Starting Monday, more than 7,000 high school seniors in the Kern High School District, and hundreds more throughout Kern County, will start a new chapter in their young lives when they are handed high school diplomas. For these 12
Noe Martinez Fuentes
Noe Martinez Fuentes started taking pills and drinking alcohol in middle school. Then came marijuana. At West High, he was into ecstasy, cocaine and crystal meth.
He was following in one of his brothers' footsteps, he said, who was incarcerated 15 years ago, at 15, for first-degree murder.
"I didn't care about anything," Martinez Fuentes said.
In the middle of high school, his father was diagnosed with colon cancer. Martinez Fuentes began thinking about his life, his .7 GPA, his father's struggles and his brother's problems. His dad, a field worker, told him he, too, would work in the fields for the rest of his life if he didn't finish school.
"I thought, 'What am I doing? Here I am, not doing anything with my life,'" he recalled. "I didn't want to go down that road anymore."
He joined Grizzly Youth Academy, a five-month boot camp for at-risk youth in San Luis Obispo. He returned home and enrolled at Vista Continuation High School to make up credits. He's also been speaking to students in middle and high school about staying away from drugs.
"I tell them that drugs are a waste of time and money," Martinez Fuentes said. "I decided to speak to help them."
He's been focused on his studies, Vista staff said. They helped Martinez Fuentes apply for and receive financial aid and scholarships, and set him up to meet Cal State Bakersfield officials.
He was accepted into CSUB's Summer Bridge program, and should be a freshmen there in the fall.
On Wednesday, he will walk the stage. He thanks Vista staff, his parents and mentor and West High teacher Will Smith for keeping him focused.
"It feels great," he said of the thought of graduation. "I've worked hard to graduate. I wish my brother was here to see it."
For Liberty High's Tiffany Rhodes, graduation means the start of a better future. Her high school career has not been easy.
Her mother has struggled with drug use. Her father walks to his minimum wage job every day to support the two of them.
They don't have a car, so Rhodes catches rides from friends and family to and from school.
"It's difficult to concentrate at school with all that going on," Rhodes said.
And yet she has -- flourished, actually. And she's done it all with a smile, Liberty High counselor Carmen Davis said.
"I have never seen her down," Davis said. "She has never used her circumstance as an excuse."
Rhodes is one of the school's top graduating seniors with a 4.0 GPA. She's in math honors, Spanish Honor Society and National Honor Society, and competed in swimming and tennis.
She'd participate in more, she said, if her family had a car.
"I think I just focus on the big picture," she said. "I picture getting a good paying job, and work to make the world a better place."
Rhodes has never lived alone or away from family, but she'll have to for college. She is on the wait list for UC Davis, and has been accepted into UC Santa Barbara. She has received ample grants, scholarships and financial aid.
She hopes to study medicine.
"It's nerve-wracking, yet exciting," she said. "I'm ready to see what college has to offer."
Tanner Reed says it bluntly: "I probably shouldn't be here today."
Last school year, Reed was a thriving junior at Bakersfield High, taking GATE and Advanced Placement courses. Then a horrific crash nearly cut her life short.
At Stockdale Highway and Coffee Road, a semi-truck made an illegal turn and sheered off the top of her car. Everything inside, including her head, was crushed. Her brain bled, and her skull fractured in hundreds of places.
She doesn't remember the crash. She spent nearly a month in the hospital and couldn't return to school for the rest of her junior year.
This year, her senior year, she returned. But it wasn't easy.
"School was never an issue for me. It was easy. But when I came back, every single day was a struggle," Reed said. "I'd do something for an hour and I would have to go to sleep for the rest of the day. My body was thrown off."
She can't focus for long periods, and she suffers migraines. But BHS teachers, she said, have worked with her, allowing her more time to complete homework, for example.
And through all that, she has maintained a 3.1 GPA.
"It's a miracle. It's amazing," she said of graduating. "I don't even know how I'm here."
She is enrolled at Cal State Bakersfield, and will study to be a teacher.
By his own admission, Richard Pitchford was a lazy freshman at Bakersfield High School. High school was harder than he expected coming out of middle school. So he ditched class, and just stopped caring about his education.
"I didn't have the will for school," he said.
By the end of his freshman year, he passed just one class -- art -- with a "D."
"I think the teacher just wanted me out of her class," Pitchford joked.
He was a "repeat freshmen," which meant the 6-plus footer with a moustache was listed as a sophomore but took the same classes as ninth-graders.
"It was kind of embarrassing," he said.
Then he met his classmate and now-girlfriend, Kayla Thompson.
"She made me realize school was important. She made me want to try," he said.
BHS counselors pushed him to make up the 59 credits he was behind. He enrolled in Bakersfield Adult School classes, an extra eighth period and online courses.
He got caught up. Even more, he's ranked 79 out of more than 600 graduating seniors.
"I knew I could do it," he said. "I just had to find the will to do it."
Pitchford plans to study physical training at Bakersfield College.
Since her freshmen year at Independence High, Wendi Wu has been a leader at and outside school.
In school, she's been involved in the Associated Student Body, varsity tennis, the Energy and Utility Academy and several clubs including the Advanced Placement and medical clubs. At one point during her sophomore year, she took 10 periods -- starting with zero period orchestra just after dawn and ending with the academy class in the evening.
Outside of class she's been dedicated to various community service projects, tutoring her peers and helping with causes for cats and dogs. She recently received the 2012 Young Woman Defining Philanthropy Award by the Women's and Girls' Fund for exceptional community service.
Then there's her leadership within her family. For years she's helped her parents, who are from China and don't speak fluent English. They all moved to the United States when she was 2 years old.
