Archive for Education

Pioneering athletic excellence

The Whittier Union High School District celebrated the grand opening of the Dick Torres Memorial Stadium at Pioneer High School on May 28, 2015. Pictured are, from left, Pioneer High ASB President Robert Castañeda, Superintendent Sandra Thorstenson, Board of Trustees member Dr. Ralph Pacheco, Trustee Tim Schneider, President Jeff Baird, Trustee Leighton Anderson and Santa Fe High School ASB President Steven Nuon.

Whittier Union celebrates grand opening of

Dick Torres Memorial Stadium

By Juliette Funes

VMA Communications

WHITTIER – The Whittier Union High School District unveiled its spectacular 7,000-seat football stadium at Pioneer High School – among the largest high school stadiums in the San Gabriel Valley – to the community during a grand opening ceremony on May 28.

The $17.5 million facility, built with proceeds from the $75 million Measure W facilities bond, was dedicated as the Dick Torres Memorial Stadium in honor of Richard Torres, who died in 2010 after serving more than 30 years as an educational leader and inspiration to Whittier Union students.

“We’ve been waiting with excitement for the day when we could open this district stadium and cheer on our student-athletes from the sidelines,” Whittier Union Board of Trustees President Jeff Baird said. “That day has finally arrived and I want to thank the community for supporting the need for premium athletic facilities in our schools and enhancing opportunities for our student-athletes to achieve excellence in academics and athletic competition.”

During the celebration, visitors toured the stadium, to be shared with Santa Fe High, and marveled the many improvements it will offer to the school community, including enhanced seating capacity – with 2,000 seats for visitors and seating for 5,000 for the home team – and upgrades that include renovated soccer fields, outdoor tennis courts, junior varsity and varsity baseball and softball fields, and concession areas.

Other stadium features include an elevator and press box, as well as locker and weight rooms, an equipment storage room and coach’s office with restrooms in a separate structure below. The stadium includes a nine-lane, multi-colored synthetic track that highlights passing zones, a feature found more commonly in colleges and universities, including UCLA’s famed Drake Stadium.

Torres’ wife, Mary, expressed her pride that her husband’s legacy will reach generations of students.

“Along with his own children, being an educator here was an important part of his life and allowed him to dedicate himself to helping students succeed and achieve their dreams,” she said. “It is an enormous privilege for me, our families, our children and grandchildren to see this beautiful stadium carry the Torres name. It is more than any of us could have ever hoped for.”

Torres began his Whittier Union career in 1969 as a teacher at Santa Fe, where he led the Expanded Horizons program, serving and motivating first-generation, college-going youths. He later served as Pioneer’s Assistant Principal of Business and Activities, a post he held until his retirement in 1991.

Torres continued to substitute as a teacher and administrator at every District school until his death.

Joe Duardo, a parent and community leader, lauded Torres for his role in growing the Horizons program at Santa Fe and for stressing the importance of parent involvement in increasing student success.

“Throughout his career, Dick demonstrated an uncommon dedication, enthusiasm and passion to advocate on behalf of all of the district’s students,” Duardo said. “Just as this stadium has been transformed by the renovation project, the district’s instructional program and the lives of thousands of students have been transformed, thanks to Dick Torres and the vision that he so fervently and persistently articulated.”

The Pioneer Class of 2015 will hold its graduation ceremony in the new stadium on Wednesday, June 3.

“We are elated to open this first-class athletic facility to our students who continue to distinguish themselves in the classroom and on the field,” Superintendent Sandra Thorstenson said. “To have the stadium bear the name of a man who inspired so many and left a lasting impact on everyone will serve as a reminder to this community that demographics do not determine destiny at Whittier Union.”

Professor’s final exam gets re-‘buff’ed

Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute

By Brad Dacus

President, Pacific Justice Institute

What would you do if your college-age daughter told you that her professor was making his students literally get naked for their final exam?

We learned this week that this scenario actually confronted a mom whose daughter attends UC-San Diego. The daughter is in a visual arts class. The professor even confirmed to local news outlets that yes, his final exam included a requirement that this and other students get naked and perform an “erotic gesture” in a candlelit room. Perhaps even more disturbingly, the professor noted that he would be taking off his clothes as well!

