PUSD Education Foundation “Rising Stars” banquet honors high school seniors, staff

The journey to graduation for many high school seniors often not a straight trajectory, with students enduring their fair share of twists and turns prior to accepting their high school diploma.

By Nanci Hutson
Originally Published: May 2, 2023 9:13 p.m.
The Daily Courier

The journey to graduation for many high school seniors often not a straight trajectory, with students enduring their fair share of twists and turns prior to accepting their high school diploma.

The Prescott Education Foundation selected eight Prescott High School graduating seniors this year who went above and beyond to persevere against daunting obstacles — life-threatening illness, sports injuries, family crisis, learning disabilities and language barriers — to become top scholars. All eight have a ‘B’ average or above and plan to continue their education beyond high school with passions for music, sports, faith-based missions, political science, psychology, social work and law.

All of these foundation’s “Rising Stars” selected high school coaches, administrators, counselors and teachers who motivated, supported and nurtured them as they pursued their dreams against all odds.

On Monday night, the foundation hosted its seventh annual banquet at the Starting Point Church in Prescott for some 100 guests to honor the “Rising Stars” and their “Distinguished Educators.”

A premier event, foundation board President Jenna James said this is intended as a tribute to those who see students as more than a name on an attendance sheet or team roster. Through their encouragement, these “rising stars” are able to leap their next hurdle, be it on the gridiron or in an English Language Learners class.

Educators don’t always know the imprint they have made on a student life, “a student’s heart,” and this is the foundation’s way of showcasing for the community “these incredible educators who make this district what it is.”

To be the smartest student in a class or most gifted athlete on the field isn’t what defines a success in life. Rather, it is those willing to go after their dreams with gusto, advised Dr. Anthony Torres, president and chief executive officer for Dignity Health Yavapai Medical Center. The hospital was the event’s key sponsor.

Torres’ path to becoming a doctor, and now hospital administrator, required the guidance of others as it was a “long and winding road, and not without difficulty,” he said.

“I was you,” Torres said.

Event host Amberly Neese, a Prescott-based motivational speaker and comedienne whose husband, Scott, is a Prescott High vocal teacher and whose daughter, Judah, a now-professional actress and vocalist and former “Rising Star,” celebrated the students and educators with their own words, videos and selected quotes for each educator.

All received a standing ovation.

“Wonderful, absolutely wonderful,” declared “Rising Stars” foundation committee chairman Ginger Nolte.


Shaylin Almquist – Rising Star
Crystal Ontiveros – Distinguished Educator

Shaylin came to Prescott High School her senior year as a new student in a new state trying to find a new niche,” Ontiveros wrote in the “Rising Stars” booklet.

Despite her share of life struggles, Ontiveros said Shaylin is a goal-oriented young woman determined not to get mired down in a tough moment.

“She amazed me with how bright and extremely intelligent she was; it was as if she had been hiding her light under a basket from others,” Ontiveros said. “She’s a beautiful person.”

Shaylin said Ontiveros enabled her to recognize that where one was raised need not define their future.

“If you want better for yourself, you will make it happen because only you can control you,” Shailyn said of Ontiveros’ advice.

“You will be forever appreciated by me and will always have a special place in my heart.”

Shailyn intends to attend Yavapai College to study to become either an ultrasound technician or a social worker.

Quote: “The duties of a teacher are neither few nor small, but they elevate the mind and give energy to the character.” Dorothea Dix.

Cameron Brown – Rising Star
Missy Townsend – Distinguished Educator

Not one to be waylaid by personal setbacks, the high school athletic director declared Cameron to be an “infectious” delight to be around, whether as the student council president or on the gridiron, Townsend said.

”He not only talks the talk but he walks the walk … encouraging everyone to be the best they can be,” Townsend wrote of Brown’s positive attitude, determination and willingness to be part of the greater good.

Cameron paid back the compliment.

“You actively strive to make high school an enjoyable process, not just another step in our lives,” Cameron wrote of Townsend’s commitment to all students. “We all love you.”

Brown intends to do a two-year church mission prior to enrolling at Arizona State University to study business.

Quote: “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.” Japanese proverb.

Leilani Chuning – Rising Star
Brenda Lee – Distinguished Educator

Calling Leilani a natural leader, Lee said Leilani emerged not only as a strong student but as a leader for the Mock Trial Team that earned success through the members’ ability to work toward a common goal.

“I know Leilani will go on to do amazing things, and I am excited to hear about your future,” Lee declared.

To Lee, Leilani expressed that she is the “most influential instructor” she has encountered throughout her K-12 career, and thanks her for “sparking my love for law” that she intends to pursue as a career.

“I am simply, completely and utterly honored to have received mentorship from such an esteemed, kind and compassionate individual,” Leilani wrote. “Your support and frankly, knowledge and experience are unmatched…”

Quote: “Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.” Colleen Wilcox.

Jessica Cope – Rising Star
Jen Hawley – Distinguished Educator

“Jess is remarkable,” Hawley wrote. “Despite facing some challenges in her personal life, she encounters each day with a positive attitude, a hilarious personality and a massive, contagious smile.” Hawley said her “Rising Star” is one who showcases an “amazing heart that is nothing short of inspiring.”

Jessica said her English teacher goes above and beyond to instill “life lessons that I will always be thankful for.”

“Throughout all the stories you have told, you have always stayed true to yourself, which is something I hope to do throughout life,” Jessica said.

Jessica will be attending the University of Michigan to study political science.

Quote: “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” John Maxwell.