During her freshman year, Wendi helped her mom and dad type legal letters and fill out court papers for a civil court matter. And during her junior year, she helped her parents by babysitting her little brother when the restaurant they worked for was struggling. It closed down, pushing them into unemployment.
Through everything, Wu said she had to master time management. Her family values education, so homework needed to get done somehow, someway.
This week, she will represent her class as its valedictorian -- finishing with a 4.48 GPA -- and as a prestigious Gates Millennium Scholar. She is just one of 1,000 students chosen nationally as a Gates scholar, and will have a full ride through college, including graduate and medical studies.
She will study cellular molecular biology at UC Berkeley and one day hopes to be a pediatric oncologist.
Curtis Fainter and Hopraya Stidom
The achievements of Foothill High student-athletes Curtis Fainter and Hopraya Stidom are impressive on their own.
Fainter -- who wrestled for three years, played football for four and baseball for two -- has also earned a 3.3 GPA.
Stidom has played volleyball, basketball, track and softball in school, boxed outside it, and maintained a whopping 4.3 GPA.
Add their backgrounds to the mix and you're looking at some extraordinary human beings, their counselors say.
Fainter has never had much contact with his parents, or most of his six siblings. His father was only recently released from prison.
He's been raised primarily by his grandmother, whom he now helps fight cancer and other illnesses. He works part-time at Bagels & Blenderz.
Stidom is the oldest of four children, living with parents who are both out of work.
The student-athletes said they use their backgrounds as motivation to succeed. And after graduating Thursday, they'll be the first in their families to attend college.
"When considering all of the obstacles (Fainter) has overcome, this young man could have opted to take another route -- a not-so-positive route -- but instead has chosen to give it his best and has done an amazing job," said Foothill counselor Fabiola Vallejo.
"(Stidom) is seen as the bright star that is going to help the family," said Foothill counselor Denise James. "This pressure is what drives her to succeed and want more for herself."
Fainter plans to attend Willamette University in Oregon or Bakersfield College, depending on the financial aid available. Stidom will attend UC Merced.
Madison Schutzner has always liked school -- maybe a little too much.
Since kindergarten -- through Hart Elementary, Tevis Junior High and Stockdale High -- she's never missed a day of school.
"I always loved school," Schutzner said. "And I'm not the kind of person to be sitting at home doing nothing."
Early on, her mother, Carol Schutzner, instilled in Madison the importance of school, and the fact that public schools lose funding when students aren't in their classroom seats.
"I thought it was important they know that," Carol Schutzner said.
Madison has always been driven in and out of school, and they didn't realize the streak was alive until she was awarded for it at the end of elementary school, Carol Schutzner said.
Madison has missed a class or two for medical or orthodontist appointments, but never a whole day. The closest she came was in early elementary school.
"She woke up sick and I said, 'Madison, you really need to stay home,'" Carol Schutzner said. "But I just couldn't keep her home."
"I was there part of the day, and the teacher sent me home," Madison said.
Her twin brother, Matthew, has also had several years of perfect attendance.
At Stockdale, Madison has maintained a 3.7 GPA while taking part in the swim team, cheerleading and the Medical Academy of Stockdale High. Outside of school, Madison is part of her church youth group at RiverLakes Community Church, and has played piano since she was 6.
Madison will attend CSUB next year, and plans to study nursing.
Jordan Abel and Rafael Jimenez
Jordan Abel and Rafael Jimenez are both top students at South High School and off to top California universities. They're both in National Honor Society. And they both hope to dive into the medical field.
They met by being in the same science cliques: COSMOS, California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science, and South High's Math and Science Academy, MS3.
But their back stories separate and define them.
Throughout high school, Abel has stuttered. At first reluctant to talk to others or speak in public out of embarrassment, he strived to overcome it. He worked with his speech therapist at school, and looked toward his mother and James Earl Jones (also a stutterer) as inspirations to overcome the problem.
He stopped shying away from talking, and joined several clubs and the We the People constitutional education program that requires participants to cite court cases and constitutional passages out loud in answering questions.
"I couldn't let it dictate my life," Abel said of his stuttering. "I couldn't let that keep me from pursuing my dreams."
Abel is finishing his senior year as one of two valedictorians, with a 4.5 GPA. He plans to study bio-engineering at UCLA.
Jimenez relates in that his younger sister suffers from a hearing impairment. She inspires him. Despite her disability, she performs academically on par with her peers at Greenfield Middle School, he said.
Which leads him to wanting a job in the medical field and science. Jimenez is finishing with a 4.25 GPA and plans to study engineering at UC Santa Barbara.
He'd like a career where he can make devices to help those with disabilities.
"If I can help make someone's life better, that would make me really happy," he said.
Justin Riley and Karina Beltran
Highland High's Justin Riley and Karina Beltran aren't the school's best students. But they are simply smart, hard-working and dedicated to their education, counselor Joanne Barrick said.
Riley played football all four years, takes honors and Advanced Placement courses and participated in such things as the Kern County Science Bowl. And he commutes to school via bus -- an hour and 30-minute round-trip ride each day.
Beltran is a top-notch student, too, taking honors and AP courses. She spends most of her day at school, arriving before 8 a.m. and leaving when the school's career center closes at 4:30 p.m. She has no personal computer and has had to complete most of her school work at school.
Ask them about their work ethic, though, and to them it's no big deal.
"We're just working for our future," Riley said. "And school is where it all starts."
Barrick said she is sure they'll thrive in college because of that work ethic. Riley was accepted to Vassar College in New York and hopes to study physics, math and engineering. Beltran will study animal biology at UC Davis.