Shining Stars from the Ventura County Class of 2017

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From a young man who overcame the loss of his father to a budding film maker whose latest work is going viral online, the students graduating from Ventura County high schools this year are an impressive group. We're proud to introduce you to some of them in this edition of Focus on Education. Read it on your computer below or click here to view on your mobile device.


Summer 2017
Stanley C. Mantooth, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
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Meet Some Shining Stars from the High School Class of 2017
Students across Ventura County are donning their caps and gowns and preparing to walk the stage in front of friends and loved ones to receive their hard-earned high school diplomas. 
Some will be heading to universities or community college and some will dive right into the workforce. Some come from privileged backgrounds and others are pioneers in their families - the first to achieve the dream of a college education.
These graduates are living proof of what's right with public education and a reflection of the good work that happens in our schools every day. While political debates about education roar in the background, these students are achieving academically, serving our communities, excelling in sports and participating in a host of extracurricular activities. 
Whether it's in Oxnard, Ventura or Thousand Oaks, dedicated teachers, staff and administrators are working hard to ensure that a quality education is indeed available to all Ventura County students. We're proud to introduce you to some of them in this edition of Focus on Education.

Stan Mantooth
Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
Brice McKeown - Moorpark High School
Student is at Top of His Class after Major Life Trauma
On the morning of January 26, 2005, Brice McKeown's father was riding on a Metrolink train passing through Glendale when it slammed into a vehicle that a suicidal man had parked on the tracks. Forty-two-year-old Scott McKeown was one of eleven passengers killed that day in one of the worst train accidents in Southern California history.
Brice was only five when he lost his dad. "After it happened everything flipped upside down," he says. He struggled in elementary school and was almost held back a grade. And when the teenage years hit, he started overeating. At age 13, he weighed more than 200 pounds.
The "old" Brice before he lost 30 pounds
In middle school, noticing his peers were passing him by, something clicked and Brice decided it was time to make serious changes. "I think around seventh grade is when you realize this is my life and this is what I need to do and I'm no longer a child," he says.
With lots of love and encouragement from his mom Susan, he dropped 30 pounds, became an avid volleyball player and started excelling in a big way. Today, Brice is at the top if his class at Moorpark High School with a 4.5 grade point average. He's been accepted to UCLA where he will be pre-med and is planning on a career as a pathologist.
Brice says science teachers Tina Lanquist and Valerie Brown helped him greatly on his path to success. "They are the best duo ever," he says. "They're fun-loving, but they also know when to crack down on the academics. Having their mentorship has made me try to be the best version of me."
Brice says his biggest hero of all is his mom, who held the family together through tragedy and inspired her kids to reach for the stars. With her support, he's not only at the top of his class, but on top of the world. "I can only thank her because I couldn't be happier with my life right now."
Wren Palmer - Channel Islands High School
Military Life Gives Seabee's Daughter Discipline to Succeed
As the daughter of a high-ranking Navy Seabee, Wren Palmer knows what it's like for her dad to be away for long stretches of time. "If you add up the amount of time he's been deployed, it accounts for over half of my life," says this senior from Channel Islands High School.
While the Navy may have taken much of her dad's family time, Wren says exposure to military discipline gave her flexibility and time management skills that have served her well. "Since I'm from a military family, I've learned how to adapt to a lot of situations. I'm really good at thinking on my feet and learning to solve things quickly."
Wren used those skills to earn a 4.28 grade point average and build an impressive high school resume. She was chosen as a delegate to the Girls State summer leadership program, served as the editor of the school newspaper, played percussion in the band, tutored her fellow students, volunteered for animal rights organizations, advocated against drinking and driving and supported other military kids who had parents deployed. 
For all four years of high school, she participated in the Mock Trial competition, which is run by the Ventura County Office of Education. In Mock Trial, students play the roles of lawyers and witnesses as their cases are tried before real local judges. "It requires you to learn legal jargon, how to compose yourself in a courtroom and to think on your feet," she says. "It forced me to be a leader who is not only capable of running a big group, but also being versatile in my own capabilities."
