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If you think public schools are failing, you haven't met these kids

If you think public schools are failing, you haven't met these kids
Student Daniela Balvaneda, center, with parents Carolos and Blanca, left, grandmother Gloria, right, and Rotarian Don Driftmier. (Steve Lopez/Los Angeles Times)

Some of the students arrived early.

As much as 30 minutes early.

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This was a big deal, and you could tell the eighth-graders shuffling into the Doubletree Hotel in Ontario were proud and maybe a little nervous, because the price of success was having to make a speech.

They came with their parents, who left work to be a part of this.

"Welcome, folks. Come on in, and thanks for coming today," Ontario Rotarian Don Driftmier said to Daniela Balvaneda, 13, of Oaks Middle School. She was with her parents, Carlos and Blanca, and her grandmother, Gloria, all of them spiffed up for the occasion.

"One of the important things for us is that we didn't finish school, but we support our daughters," Carlos said of himself and his wife. "They're both really into school, and I give all the credit to them."

Daniela told me she was pulled out of class one day and told to go to Principal D. Foley's office. She couldn't think of anything she'd done that might have landed her in trouble, but she was nervous.

"I didn't know what was going on," Daniela recalled, "and Mr. Foley told me I won the award from the Rotary Club. I said, 'What's that?'"

The Ontario Rotary Club is in its 95th year, and supporting local youth is at the core of its mission. Driftmier emailed me one day to invite me to the luncheon. He said he served his country in Vietnam, and he enjoys serving his community by honoring the "impressive, well-spoken" students who do themselves, their parents, and the Ontario-Montclair School District proud.

To hear the national conversation about the state of public education, you wouldn't know these kids existed. The narrative is one of failure, and for sure, public school districts — including the Ontario-Montclair district — have huge challenges and plenty of room for improvement.

President Trump's new education secretary thinks charter schools and vouchers are the way to go. But at the luncheon, Ontario-Montclair School District Superintendent James Hammond and board President Elvia Rivas said there may be no better strategy than investing sufficiently in traditional schools and giving them enough autonomy. And letting them put children before "adult-centered politics," as Hammond put it.

They said there's been no clamor for charters in their pre-K-through-8 district, in which the majority of the 21,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because they're from low-income families. The 34 campuses include language and music academies, magnets and international baccalaureate schools. Attendance is at 97%, Hammond said, parents are involved, suspension rates are down. And there's big support from the Rotary Club.

Avaram Iraheta, one of the honored students, led the Pledge of Allegiance at Thursday's luncheon.

Rotarian Dick Gerety led the singing of "God Bless America."

Rotary President John Andrews acknowledged the business leaders who sat with the families of the winning students.

Wiltsey Middle School Principal Henry Romero reminded students that success is no reason to coast, and "college is not a dream; it's a plan."

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I want to do something unique that will make an impact and inspire others to do great things.


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And then it was time for the students, chosen by their teachers on the basis of academic achievement, to step to the podium.

"I was bullied," said Olivia Sanchez of Central Language Academy. "I was bullied over three years."

But her teachers and principal put an end to it, she said, thanking them.

"They stood up for me when no one else would."

Daniel Onwuegbuzie of De Anza Middle School said he moved to Ontario two years ago from Nigeria. He likes math, and his plan is to get all A's in school.

"So far, so good," he said, adding that he plans to go to Harvard University and become a doctor. "J.K. Rowling said it is our choices that show what we truly are. It is my goal to make the right choices, to get to where I want to go in life."

Courtney Pederson of Edison GATE said she used to fake illness because she dreaded school. She thanked her parents for helping her turn that around. She's worn glasses for years, Courtney said, and one day, she's going to be an eye surgeon.

Daniela Balvaneda didn't seem nearly as nervous as she had told me she was.

"I happen to like every single class I take," she said. She's already done the research and wants to attend Penn State, Syracuse University or UC Davis to study forensic science as an undergrad, then study law at "a bigger school like Yale." One day, she might become a forensic investigator.

Avaram, the pledge leader from Serrano Middle School, said he was honored to win the Rotary award. He read his speech on his iPhone and told the audience he's a tech guy all the way.

"For instance, I know a lot about iPhones," he said, and when he's done with college, he's going to work for Apple.

Raylene Pulido of Vernon Middle School thanked her parents for making sacrifices to support her and her siblings. She said when she got back to campus, she was going to tell all her friends to work harder, so they can get invited to the Rotary luncheon.

"I might have made some mistakes in the past," said Wenzel Gonzalez of Vina Danks Middle School, "but I will focus on the now, and making my future better."

He's going to be a firefighter or an architect.

Ariana Escalante of Vineyard STEM said she's going to UCLA one day, and she wants to be a pediatrician. She might have her own practice, or she might work at a hospital. But either way, she's going to help children.

Tamiya Curtis of Wiltsey Middle School doesn't know what she wants to be.

"I don't want to be a math teacher," she said. "I don't want to be a doctor. I don't want to be a veterinarian, or anything as common as that. I want to do something unique that will make an impact and inspire others to do great things."

When they were done, Rotary President Andrews said he's a pretty upbeat guy. But he always walks away from these luncheons more optimistic, and I know what he means.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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