multiple colleges, but she chose to attend UC Berkeley after touring the campus. "I went to visit and it really convinced me it was an opportunity I had to take," she says. "I realized how unrepresented Hispanics are in that specific university and I wanted to be the first one in my household to go to a university of that prestige."

As for her career goals, Veronica wants to become a school counselor to help give other students the opportunities she has received. "I was helped a lot by my counselors," she says. "I realize that students like me who come from other countries can really excel with the help of the right people. Having that person that pushes you to challenge yourself is really helpful."

Her own counselor Rocio Bravo Chavez takes a lot of personal pride in Veronica's achievements. "It's just amazing when you see students like her succeed," she says. "It motivates you as an educator because you know that providing the right services and support to students makes a huge difference in their lives."
Skyler Ruesga - Simi Valley High School 
Perseverance Sends this Eagle Scout Soaring to New Heights

Eagle Scout, athlete and scholar are all terms that describe Skyler Ruesga, who is graduating from Simi Valley High School with a 4.4 grade point average.

High achievement is a way of life for Skyler, who doesn't know the meaning of sitting still. In addition to his academic success, he ran track, played soccer and was on the golf team. He's been a member of Key Club, Junior State of America, the California Scholastic Federation, the National Honor Society and the school's environmental club. For his Eagle Scout project, he led a $6,000 effort to construct a retaining wall at Simi Valley's Big Sky Dog Park.

Skyler says his lunches were filled with club meetings and his afternoons and evenings with sports practice. He says the track team showed him the value of both teamwork and personal initiative. He says, "It was a totally unique experience because you're on a team, but everything is dependent upon what you do as an individual. It was just a great atmosphere because my performance was dependent on myself but there's also that team aspect to it."

Skyler is planning to attend UC Berkeley this fall and hopes to enroll at its Haas School of Business. He says his secret to success is setting goals and having a plan to achieve them. "Ever since eighth grade, I've always been very organized and I've always had a plan. I think ahead about my future and what steps I need to take to achieve my goals and do what I want to do in life. I know if I take this path, it will lead me to a better future."
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