Meet our HEROES
Stacey Peoples and Early Childhood Education Team
Stacey Peoples and the Early Childhood Education team are opening doors and creating pathways to bright futures for thousands of CCSD’s youngest learners by implementing free Universal Preschool in Cherry Creek Schools.
“We are play-based, we focus on the kids and what they individually need,” Peoples explained. “We have exceptional staff; we partner with parents and there isn’t a better place to have your preschool-aged child.”
Peoples and her team have added or converted 54 new preschool classrooms, built 17 new playgrounds, and unloaded and set up tons of tiny chairs and supplies across the district. They worked tirelessly to get the program up and running to ensure our littlest learners would have all that they needed to have the best preschool experience.
“I’ve never seen so many people work so hard,” she said. “They set up classrooms, sometimes in rooms that weren’t air conditioned, they categorized, and organized hundreds of pieces of equipment.”
Early Childhood Education added more than a hundred preschool educators and staff focused on special education and speech development. Research consistently shows that early childhood education sets the stage for lifelong learning and achievement.
“If we can start kids early with communication skills, language, literacy, and math skills, we are setting them up to be successful,” Peoples added.
“The staff’s unwavering commitment, even in the face of challenges from the state, demonstrates their belief in the transformative power of quality preschool education,” Dr. Tony Poole, Assistant Superintendent of Special Populations said.
Peoples has been with the district since she was a kindergarten student herself and is very proud of what her team has accomplished.
“I hope I am representing the excellence we have in this district, and I am honored to be a part of it,” she said.
Kim Kilgore and Food & Nutrition Services Team
In the Cherry Creek School District (CCSD), the pursuit of excellence extends beyond the classroom and into school cafeterias. This year, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Kim Kilgore and the Food and Nutrition Services team, the Healthy School Meals for All program was implemented seamlessly.
“Kim Kilgore and the Food and Nutrition Services team have undertaken a herculean effort to successfully make free meals accessible for all CCSD students,” Chief Financial and Operating Officer Scott Smith said. “Launching this program meant more mouths to feed, so the Food and Nutrition team had to ramp up their preparation and volume of food from 3 million to 5 million meals.”
Recently, the team served nearly 37,000 meals, a record for meals in a single day. In addition to expanding the reach of delicious and healthy food, Kilgore and her awesome team have implemented the following innovative initiatives:
- Changed bakery ingredients to reduce sugar and removed egg/dairy for students with food sensitivities.
- Started monthly initiatives to introduce families to recipes that students can make at home and to have them eat new/more veggies and fruit.
- Worked on increasing scratch cooking this year so that more students are excited to eat CCSD food and expand their pallets.
- Implemented compostable trays to help reduce CCSD’s carbon footprint and teach students the importance of sustainability.
- Developed a plan to shorten lunch lines in high schools by incorporating food trucks. The department is currently working on obtaining food trucks for both high schools and events.
- Provided and expanded free summer lunch program.
“This team consistently prioritizes the CCSD Core Value of Whole Wellbeing,” remarked Superintendent Christopher Smith. “The invaluable work of feeding our students with nutritious foods directly makes a difference in our students’ lives.”
“I couldn’t do it without my amazing team! They are always up for a new challenge and don’t complain,” Kilgore said.
In recognition of their unwavering dedication, innovative initiatives, and remarkable accomplishments, Kim Kilgore and the Food and Nutrition Services team truly deserve to be celebrated as Cherry Creek Heroes.
Nolan Dauer and Donovan Light
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.”
The members of the Smoky Hill High School Marching Band counted aloud as they practiced their marching technique. They moved precisely, forward and backward, hitting yard lines painted on an imaginary football field in the school’s south parking lot. This is how their rehearsal begins every Tuesday and Thursday during the fall marching season. But on Sept. 19, before the bandmembers moved on to their music warm-ups, Band Director Zak Ruffert called them together and introduced a surprise guest – Cherry Creek Schools Superintendent Christopher Smith.
“Here in the Cherry Creek School District, we have five Core Values,” Smith told the group. “One of those Core Values that’s near and dear to my heart is Relationships, and I’m here to recognize a couple of your bandmates who are examples of what it means to have true relationships and to push one another and sacrifice for one another.”
At that, a cheer went up from the band students, because they knew who the superintendent was referring to. For the past three years, seniors Nolan Dauer and Donovan Light have been the band’s dynamic duo. Friends since middle school, the two teamed up when Light, who plays the trumpet, decided he wanted to be in the marching band. Light was born with spina bifida, a type of neural tube defect that affects his lower extremities. It’s difficult for him to walk, much less march while playing a trumpet.