Michaella Kpodo – Rising Star
Molly Orr – Distinguished Educator

Orr, an academic advisor and director of the Early College program of which Michaella was a pilot student this year, said Michaella is a “once-in-a-teaching-career” student. The two first met Michaella’s freshman year after the diagnosis of a then “life-threatening illness.”

Yet Michaella refused to let her health issues diminish her desire to excel – and is now earning a 4.0 “in college classes no less,” Orr said.

Michaella commended Orr as a second mother figure, someone who watched her grow from a “small, sick, and naïve 14-year-old into a resilient, healthy, confident, and loving woman.”

“Molly reminds me that I am capable on both my good and bad days, especially on the bad ones,” Michaella said of the two who share both quick smiles between classes and deep conversations about her future. “She loves me and I love her.”

Michaella plans to attend Yavapai College where she wants to study film, media and philosophy.

Quote: “It is not what is poured into the student, but what is planted, that counts.” E.P. Bertin.

Maurea Norris – Rising Star
Helen Wanamaker – Distinguished Educator

Maurea is someone who sets high standards for his life, and is an example of “quiet courage,” Wanamaker wrote.

“He reminds me that it is in quiet courage – to be yourself, think your own thoughts, and form your own convictions – that true power originates,” Wanamaker wrote.

“I chose you because you’ve always been there for me,” Maurea wrote. “Whether it was walking me through my essays or helping me find a prom date, it always seemed like I could count on you for support.

“There are more students that need a teacher like you so keep changing lives and thank you for changing mine.”

Maurea plans to attend the University of Las Vegas where he intends to major in engineering.

Quote: “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” Robert Frost

Elijah Resnick – Rising Star
Jim Rhine – Distinguished Educator

A PHS and national volleyball team player, Elijah’s math teacher and coach said this “rising star” is someone with a quiet, cool demeanor who is also a “hard-working, driven and engaged student.”

Rhine described Elijah as an “outstanding young man with a positive attitude, hard work and his ability to communicate and get along with his teammates make him a rising star.”

“College was uncertain for me because of my learning difficulties,” Elijah said.

Yet Rhine believed in him, and bestowed on him the “biggest gift” he ever received – his college recommendation letter.

“Although I am not sure what I will be studying, it is a huge accomplishment for me and will allow me to continue my educational success.”

Elijah plans to attend Seattle University in Washington.

Quote: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Joaquin Sierra – Rising Star
Rebecca Wood – Distinguished Educator

As a high school junior, Joaquin moved to Prescott from Peru, still learning how to speak English.

“He immediately hit it off with the rest of the students with his quickness to smile, easy laugh, and eagerness to ask questions,” Wood wrote of the young musician who plays three instruments and is part of the school Jazz Band. “That class has always been a refuge to me and he only added to it.”

Joaquin admits that when he first arrived at Wood’s class he was fraught with “a mix of emotions and fear.”

“Thank you for making me feel welcome in your class and in Prescott, and for giving me the opportunity to grow and learn … I will always remember the positive impact that this had in my life,” Joaquin wrote.

Joaquin will attend Florida International University where he will major in music production.

Quote: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”

Reach Nanci Hutson by email at nhutson@prescottaz.com or call 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.

Prescott Unified Education Foundation “Rising Stars” Prescott High senior Cameron Brown, left, presents balloons to his selected “Distinguished Educator” Prescott High Athletic Director Missy Townsend. (Nanci Hutson/Courier)

With tears in her eyes, Townsend hugged Brown tight; his recognition the reward of a job she suggests comes with a broad range of expectations and emotions on any given day.

“He’s a special one,” Townsend said.

In this work, Townsend said to her it’s all about doing what’s best for students. She wants them to be in the spotlight. To be the one spotlighted is a “little embarrassing, but humbling as well.”

PHS “Rising Star” senior and jazz band performer Joaquin Sierra delivered his bouquet of balloons to first- year high school English teacher Rebecca Wood, the instructor he said embraced him when he came to Prescott from Peru.

At the time, Joaquin said, he did not speak English. Through Wood’s English Language Learner class, Joaquin said he not only learned the language but gained some social confidence. Though still shy, Joaquin said Wood helped him find his musical niche at PHS. After graduation, Joaquin intends to attend Florida International University where he will study musical production.

Wood said she is elated to be selected, but will be more so to see her student collect his diploma at commencement exercises.

She said it is an honor “just to know he feels part of the community.”

For Wanamaker who is on her third such nomination, the recognition is always a treat because teachers hope, but don’t always know, if they are making a difference. She said she actually nominated her “Rising Star” student Maurea Norris “because he is just so fantastic.”

Education Foundation Executive Director Paul Kirchgraber said he loves this program because it speaks to the power teachers, coaches, even bus drivers and custodians, can have on the life of a student. The selected “Rising Star” students are not the graduates that are likely to earn lots of other accolades. Yet he said these students have risen above some tough odds to earn their diplomas and pledge to continue their education after graduation thanks to the encouragement and commitment of PUSD education professionals.

To Kirchgraber and other foundation leaders, this cadre of professionals are a reflection of the caliber of people PUSD hire to love, nurture and educate all of its students.

“They’re not just teaching the ABCS or how to solve a math problem,” Kirchgraber said. “These leaders are teaching helping our students with life problems that can have an impact on a student’s success.

“That’s why we love this (event). It’s a unique opportunity to recognize both students and their (educators).”

Reach Nanci Hutson by email at nhutson@prescottaz.com or call 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.