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From the Class of 2020: Stories of inspiration and hope

Meet 11 outstanding graduates from Colorado’s Class of 2020

Grid of images of six Colorado high school graduates
(From top left) Yarely Velasco, Jordan Stewart, Alondra Hernandez-Antonio, Isabella Fernandes, Hunter Rivera, and Melody Emenyonu are all members of the Class of 2020.
Photos courtesy of students and their families.

For Zenique Padilla, graduating from Denver’s Manual High School wasn’t just about her. She also wanted to walk across the stage for her eldest brother, Elijah, who never got the chance.

Elijah was a 16-year-old student at Manual when he fainted in the school’s lobby. He had suffered a tear in the aorta, causing bleeding in his heart. He died at the hospital before Zenique, who was 9 at the time, and her other siblings could say goodbye.

“I already felt connected to Manual,” said Zenique, now 18. “My whole journey and goal to accomplish was graduating — not only for myself but for my brother, as well.”

Zenique Padilla sitting on the steps of a staircase smiling. Courtesy of Zenique Padilla

Zenique made the most of her time at Manual, rising from a student more interested in socializing than in schoolwork her freshman year to earning a 4.2 GPA her sophomore year and taking on a student leadership role in her senior year, when she was named “head girl.”

As a student leader, Zenique planned the school’s first-ever “senior sunrise,” where seniors crowded onto the football field together at 5 a.m. with pillows, blankets, coffee, and donuts to watch dawn break. When classes moved online in mid-March to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the all-school bonfire she’d been planning, where students would spray each other with glow-in-the-dark paint, was canceled too.

Zenique was crushed. She loved the energy of school, and she was upset that the moment she’d spent four years working toward — walking across the stage to get her diploma — would now take place virtually. But she decided to make the best of it. On graduation day, she put on the dress she’d ordered months earlier, and donned her cap and gown. Her family connected a computer to the TV in their living room and gathered around to watch.

Zenique’s name was called and her photo appeared on the screen. Next to it was a photo of Elijah. “It had our family in tears,” she said, “because everybody knew my goal.”

Zenique is just one of the extraordinary new high school graduates that Chalkbeat Colorado is highlighting this year. They and their classmates are setting out into new lives, without the usual rituals that make the passage easier. We asked educators to nominate seniors who stood out for their resilience, empathy, and academic attainment.

“Zenique Padilla is the definition of excellence,” wrote Chris DeRemer, the dean of instruction at Manual High. “She is outgoing, resilient, self-aware, and mature. In my years at Manual, there are only a few students who have the academic acumen and interpersonal awareness that Zenique brings to school each and every day.”

Below, 10 educators offer their testimonials to these outstanding graduates

Hunter Rivera

Graduate of Windsor Charter Academy

Weld Re-4 School District | Windsor

"Hunter ran for office because he wants to serve his community. He has a drive and desire to improve our world."

Hannah Mancina, principal

When I first met Hunter, he was in the eighth grade. He was an introspective, quiet young man. As a freshman, he enrolled in a college political science class and that lit a fire in him to pursue a life of service in his community. After that class, he started wearing a suit to school. He began to walk through the halls with confidence and maturity and we knew then that he had set high expectations for himself on what he wanted to accomplish in his life.

Fast forward to his senior year...Hunter went big. He took his service to a new level and ran for the mayor of Windsor. Hunter ran for office because he wants to serve his community. He has a drive and desire to improve our world and has the tenacity and moxie as a 17-year-old to put his name on a ballot. The election was at the beginning of April, right in the middle of the stay-at-home orders. Although he did not win, all of us in the Windsor community are sure that Hunter is destined for big things in the future.

Alondra Hernandez-Antonio

Graduate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College

Denver Public Schools

"She will be able to proudly tell Mateo that everything she did, she did for him."

Hap Legg, high school counselor

Two years ago, when Alondra came to our school from Pagosa Springs, I immediately knew she was special. I could see that she was bright, humble, kind, and motivated to do her best academically and personally. Fast forward to the end of her first year. Alondra was then a participant of the University of Colorado pre-health scholars program, among many other opportunities, and had earned a 4.33 GPA while taking two college classes.

Going into her senior year, Alondra sat down with me. We discussed her goals, plans for the year, and at the end of our conversation, she wanted to tell me something. Alondra told me she was pregnant, would be having her child in spring, and wanted to know if she was eligible to graduate early.

Alondra was eligible to graduate early, and in addition to this, we were able to pay for her to participate in a certified nursing assistant program. She completed her final semester with a 5.11 GPA and completed and passed her certified nursing assistant class. She will attend the University of Colorado Denver in the fall to pursue nursing.

In March, she welcomed her beautiful blessing into this world, Mateo. She will be able to proudly tell Mateo that everything she did, she did for him.

Melody Emenyonu

Graduate of Hinkley High School

Aurora Public Schools

"Melody is the person everyone looks to for leadership and courage."

Tara Farr, debate coach

Melody is a young woman who has pushed herself to the limits in order to grow and make her mother proud. She searches for ways to make a difference in her family, school, and community.

Despite obstacles such as income inequality and racism, Melody is driven to make the world a better place.

She is a well-rounded individual who wants to own a hospital one day so she can make a difference. She will be attending Georgetown University in the fall so that she can make her dreams come true. She was born to immigrants, and she knows the struggles that have come with that. She is a woman of color and has worked to break barriers for anyone marginalized. Melody is the person everyone looks to for leadership and courage.

Yarely Velasco

Graduate of Basalt High School

Roaring Fork Schools | Basalt

"Everyone in our community knows of her intelligence, hard work, and most of all her kindness."