Why am I telling you this story? Friends … the future of our children is at stake. It’s easy sometimes to get bogged down in the rhetoric of the “culture wars” and lose sight of what we’re fighting for.

Make no mistake—if we surrender on issues like marriage, parental rights in education, and student privacy, it will get worse. Those who today are pushing radical sexualized education will not be satisfied until our children are forced to participate.

This is why PJI continues to fight for families and our young people. It’s why we continue to battle in court over the “co-ed bathroom bill,” AB 1266. It’s why we are a very active participant in the Privacy for All coalition. It’s why we developed a privacy opt-out form for K-12 schools.

Please continue to stand with us against those who (like this professor) do not have our children’s best interests at heart. I wish this young college student (who chose to remain anonymous) had reached out to Pacific Justice Institute so we could have confronted this outrage on her behalf. But I hope you will help spread the word about PJI to your family and friends so that other families who may encounter similar situations will get the help they need. As the days grow darker, may our light grow stronger!


Cal High senior named Gates Millennium Scholar

California High School senior Ivan Delatorre is one of a select 1,000 students from across the nation to be named a Gates Millennium Scholar. Delatorre will use the scholarship to pursue a degree in accounting at UCLA.

Scholarship will cover all college costs

By Juliette Funes

VMA Communications

WHITTIER – On a mid-April Saturday afternoon, California High School senior Ivan Delatorre carefully opened a hefty packet of documents he’d received in the mail.

With his mother sitting by his side, the 18-year-old and his mother began to cry when they realized he was one of a select 1,000 students from across the nation chosen to receive the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which will cover his unmet financial need to attend the University of California, Los Angeles through graduation.

Winners of the scholarship were officially announced May 1, 2015.

“I couldn’t believe I’d been selected for this award,” Delatorre said. “This is a huge honor and I feel so blessed. There’s no way I could have made it this far if not for the support of Cal High. I’m so proud to be a Condor.”

Delatorre, who holds a 4.3 GPA and is ranked seventh in a class of 720, was chosen from among 52,000 applicants for the Millennium Scholar Program, established in 1999 through a $1.6 billion grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The program helps high-performing students attain their dream of attending four-year universities and colleges through graduate school.

Delatorre plans to major in accounting so he can ultimately help local families and small businesses learn how to be as resourceful as possible and thrive, even when faced with limited budgets.

“My family struggled a lot throughout my life to make ends meet,” Delatorre said. “I want to give back and be a positive influence in the community that raised me.”

On campus, Delatorre has been heavily involved with numerous clubs and organizations, serving in roles that include Key Club president, vice president of the Scholars Academy and Interact, treasurer of the National Honor Society, a member of Senior Class Council, Expanded Horizons, American Red Cross Club, Blue and Gold Society and a LINK crew leader.

He is also committed to off-campus volunteering, assisting with sports physicals every other Saturday, volunteering at local food banks and other community-sponsored events.

“Ivan has embraced every opportunity during his four years at Cal High with enthusiasm and dedication,” Principal Bill Schloss said. “We are ecstatic for Ivan and admire how hard he has worked to become a Millennium Scholar. We wish him the very best as he enters this next chapter in his life.”

Delatorre attributes his success to the mentoring and support he has received at Cal High.

“It is because of Cal High that I’ve gotten this far. The teachers are great. All of the counselors are willing to help you. Every single staff member wants you to succeed,” Delatorre said. “Cal High offers so many programs to get you back on track to graduate. Everyone is friendly and approachable. They want you to go far and realize how difficult it can be.”

Delatorre plans to continue to dedicate his free time to helping those in need.

“Ivan has successfully managed balancing a rigorous course schedule with his commendable volunteer efforts, and we couldn’t be more proud of him for this incredible achievement,” Whittier Union High School District Superintendent Sandra Thorstenson said. “The Cal High community has provided Ivan with the academic, social and personal opportunities to thrive. We can’t wait to hear of the innovative, positive projects he will start in college.”

Frontier grad joins Trojan ranks

Former Frontier High School student Kathy Orozco developed the leadership and academic skills needed to find success at the USC Marshall School of Business.