Like many students facing the high cost of college, Wren plans to start at community college before transferring to a four-year university. She has her eye on UC Berkeley after two years at Oxnard College and is considering careers in law or social work in a field where she can make a positive difference in people's lives.
Johnny Lopez - Gateway Community School
Alternative School Gets Troubled Teen's Life on Track
Most students who attend Gateway Community School in Camarillo aren't there by choice. They come after being expelled or referred by their neighborhood school because of persistent behavior problems. Johnny Lopez arrived at Gateway as a seventh grader. He did well and was allowed to attend Channel Islands High School in ninth grade. But during his sophomore year, with his grades suffering, he decided on his own that he wanted to return to Gateway.
"My parents didn't want me to go back," he recalls. But Johnny instinctively knew Gateway was the best place for him. "It's a smaller environment with less people. It's more secluded so there's not a lot of drama going on. There are less distractions and it's more about learning," he says.
Johnny credits the Gateway staff with giving him the motivation and personal attention he needed to earn his high school diploma. In particular, he wants to thank Gateway teacher Paulette Worthy, restorative approaches coordinator Jenna Pujol and principal Kenny Loo. "They made me feel awesome because they really care and they made sure I was doing a good job," he says.
While at Gateway, Johnny took a leadership class in which he volunteered at the county animal shelter and served as a mentor for middle school students. He also discovered a passion for welding by taking classes at the Ventura County Office of Education's Career Education Center, which has a fully-equipped shop right next to the Gateway campus.
Johnny graduated early and has landed a job doing maintenance work, giving him the satisfaction of earning a paycheck and knowing he's being productive. "Now that I'm getting older, I realize that life is about working hard and taking care of your family," he says.
When he looks to his future, Johnny sees a career in welding or in the military. And he'll always remember the inspiration he received from the teachers and staff at Gateway. "They never doubted me, they always had faith in me," he says. "Now I graduated a few months early and I have a head start with a good job and my own money and it's all thanks to them."
Aissa Carnet - Santa Susana High School
Budding Film Maker's Craft Helps Her Stay Focused
Ever since she was a kid, Aissa Carnet had to work extra hard to stay engaged in tasks and complete her schoolwork. So, when she was diagnosed with ADHD last year, it didn't come as a big surprise. "I always knew I was different from the other students because I required extra time for test taking and homework," she says.
But one thing this Santa Susana High School senior never had trouble focusing on is making movies. She says she gets so engrossed in her work, she can edit video for ten hours at a stretch. "I'm more of a visual learner and I really love the craft of film making and everything about movie history," she says. "I've always been drawn to it. Something about directing and editing really gives me a rush."
At this early stage in her film making career, Aissa is enjoying tremendous success. She was chosen to produce Santa Susana's official promotional video as well as a staff training video for the Simi Valley Unified School District. Her latest short film entitled Female, which is about the struggles of LGBT young people, is going viral on YouTube, receiving more than 300,000 views.
Aissa says she's passionate about using her talents to shine a light on social issues. "I like to mix my passion for film making with social justice. The reason I do this is in hopes of inspiring change and raising awareness of topics like the LGBT community or special needs kids or homelessness. I really like to make my films diverse and include diverse topics."
Aissa has landed a coveted internship spot at Warner Bros. and will be majoring in film at Cal State Northridge this fall. She was also chosen to deliver the commencement address at her high school graduation. "I don't have a 4.5 GPA and I'm not the Mock Trial president," she says. "But you don't have to be a 4.5 student to have accomplishments in high school. What matters most is your passion and your determination."
Kevin Galvan - Fillmore High School  
Resilient Student Headed "Wherever the River Takes Me"
Imagine coming to a new school in a new country where you don't speak the language. That was a reality for Kevin Galvan, who enrolled as a freshman at Fillmore High School after moving from Baja California, Mexico. "It was a big change because it was totally new. At first I was scared and wondering how I would deal with all this," he remembers.