Leticia Guzman Ingram, an English teacher who taught Yarely for over nine years

I have known Yarely for over nine years and have seen how she has blossomed into a beautiful and intelligent young lady. She was actually in my English language development class in elementary school. Everyone in our community knows of her intelligence, hard work, and most of all her kindness. She continually amazes me by her consideration for others.

She has a special heart for second-language learners. Yarely herself is a second-language learner and knows how it feels to come to a new country and have to learn a new language and new culture. She is the perfect bridge of cultures for our school and our community.

Yarely plans lessons, teaches groups, and works one-on-one with English language learners daily. Her senior capstone project this year was about telling immigrant stories to help others understand their journey into public high schools.

Isabella Fernandes DeOliveira

Graduate of North High School

Denver Public Schools

"In my eight years of teaching, she stands out as one of my top five students."

Carly Buch, taught computer science and engineering, and was Isabella's Student Board of Education adviser

Isabella was an international student who moved to Denver from Brazil. In my eight years of teaching, she stands out as one of my top five students. She is passionate, articulate, and driven. She took both levels of Advanced Placement Computer Science and excelled.

She would regularly go home and write complex programs on topics that interested her. I talked to her recently, and she was taking a class on ethical hacking just for fun. She feels strongly that there aren’t enough bilingual females in the STEM field.

As part of our Student Board of Education Team, Isabella exhibited tremendous leadership potential. She worked tirelessly to create a program called the AP Ambassadors. This program paired students of color who had taken AP classes with students of color who had not taken AP classes. Isabella started this program because she noticed that her peers and fellow English language learners weren’t as represented in AP classes as they were in our overall student numbers.

She is unable to attend college next year because of her international student status so she is hoping to work for a year and then attend college the following year. We need more trilingual STEM females who are passionate about social justice and changing the world.

Esmeralda Navarette Felix

Graduate of Adams City High School

Adams 14 School District | Commerce City

"Esmeralda works tirelessly to be the best student she can be."

Anita Pizzo, English teacher

Esmeralda works tirelessly to be the best student she can be. She experienced trauma during her freshman year and, as a consequence, had a low grade point average. She had worked hard since then, earning a 4.0 GPA in her senior year while working to help support her family. She has taken 15 college credits this year alone.

Reign Patton

Graduate of Girls Athletic Leadership School

Denver Public Schools

"This is a woman who will change the world in whatever way she chooses – you will hear her voice across the world."

Amanda Flageolle, theater and improv teacher

Reign Patton is a one-of-a-kind young woman. She is an advocate for herself and for those who haven’t yet found their voice, especially for students of color. You can hear her voice in leadership and social justice conversations around the school at any time. She is a singer and a terrifically talented actor. She also takes the stage often as a brilliant dancer and has taught middle school dance for several semesters, leading and engaging students.

She has worked tenaciously through tough situations that life has handed her and has come out on top. She is also an incredibly creative fashion and make-up designer. And did I mention funny? This girl will crack. You. Up.

She is kind and compassionate, smart and feisty, ferociously loyal, and fiercely bright. This is a woman who will change the world in whatever way she chooses – you will hear her voice across the world the way we’ve been so lucky to hear in our hallways. Reign, you are so loved, and we are so fortunate to have had you these four years.

Jordan Stewart

Graduate of Vista Peak Preparatory High School

Aurora Public Schools

"Jordan brings joy to anyone he is around with his jovial personality and laughter."

Janiece Mackey of Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism

Jordan (at left in photo, posing with a classmate), has exemplified leadership and played an intricate role in our transit equity campaign. Jordan was on the student council in a leadership role, ran track, and excelled in these spaces.

Jordan brings joy to anyone he is around with his jovial personality and laughter. He is an older brother who has provided a depth of care for his siblings and has a sweet spot for his grandma. We are so proud of Jordan and have seen him go from shy to increased civic efficacy.

Ollie Pol

Graduate of Legacy High School

Adams 12 Five Star Schools District | Broomfield

"Ollie is a person who educates through art."

Paula Rowinski, photography teacher

As a dedicated art student, Ollie Pol has improved upon natural abilities to produce quality work. Ollie’s photography is growing rapidly due to dedication and experimentation beyond the classroom. Ollie has also been actively holding down a job as a barista at Starbucks throughout the school year and is helping her mother through the challenges of breast cancer.

Ollie’s passion drives a vision that is innovative as well as academic with recognizing and celebrating LGBT individuals. Ollie is open-minded and has a willingness to seek out and accept the ideas and opinions of others, as well as an ability to stand for what is important. Ollie is energetic, insightful and truly devoted to her art and academics. Ollie is a person who educates through art.

Daniel Arjona-Hau

Graduate of STRIVE Prep SMART Charter High School

Denver Public Schools

"He is ranked first in his class all while being involved in school and a standout community activist."

Vanessa Trujillo, college counselor

Daniel is absolutely phenomenal. He is ranked first in his class all while being involved in school and a standout community activist. One example of Daniel being an academically high achiever is when he opted to take the AP English Language and Composition test despite not taking the class. We were unable to fit this AP class into Daniel’s schedule, and he still registered to take the exam. He studied on his own time and sought different types of support throughout the year in order to pass this test. Needless to say, Daniel passed this test through his own initiative.

Daniel led and organized a supply drive for the migrant caravans in need of basic survival supplies. He was very intentional in collecting supplies from our own high school students and staff by creating a narrative around the importance of the drive.

He also advertised the supply drive to other high schools that have speech and debate teams. His outreach to these high schools was strategic; he was informing other high schools with a different demographic about a struggle that was impacting our community members and their families directly.

During a speech and debate competition at our school, several of the high schools showed up with boxes upon boxes of supplies. Through his efforts, Daniel and his peers were able to send much-needed supplies to the caravans.

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