By Juliette Funes

VMA Communications

WHITTIER – Continuation high school students often face significant challenges in their quest to graduate. But former Frontier High School student Kathy Orozco has been able to weather many unlikely twists and turns in her life to successfully take on the challenge, and is now attending an elite four-year university.

Orozco graduated from Frontier High School, Whittier Union’s continuation school, in 2013. She began her first year at USC Marshall School of Business this January after making a tough decision to switch her career trajectory, a choice she made after channeling guidance she received at Frontier: “Something that you love is easier to learn.”

“Attending Frontier High was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Orozco, the first in her family to attend college. “The teachers were all so supportive. Each one of them is so different and perfect for what they are teaching.”

Orozco credits Frontier High for helping her develop leadership skills and providing her the motivation to continue her education.

“Frontier has a long history of providing students like Kathy the specialized and individual support they need to achieve in high school and beyond,” Frontier High School Principal Margie Moriarty said. “We are very proud of Kathy and wish her the best of luck as she continues on this journey and hope that other students who are receiving an alternative education on our campus will follow in her footsteps.”

Orozco was a bright student with good grades in her first two years at California High School. Then she became ill and required hospitalization for two months. When Orozco was able to return to class, it was recommended she temporarily transfer to Frontier to allow her to catch up on her studies. Though Orozco was skeptical, from the moment she arrived on campus she knew right away she would want her stay to be permanent.

Frontier transformed Orozco from a good student into a school leader.

“Being at Frontier really shaped my goals and who I wanted to be and has led me to where I am today,” said Orozco, who was a member of the school’s Associated Student Body and Soroptimist Club.

Upon graduation, Orozco enrolled in a local health science school, where a counselor urged her to apply to the USC School of Business. Orozco said she was interested in business as it would enable her to be her own boss, develop entrepreneurial skills and, especially, be an inspiration to her own family.

“I was amazed when they accepted me, and I am so grateful for all the opportunities I have been given along the way,” said Orozco, who also plans to attend graduate school.

Still, wherever her higher education takes her, Orozco said she is still a Frontier High student at heart, enjoying life, eager to learn and ready for any challenges that come her way.

“It is wonderful to see the dedication and initiative displayed by Kathy and other exceptional students who successfully graduate from Frontier High,” said Sandra Thorstenson, superintendent of the Whittier Union Unified School District. “We are appreciative of the educators at Frontier who positively impact our students’ well-being and achievement and prepare them for university-level work.”


OROZCO: Former Frontier High School student Kathy Orozco developed the leadership and academic skills needed to find success at the USC Marshall School of Business.

School drops disclaimer, settles 1st Amendment lawsuit

Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute

By Brad Dacus


Pacific Justice Institute

SACRAMENTO — A Northern California school under fire for religious discrimination has agreed to change its policies and settle a student’s First Amendment lawsuit.

Under the settlement, which was finalized with federal court filings on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, the charter school based in Loomis will no longer insist on putting a disclaimer on fliers or other invitations between students.

Attorneys with Pacific Justice Institute filed suit against the school late last year on behalf of a student identified as “Esther” who was called to the office multiple times and scolded for giving a fellow student an invitation to a Christian event. Because the invitation was given outside of classtime, the school had no involvement with the student-to-student interaction. After a parent complained, however, the school insisted that Esther bring any such invitations to the office to receive an official disclaimer.

“We are very pleased that this school eventually did the right thing and abandoned its unconstitutional disclaimer policy. Students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate, and those rights include the ability to invite each other to outside events without government interference.”


Cancer treatment ‘egg’citing for La Serna grad

Photo courtesy of Steve Zylius
UC Irvine Chemistry major Stephan Kudlacek and UC Irvine professor Greg Weiss have developed a way of unboiling a hen egg.

By Juliette Funes

VMA Communications

WHITTIER When Stephan Kudlacek walked into a University of California, Irvine research lab and agreed to join a chemistry project looking for a faster way to unfold proteins, he never dreamed that he would soon become an Internet sensation.