“We were looking for ways for Donovan to participate fully in our marching band,” Band Director Zak Ruffert recalled. “I didn’t want to put him in the ‘pit’ or front ensemble playing simple percussion parts or playing his instrument parked on the sideline.
“That’s when Nolan volunteered to be his ‘marching band buddy’ and come to every single rehearsal and band event and be his ‘legs’ so to speak,” Ruffert continued. “Nolan’s dedication has allowed Donavan to fully participate in every aspect of the marching band.”
Both young men say their friendship and the trust they have in each other has made their partnership successful, and they both enjoy being part of the Hill Regiment.
“I love learning the drill and how accepting and caring the community of our band is, Dauer said.
“We are all one big happy family,” Light added. “Everyone has each other's back, and no one is ever left out of anything.”
Ruffert is proud that his band is a caring and inclusive community, and that Light and Dauer are such positive examples of partnership and perseverance. That’s why he nominated them for the CCSD Heros Award, which recognizes ordinary people who do extraordinary things.
“These are two incredible kids who both represent the best of what we hope to see in our schools and our community,” Ruffert said.
If you know of someone who goes above and beyond normal expectations to help or support Cherry Creek Schools students, staff, or schools, nominate them for the CCSD Hero award here.
Debbi Kennedy couldn’t help thinking that she was meant to be at the intersection of Smoky Hill Road and Biscay Circle on Aug. 16.
It was the second day of the 2022-23 school year in Cherry Creek Schools and Kennedy, an affective needs paraeducator at Trails West Elementary, had left the building a little earlier than usual because of the staggered school schedule that day. She was behind the wheel, waiting to make the turn onto Smoky Hill when she spotted a small figure running into the rainy street.
It was a child, she realized; a very young child.
“I thought, ‘What’s going on? He’s not with his parents! I’ve got to do something.’ That’s why I stopped and pulled over,” Kennedy recalled. “I pulled up beside him, and then I lost sight of him. I pulled the wrong way going on to Biscay. I got out of my car and ran, and he was in the middle of Smoky Hill. I ran out there and asked the cars to stop; I was screaming, holding my arms up.”
Some of the cars stopped. Most didn’t.
With traffic whizzing by on the busy, four-lane road, Kennedy reached the child, grabbed him, and pulled him to safety on the side of the road. She called 911, and tried to comfort the child as best she could as police officers arrived.
“It had rained that morning. He didn’t have any shoes on; he just had socks on. His feet were soaking wet,” Kennedy said. “I tried to get him warm, put a little towel on him. He wasn’t talking. I kept on saying, ‘Where’s your mommy?’”
The child didn’t reply. He was non-verbal autistic, as Kennedy learned after the child’s mother arrived and took him home. On that day, Kennedy didn’t get the chance to talk to the child’s mother; she didn’t get the opportunity to ask any questions, or receive proper credit for her heroic actions.
“I felt like I was at the right place at the right time, because I do work with special needs kids,” she said. “I was there. I was able to comfort the child until mom came.”
Kennedy eventually received that credit, thanks to the Trails West community. During a surprise celebration held on Sept. 19, the entire school gathered in the gym for a surprise celebration honoring Kennedy’s selflessness, bravery, and quick thinking on that rainy afternoon in August. CCSD Superintendent Christopher Smith was on hand to present Kennedy with the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor designed to recognize those in Cherry Creek Schools who commit extraordinary actions of behalf of the community.
“Thank you for being a real-life hero,” Smith said. “You saved a child’s life. You are the epitome of what it means to be a Cherry Creek Hero and a member of the CCSD family. Thank you.”
The awards ceremony was a complete surprise to Kennedy, who entered the gym expecting a schoolwide assembly. Instead, she received cheers, congratulations, and encouragement from students and staff alike. Students hoisted handmade posters bearing messages like, “You’re Our Hero, Miss Debbi.” Her colleagues were on hand to speak to Kennedy’s everyday commitment to kids.
“Debbi is the definition of Hero and compassion in my book. Every single day I see her helping the kids. She gives her all in everything that she does,” said district Behavior Support Technician Texceam Krebsbach, who nominated Kennedy for the Cherry Creek Hero Award. Krebsbach added that she wasn’t surprised when she heard the tale of Kennedy’s brave rescue of a small child wandering into a busy street. “I wasn’t totally surprised when she told me the story.
“That’s what she does,” Krebsbach added.
