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Katrina Duran gets a hug after her class graduated May 31. About 100 students got diplomas from Kings River and Taft.

Principal Rick Church prepared for what would be his final address to students graduating from Kings River and Taft High schools.

He made sure the chairs aligned perfectly on stage in the Washington Academic Middle School auditorium, that the visiting Sanger Unified dignitaries each got a program, frosted water bottle and a yellow rose and that the podium had his trademark two towels for wiping down his cleanly shaved scalp when he spoke to his graduates that night. The towels are a tradition.

“Yep,” he said in a largely empty and still-cool auditorium. “This is my last. Fourteen years. Long time. I think this turned out to be the nicest.”

Church pointed out the empty chairs, gold with white seat pads. They were special for the event, not steel fidget-inducing seats plucked from racks that are the go-to for nearly every school in the country. Then he talked about the meaning of each graduate receiving the yellow rose, a practice that reflects the efforts over the years Church and his staff have expended to steer their students into successful lives.

“They are to pass that rose to someone who helped them get where they’re at tonight,” he said. 

Judging by the crowd that gathered to watch, quite a few friends and family likely participated somewhat in the process. And the group wasn’t shy, hollering for their favorite graduate when appropriate May 31. Very few seats went unfilled.

“Tonight we’ve arrived at a time of the year when graduates stand at the edge of new beginnings,” Church said, addressing the crowd from his podium and starting the ceremony. “Tomorrow, you’ll be on a different journey. Life is a tremendous journey, and the course is determined by the choices you make every day.”

And he characterized every “failed experience” as one step closer to success.

Taft graduate Nayeli Cabanillas, one of four student speakers, said the key to realizing that success is to focus on goals and new beginnings. “All the challenges we have gone through,” she said, repeating her speech in Spanish.

Speaker Yajaira Llanes of Kings River called out Church. “You made this year an incredible experience,” she said. “Without the additional support, we would not be here.”

Church accepted a position at the Fresno County Office of Education in Fresno. Jon Tillotson moves from Sanger High to replace him.

Elizabeth Jaurequi of Kings River said her fellow graduates did what was expected of them. “Each of us has a history of failures and mistakes,” she said. “Despite this, we can achieve greatness. We have grown so much in our time in high school.”

Jaurequi likened that evolution from student to graduate as the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. Then she said some may not prove all that graceful. She also urged those in attendance to do their part in recycling to prevent the oceans from being overrun by plastic trash. “Take care of yourselves and our planet.”

Leeah Quezada of Kings River asked that her fellow graduates “remember this day.” She said they had overcome obstacles but are now part of a vibrant class of 2019. “Fourteen years ago, there were only four students,” she said. “This year there are over 100. The success of so many students is because of you Mr. Church.”

Quezada said she respects Church for “laying down the law” when necessary and “never giving up on us.”

Church handed out each diploma and posed for photographs by the official cameraman with each graduate. He toweled off his head at least twice.

As students gathered outside after the event, many hugged. Some cried. One of those was Katrina “Trina” Duran. “I’m happy,” she said, tears still visible. Duran plans to attend Reedley College on her way to becoming a pediatric nurse. 

Cameron Ortega said he will attend Fresno City to study criminology. “I want to be a corrections officer,” he said. Of the event and the night, he said, “I felt good.” And of Church, he said he’s a great principal. “Because he cares about his students.”

And Cabanillas, who also was awarded one of Church’s coveted Principal’s Awards, said of her time at the podium, “It was nerve-wracking seeing so many eyes on you.” But she’s got a plan — “I want to be an LPN (licensed practical nurse).” She starts her schooling at Reedley College. 

She said she plans to stay in the area.

The reporter can be contacted by email at nemethfeatures@gmail.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.

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