The 2008 La Serna High graduate is part of the research team that successfully invented a way to “unboil” a hen egg, a breakthrough that could dramatically reduce costs for cancer treatments, food production and other segments of the global biotechnology industry, according to the team. Kudlacek, who has inadvertently become the face of the project, credits the astute guidance he received at La Serna for his achievements.

“Everything good that has happened to me is because someone taught or mentored me,” Kudlacek said. “All the teachers I had at La Serna were instrumental in some way to my success.”

Principal Ann Fitzgerald said she is proud to have a La Serna alumnus become a pioneer in the world of science and a role model for current students.

“To have one of our own make worldwide news for making innovative discoveries and shaping the future of chemistry and the sciences is such an honor for us,” Fitzgerald said. “We couldn’t be more excited for Stephan and his family and we look forward to learning about his future successes.”

Growing up in Whittier, Kudlacek always had a predilection for science, but he never seriously considered it a career path, as he wanted to be a graphic artist. Then one day, Kudlacek walked into Julie Fliegler’s chemistry class.

“The first day of class, Ms. Fliegler said, ‘My goal is to make you want to be a chemist,’” Kudlacek said.

One experiment at a time, Kudlacek became more fascinated with test tubes and, especially, chemical reactions. During one such experiment, he added calcium to a beaker of water and watched in amazement as the water smoked, bubbled and produced hydrogen gas.

“It was so cool. It got me hooked,” he said. “I told Ms. Fliegler, ‘You got me. I want to be a chemist.’”

After graduating, Kudlacek enrolled in the chemistry program at UC Irvine, studying biochemistry and molecular biology with Professor Gregory Weiss, who told him of a research project centering on a device that could take tangled proteins and allow them to refold. Kudlacek quickly joined the team.

As Kudlacek describes it, chemical molecules fold inside the body and form unique shapes that perform a variety of essential functions. Misshapen proteins that clump together in stones wreak havoc on the body and can be responsible for a wide range of illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Dialysis allows researchers to refold the proteins into their original shape, but it is expensive and time-consuming. For researchers, the question was whether they could find a more efficient method.

The key was finding an object that could easily have normal proteins turned into misshaped ones. Then to use a device to mimic the human body’s molecular process in returning the proteins back to their original shapes. The boiling of an egg did the trick. When Weiss’ team reversed this procedure – the now famous “unboiling” of an egg – they discovered that what once took days could now be achieved in minutes.

“The project is phenomenal,” Kudlacek said of the team’s finding, published last month in the journal, ChemBioChem. “That’s what I love about science. Crazy ideas are encouraged.”

Also a chemistry buff is Stephan’s younger brother, Clark, who is known on campus for having a knack for technology and being active as a student leader on the Associated Student Body Cabinet. Though he revels in the subject, Clark aspires to be a user interface designer for smart phones and computers. After graduating from La Serna, Clark is looking forward to attending Brigham Young University.

“My family is thrilled about what my brother has been able to accomplish,” said Clark, a junior. “They always knew he was going to do something great like this. It’s really great that he’s able to live up to that.”

Kudlacek plans to go to graduate school to study chemical biology and is also considering becoming a teacher. His advice to La Serna students is simple: “Find something that makes you want to run to work. Find something that makes you want to do good.”

“We are so pleased with students such as Stephan and Clark who instill pride in Whittier Union every day through their actions and accomplishments,” Whittier Union High School District Superintendent Sandra Thorstenson said. “Our former students are leaving lasting impacts on the world thanks to the inspiration of our teachers, and it’s very exciting to witness.”

‘Pleasure activist’ raises parents’ ire

Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute

By Brad Dacus

President, Pacific Justice Institute

LAFAYETTE – Controversy is growing in a Northern California community as parents have learned disturbing new details about recent sex-ed presentations for freshmen in the Acalanes Union High School District.

For months, parents have pushed school officials for answers about who was involved and what was being taught by Planned Parenthood on campus. Just before Christmas, in response to a public records request from Pacific Justice Institute, the district finally identified some of the PP employees involved with the program. Parents are now more concerned than ever.

The parents started asking more questions and learned that one of the sex-ed instructors at Acalanes High School, when she is not working for Planned Parenthood, leads “pleasure workshops” demonstrating the use of sex toys for a sex toy porn shop in Berkeley called Good Vibrations. It is not yet clear what this instructor may have told students about the store’s offerings.