He says his first priority was to learn English. He credits English language development teacher Leigh Maroney with motivating him to master the language so he could express himself in his new home. Perhaps an even bigger motivator came from his fellow students, and another teacher came from an unexpected source. "My friends would sometimes laugh about my accent, so I started watching movies in English and listening to music in English," he says. "Now that I can understand, my friends don't laugh anymore."
Throughout high school, Kevin was active in sports, including soccer, football and volleyball. In the fall, he plans to play football for College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita. He wants to study kinesiology so he can prepare for a career connected to sports, which is his passion.
But he's also ready for life's unexpected turns like the one that brought him from Mexico to Ventura County four years ago. "In Mexico, we say 'I'll go wherever the river takes me.' You need to do that because you never know where it can take you from there."
"He's a very special young man," says Kevin's high school counselor Ronda Reyes-Deutsch. "He has a very positive outlook on life and he's very flexible in figuring out how to overcome whatever roadblocks come his way. That's what makes him so extremely special and inspiring to many of his peers."
Diana Lopez Luna - Ventura High School 
Dual Language Program Opens Doors for this Senior
Diana Lopez Luna will graduate from Ventura High School able to read, write and speak fluently in both English and Spanish. She got a head start speaking Spanish at home, but it was the Ventura Unified School District's Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program that let her perfect her skills in both languages.
Starting in elementary school, TWI students get half of their instruction in English and half in Spanish. "I'm really grateful my parents put me in the program because it was helpful not just to know how to speak Spanish, but also to read it and write it," she says.
This year, Diana took fourth place in the statewide Spanish Spelling Bee at Azusa Pacific University. She says mastering Spanish spelling is just as tricky as it is in English, but for different reasons. "In English, sometimes the way you say a word isn't the way you spell it, and in Spanish there are things like accents and double letters, so they both have their challenges."
Diana also distinguished herself at Ventura High School as a leader in volunteering for the less fortunate. Through the city of Ventura's Teen Voice program, she helped with campaigns to provide Thanksgiving gift baskets to families in need and hygiene care packages for the homeless. She also helped collect food and supplies for the Canine Adoption and Rescue League in Ventura.

Diana will be the first person in her family to attend college. She plans to start at Ventura College and ultimately transfer to UC Santa Cruz. She credits her English teacher Terri Withers-Schroeder for getting her involved in the AVID program that helps underrepresented students prepare for college. She also thanks her parents who immigrated to the United States to give her a life they never had. "It makes me really proud to see all the hard work they did to give me the opportunities I have now."
Conor Garruto - Westlake High School 
The Brother He Lost Inspires His Passion for Music
It was just before Thanksgiving last year when Conor Garruto received the biggest shock of his young life. His beloved older brother Dylan had died at age 24 after battling addiction. "It showed me that life is fleeting and you don't have all the time in the world," Conor says. "It motivated me to live life to the fullest."
Dylan and Conor shared a love of music and, like his brother before him, Conor is a band member at Westlake High School. Dylan played the saxophone and French horn. Conor plays the clarinet and bassoon. 
Conor's brother Dylan passed away at age 24
Band director Brian Peter knew Dylan and played a big role in helping Conor in the aftermath of his brother's death. "He influenced me to never give up and to persevere," Conor says. "He notified all the band families and alumni that Dylan had passed away, and that meant a lot to me and my family." Conor also remembers the kindness of his American Sign Language teacher Tina Carlisle, who offered her classroom as a refuge when he needed some time alone to grieve after returning to school.
Conor has also had to overcome a mild form of dyslexia, which makes it hard for him to tell certain letters apart. With high school coming to a close, Conor is holding down a job at a music store and will attend Moorpark College in the fall. He plans to transfer to a four-year university and pursue a career in hotel management.
As he begins the next chapter of his life, Conor continues to find motivation in this quote from author Neil Gaiman that his brother Dylan posted on his Instagram account: "The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can."
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