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Lauren Foreman covers education for The Californian. Reach her at lforeman@bakersfield.com, at Facebook.com/TBCEducationReporter or on Twitter@TBCTheGrade.

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Natalie Ryan, an agriculture instructor at North High, earned the Jim and Bebe Burke Rising Star Award Tuesday from the Jim Burke Education Foundation.

DISTINGUISHED SCHOOLS: The California Department of Education recognized eight local schools in a list of 424 public elementary campuses deemed California Distinguished Schools Wednesday.

Kern County schools -- Grimmway Academy in Arvin; Olive Drive Elementary, William B. Bimat Elementary, Ronald Reagan Elementary, Sing Lum Elementary and Stockdale Elementary in Bakersfield; Inyokern Elementary in Inyokern; and Las Flores Elementary in Ridgecrest -- earned the state honor for signature programs aimed at narrowing the academic achievement gap that exists between students from differentsocioeconomic, race and ethnic groups.

In addition to Grimmway, a charter school, three schools from Panama-Buena Vista Union District, two from Norris District and one from Sierra Sands Unified District were recognized.

"We're thrilled," said Michele Bryant, Bimat principal.

Schools described two signature practices in a written application and completed a county-led site validation review of those practices to participate in the distinguished schools program.

Bryant said Bimat implemented various academic and service initiatives to improve the overall learning culture for its 543 students.

Signature practices include a learning center to provide supplemental help for students and a community service initiative that has, since 2001, led to more than $100,000 for the American Cancer Society through the Relay for Life.

Norris Superintendent Steven Shelton said the community service program is part of a district-wide effort that has made students feel more connected to school.

District attendance has soared to more than 96 percent as a result, he said.

"Kids want to attend," Shelton said.

TEACHER OF THE WEEK: "Ms. Natalie Ryan is the epitome of the phrase 'good things come in small packages,'" Andrew Francis, a senior at North High School, wrote about his agriculture teacher.

He went on to describe her as an enthusiastic motivator who has pushed him towards excellence.

Francis recommended Ryan, who is in her third year of teaching at North High,for the Jim Burke Education Foundation award she won Tuesday.

"I feel very grateful," she said.

Ryan was one of two teachers who earned the Jim & Bebe Burke Rising Star Award for new teachers who have "exceeded the expectations of their job and significantly impacted the lives of their students," according to the foundation.

Francis wrote in his letter of recommendation that he is living proof Ryan deserves of the honor.

"With her encouragement, I decided to apply for admission to the United States Military Academy at West Point and to seek the required Congressional Nomination," he wrote.

Francis did not know the status of his application in February when he wrote those words. Ryan said Wednesday, however, he would attend West Point this fall.

LOCAL STUDENTS ADVANCE: Three local teams will advance to the national level of a history competition in June after success at the California state level last weekend.

National History Day will take place June 15-19 at the University of Maryland.

Students moving on to the national level include Brooke Richter, Makay Moss, Caitlyn Richter and Kaitlyn Moss from Liberty High School in the Kern High School District; Alexis Hill, Kaitlyn Hillis, Logan Eldridge, Maxwell Barrera and Candace Maurer from Thorner Elementary School in the Bakersfield City School District; and Jessica Stump, a student at Fruitvale Junior High in the Fruitvale School District.

Emanuel Garcia of Blake Elementary School won in an elementary division category, but there is no national competition.

GUIDANCE ON SEXUAL VIOLENCE: The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released new response and prevention guidance on sexual violence and discrimination for schools.

"For far too long, the incentives to prevent and respond to sexual violence have gone in the wrong direction at schools and on college campuses," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated in a press release.

View the report at ow.ly/wlIEt.

CSUB TARGETS FOSTER CARE ED: Cal State Bakersfield will begin its first Foster Youth Symposium Friday to educate foster children, students and service providers about the foster system and available resources.

The symposium will kick off local participation in the National Foster Care Awareness Month in May.

Symposium sessions will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday in the Walter Stiern Library's Dezember Reading Room, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday in the multipurpose room of the student union. Admission is free. For registration info, visit ow.ly/wlcE7.

PESTICIDE USE NEAR SCHOOLS: California state health officials released a list of 51 Kern County schools Tuesday that are within walking distance of areas where pesticides are used, but only 10 of the schools are near regions with higher levels of pesticide use, according to a report released Tuesday.

Two schools with a combined 1,237 students are about a quarter mile from areas where between 2,635 to 28,979 pounds of pesticides were applied in 2010, the most recently available data year.

Eighty percent of the 260 Kern County schools included in the public health report are located in areas where no pesticides are used.

"That's far better than most counties identified in the study, even given Kern's high use of pesticides due to its high crop output," said Rob Meszaros, spokesman for Kern County Superintendent of Schools.

He said pesticide use in ag areas is nothing new.

"There are already regulations in place that protect schoolchildren," Meszaros said.

Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network, said regulations to restrict pesticide use do not account for drift and are based on an assumption that individuals are exposed to one chemical when they are exposed to many.

She said the report released Tuesday -- Agricultural Pesticide Use Near Public Schools in California -- is part of a push to increase state monitoring requirements and widen pesticide buffer zones.

To view the report, visit ow.ly/wltAj.

WHAT YOU'RE SAYING: Here's the latest buzz from The Californian's Facebook page:

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made national headlines when racist remarks he made earned him a lifetime ban from the NBA and pressure to sell his team. Ian Pickett, an assistant basketball coach at Cesar E. Chavez High School in Delano, wonders whether the harsh punishment is fair.

"What do you think?"

Dan Hedgpeth, Facebook: "Everyone is beating up on Donald, but 1/2 of the team is owned by his wife, who is not the subject of any ouster. It is possible that she could end up being the owner or at least her 1/2 of all the shares need to be taken into account."

Brandon Ramkey, Facebook: "The NBA is not our government and his words aren't protected by the First Amendment from them; they are a private vehicle for entertainment and are within their rights to protect their brand and follow their own governing rules."