Parents also identified the public Twitter feed of another sex-ed instructor at Acalanes High School, the PP education manager for Northern California, where she calls herself a “pleasure activist.” She commented enthusiastically on attending the CatalystCon pornography conference for her continuing education along with other Planned Parenthood representatives, just prior to teaching at AHS this past fall.

This event attracts leading members of the porn industry and focuses on topics like using explicit instructional media for sex-ed, the history of sex toys and how to effectively share your sex life on the stage and on the page. Other tweets (since deleted) by this instructor are too vulgar to be included here.

PJI previously reported on the district’s use of racy sex checklists, a diagram of the “Genderbread Person,” and coaching students in asking each other if it’s OK to take their clothes off. In a letter sent to PJI in early January, a lawyer for the district strongly defended the program as “age appropriate” and claimed the sex checklists were merely “idea-generating worksheets” rather than illegal surveys or questionnaires.

Although the district is promising to continue the controversial program, there are signs it is beginning to feel the parents’ pressure. After being confronted with the backgrounds of the two instructors outlined above, Superintendent John Nickerson confirmed to parents that neither of those individuals would take part in the sex-ed program that began Jan. 5. The district has not disclosed, however, who would be teaching the class and has previously admitted it does not conduct background checks on PP instructors.

As president of Pacific Justice Institute, I commented, “It has become clear that Acalanes officials have breached parental trust at every turn. They have brought individuals into the classroom who should not be anywhere near a school campus, and they continue to defend an indefensible program. In light of these most recent revelations, we are renewing our call to the district to suspend its relationship with Planned Parenthood and make sweeping changes to comply with the letter and spirit of state law. We are also calling on responsible journalists to join us in asking tough questions and holding the district accountable for these serious lapses in judgment.”


Whittier Union launches student well-being program

Student Well-Being Liaison Angela Castellanos leads a WhyTry training seminar for a group of master- and bachelor-level social work interns who are providing on-campus counseling and case management to students across the district.

Expands wellness centers, social/emotional support for students

By Juliette Funes
VMA Communications

WHITTIER – The Whittier Union High School District is expanding its award-winning mental health program at Santa Fe High School to all schools districtwide, with the expansion of wellness centers, counseling services and overall support for students who are experiencing barriers to their personal and academic achievement.

Following the success of Santa Fe’s Serenity Program, which won a Golden Bell Award in 2013, the district is launching a Student Well-Being Program under its Mental Health Initiative, which involves 16 master- and bachelor-level social work interns who are providing on-campus counseling and case management, expanded partnerships with community agencies, the implementation of an online referral system and staff training on threat assessment.

Through a widely inclusive process, the district identified wellness services as a priority under its Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), a blueprint that outlines how the district will target services for its greatest student needs.

“So far this school year, 215 students have been referred for mental health services, showcasing the need for social-emotional support programs on our campuses,” said Director of Student Support Services Amy Larson. “This is a very new and ambitious program that is providing us the tools to better assist our students with prevention, early intervention and support when they need it.”

The program is modeled after Santa Fe’s Serenity Program, which was established in 2006 and includes individual and group counseling, case management, classroom presentations and parent education sessions, as well as partnerships with local universities such as Whittier College, USC and Azusa Pacific University, among others.

Under the leadership of counselor and licensed clinical social worker Angela Castellanos, the Serenity Program was recognized with the prestigious Golden Bell Award for increasing student attendance rates and test scores and decreasing discipline cases. Castellanos is now leading Whittier Union’s efforts to expand similar mental health services across district schools as the new Student Well-Being Liaison.

“We want our students not only to have the ability to succeed academically, but also have the tools and resources that permit them to flourish in their behavioral, psychological and emotional lives,” Castellanos said. “Through the success we have seen with the model program at Santa Fe High, I am confident that we will experience the same results districtwide.”

Joining Castellanos in moving the program forward is Larson, a licensed clinical social worker with a background in mental health, and District Mental Health and Community Services Liaison Jack Ketchem, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a credential in counseling.

As part of the program, Whittier Union has instituted wellness centers at its five comprehensive high schools, and counseling services are offered to students in the district’s alternative education programs at Frontier and Sierra Vista high schools. La Serna and Pioneer high schools are currently working with their art departments to create murals for their centers and are in the process of creating a student well-being club called “LETS,” short for “Let’s Erase The Stigma.”

In an effort to strengthen the program, the district has partnered with several local community agencies, including Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse, which provides drug and alcohol counseling services at all schools; Pacific Clinics, which provides behavioral services at Santa Fe and Pioneer high schools; and The Whole Child, which operates an integrated school health center, dubbed “The Gallery,” on the Whittier High School campus.

Administrators, counselors and staff at each school site have undergone extensive training in suicide and threat assessment, led by school psychologist Stephanie Murray, an integral member of the district’s Crisis Response Team and suicide prevention education. Teachers also received training on how to refer students to services available through the program. Crisis response training is scheduled in the spring.

In collaboration with each school’s counseling staff, interns are coordinating mental health-related presentations for parents and students, with a suicide prevention training being offered to La Serna High School parents this month. California and Santa Fe high school parents received similar training last year.

Additionally, Whittier Union has partnered with APU for grant proposal writing and received a $10,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente to administer the WhyTry program, which has enabled teachers and staff from the district’s intervention programs to undergo training on how to motivate at-risk students to achieve in school.

“We are strongly encouraged by the impact this much-needed program has already made on our students, whose emotional and mental well-being and health is foundational to their success in school,” said Whittier Union High School District Superintendent Sandra Thorstenson. “This is another example of our genuine concern for our students’ well-being and our ability to use LCAP funding to develop new and innovative programs to benefit our students who are most in need.”


Yosh Nakamura still teaching long after retirement

Yoshio Nakamura in the present day.

“Yosh” Nakamura teaching art class at Rio Hondo College in the 1960s .

Community icon featured in L.A. Magazine

By Ruthie Retana

Rio Hondo Community College

WHITTIER – Rio Hondo College’s Yoshio Nakamura taught high school and college students about creating art for more than four decades – sharing the unique perspectives that drove the dramatic images he created on canvas, paper and through sculpture.

Now, 22 years after retiring as Rio Hondo’s vice president of community services and institutional development, Nakamura continues to share important lessons on life and art.

Nakamura and his wife, Grace Shinoda Nakamura, are among a dozen Angelenos ages 59 to 100 whose philosophies and tips for aging gracefully are featured in the November edition of Los Angeles Magazine.

“The Rio Hondo community knows well that ‘Yosh’ still has much to offer all those who know him,” said Rio Hondo College Superintendent/President Teresa Dreyfuss. “He is, has been and will continue to be a driving force for excellence for our students and faculty. This recognition and his many other honors are well deserved.”

In the article, Nakamura, 89, cites a quote Chelsea Clinton in turn attributes to her grandmother: “It isn’t what happens to you that is important. It’s what you do when something happens to you.”

Grace Nakamura, 87, an artist and retired educator, adds, “I believe that you can have a fulfilled life if you try to think positively and make the most of situations, if you try to live by the Golden Rule, if you’re accepting of people, if you try to give service to others,” she told the magazine.

It’s a lesson Yosh Nakamura learned early on.

At age 16, he was interned with other Japanese-Americans at the Tulare Assembly Center, a converted racetrack near Fresno. He was later relocated to a camp in Arizona, where he reported for active duty in the U.S. Army in 1944.

Nakamura was sent to France and Italy, where he served with the 442nd Regimental Team, a unit made up of Japanese-Americans. He was assigned to a heavy-weapons group, using deafening mortars and machine guns to wage war. In 2000, 20 members received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor. In 2011, the unit was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest U.S. civilian honor and Nakamura received the Bronze Star.

“All of us have been through hard times,” Nakamura said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have people who have been there to help me out and give me a more positive outlook on life.”

In 1952, Nakamura earned his bachelor of fine arts from USC and began teaching at Whittier High School while he worked to complete his master of fine arts. In 1960, he was named Teacher of the Year by the Whittier and the San Gabriel Valley Federation of Women’s Clubs.

In 1963, Nakamura joined the first faculty as fine arts chairman of the newly opened Rio Hondo College and, in a very real sense, found his home. Over the next 29 years, he added a series of administrative duties to his teaching role, becoming a dean and eventually a Rio Hondo College vice president.

His stamp can be seen across the college community, from the fine arts program to the Learning Assistance Center, from the fitness center to the campus gallery. All three of his children have attended Rio Hondo.

These days, Nakamura doesn’t seem to have slowed much.

Since retiring, he has dedicated himself to his art, but also found time to volunteer for a number of art-centered community groups, including Whittier’s Art in Public Places Committee and Cultural Arts Commission.

In January, he will join a handful of other veterans atop the City of Alhambra float in the 126th Tournament of Roses Parade. The “Go For Broke” float honors the Japanese-Americans who served during World War II while their family members were interned.

In February, Nakamura will be one of two featured artists at the Hillcrest Congregational Church’s 55th annual Festival of Fine Arts – an event he has been involved with since its inception.

In April, he will be inducted into the Whittier High School Hall of Fame – an honor that recognizes the scope of Nakamura’s impact – a role so strong students still stop him to say how much his classes influenced their lives.

Nakamura is also focused on an issue closer to home. His grandson, Kai Nakamura, is struggling with a heart illness that is currently untreatable. But, in keeping Grace and Yoshio Nakamura’s trademark positive outlook, the family has turned to YouTube to raise awareness and funds to help find a cure. See their video appeal at See their video appeal at

Pioneer welcomes new assistant principal

Steve Rodriguez

Whittier Union brings on 30 new teachers

By Juliette Funes

VMA Communications

WHITTIER – Pioneer High School has a new assistant principal of curriculum at the helm, Steve Rodriguez, a former administrator at El Rancho Unified with more than 15 years in education.

The addition of Rodriguez comes on the heels of the Whittier Union High School District hiring 30 new teachers – the largest number of educators the district has hired in a single school year since 2007, ensuring that it meets its commitment to reducing class sizes and adding more sections.

“Because of our commitment to reduce class size, we have hired more teachers than we have for several years and are thrilled to welcome them to the Whittier Union family,” said Whittier Union High School District Superintendent Sandra Thorstenson. “I have no doubt that each member will help us honor our dedication to student success.”

Rodriguez, a native of Pico Rivera who now lives in Whittier, earned his bachelor’s in Social Science, master’s in Education and master’s in Educational Leadership from Azusa Pacific University.

During his 15-year career at El Rancho Unified, Rodriguez taught history and social science at Rivera Middle School for eight years and then transitioned to El Rancho High School as the dean. He later served as assistant principal of business and activities and assistant principal of curriculum.

While at Pioneer, Rodriguez said he aims to improve the student experience and positively impact student learning.

“As the assistant principal of curriculum, my role will be to support our teachers so that they have all the resources they need to ensure student success,” Rodriguez said. “I appreciate being part of a district that stays closely focused on improving student achievement for all of its students.”

Pioneer High School Principal Monica Oviedo said Rodriguez brings a rich educational background to the school, having worked closely with El Rancho teachers to support them in Common Core implementation and helping to improve teaching and learning.

“Steve served El Rancho Unified in various capacities, from being a student, teacher and coach to leading as a dean and assistant principal, demonstrating a tremendous work ethic and genuine humility along the way,” Oviedo said. “I am excited that he has joined our team and know that he is truly thrilled to be a part of our Titan family.”

In addition to Rodriguez, Whittier Union hired 30 other certificated staff, which includes teachers, deans and counselors who are working across the district. The additional staff members are a result of the district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), a spending plan that calls for reduced class sizes and more counselors, among other programs.

To initiate them into Whittier Union, the 30 new hires – some of whom were on temporary contracts last year and were welcomed back to permanent positions – participated in Teacher Power, an orientation program introducing them to the district’s mission, vision and the cornerstone of its curriculum, the “Whatever It Takes” initiative.

“We have such an amazing group of teachers and staff, who work together in setting high expectations for our students at Whittier Union,” said New Teacher Program Specialist Wendy Brandt, who will guide teachers in their first years. “We’re very blessed to have such a collaborative learning and teaching environment with the focus on student support and success.”