Morgan Mayer’s parents received an encouraging email from their daughter’s teacher at the end of the 2020-21 school year.
It had been a challenging year for Morgan, and for all of the students, teachers and staff at Liberty Middle School. The COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted the regular classroom routine in too many ways to count, as the Liberty community sought persevere through remote learning, the cancellation of activities and other pressures wrought by a global pandemic. Although Liberty wasn’t alone in dealing with these hurdles, students like Morgan felt unique pressures tied to an unparalleled situation.
That’s what made the email from Morgan’s AVID teacher so special. Tracy Docksey reached out to personally celebrate Morgan’s accomplishments and growth during a difficult time. In addition to a hand-written note she’d written to Morgan touching on similar themes, the email served as a celebration, an acknowledgement and an inspiration for student and parents alike. “I am so proud of how much (Morgan) has grown and what they overcame this year. Thank you for trusting me with them,” Docksey wrote, “Please know that wherever they go, I am always here for them and you as a resource.”
Docksey’s commitment to Morgan wasn’t unique. As a teacher, she’s worked hard to build a special link with each and every one of her students. She’s shown a commitment to establishing relationships in her classroom, relationships that foster learning, growth and enrichment for the whole child.
“We know this firsthand, and have heard this from other parents who have had the blessing of having her as their child's teacher,” Morgan’s mother, Susan Mayer, wrote. “The last several years have been so challenging, in so many ways, for these kids. It is comforting to know we have someone like Tracy in their lives. She is the true definition of the word hero!”
Docksey’s commitment to her students recently earned her the Cherry Creek Hero award, an honor that celebrates those who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the community. In Docksey’s case, that extraordinary action comes every day, in every one of her classes, for every one of her students.
CCSD Superintendent Christopher Smith visited Liberty on April 5 to personally give Docksey her plaque, and to celebrate the unique work she does every day on behalf of her students. Smith stood alongside Susan Mayer, Morgan Mayer (now a freshman at Grandview High School) and Marleigh Mayer, Morgan’s younger sister who’s a seventh-grader at Liberty. Docksey has shown the same commitment to Marleigh that made her time with Morgan so special.
“One of our core values here in the district is building relationships. You know this, and you know how important it is to be loving, caring and compassionate to your students. It’s not just these two; it truly is all of your students,” Smith said. “It’s not about every, it’s about each, because each child is different. You lean in to each child in a different way and make sure that you differentiate your instruction. You offer care and compassion to every single student. I just wanted to thank you so much for what you do.”
The value of Docksey’s approach was clear for Morgan Mayer. From a student first starting her middle school journey, nervous about her enrollment in AVID, a college preparatory program, Morgan has grown into a confident high schooler, ready for the next challenge and equipped with the skills to succeed.
“We can say, without a doubt, Tracy Docksey was the most influential person in our Morgan's middle school education,” her mother wrote in Docksey’s nomination for the Heroes award. “The story continues with Marleigh. Tracy makes sure each and every one of her students has a support system, and has the tools to be as successful as possible during their time in middle school.”
Tracy Docksey prioritizes building relationships with students, and that commitment has made a critical difference for Mayer family, and for countless others. That kind of impact is the definition of heroism in CCSD.
A typical day at work is never predictable for Lauren Buckles, the registered school nurse at Fox Ridge Middle School.
Like her fellow nurses at every building across the Cherry Creek School District, Buckles’ typical workload can range from casual to life-or-death in nature. As a health professional charged with the well-being of an entire school’s student, teacher and staff population, Buckles has to be prepared for any type of medical situation.
She is more than up to that task, as she proved a few months ago. According to Michelle Weinraub, CCSD’s Chief Health Officer, Buckles “administered life-saving medication (epinephrine) to a student suffering from a life-threatening, anaphylactic reaction to a food. It was an unexpected trauma that occurred outside the school clinic, elsewhere in the school.”
Nevertheless, Buckles was on the scene in mere moments, providing the right medication and averting a potentially fatal outcome. According to Weinraub, Buckles’ “calm, competent care helped safe this child's life as everyone waited for the Emergency Medical Services to arrive.”
Buckles’ steady demeanor in the face of a life-threatening situation is the epitome of what it takes to be a nurse in the school environment, and it recently earned her the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor designed to celebrate those in the district who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire community.
CCSD Superintendent Christopher Smith traveled to Fox Ridge earlier this month to formally present Buckles with a plaque celebrating her honor, and to offer an in-person ‘thank you’ for her commitment to the school, to her work and to her pledge as a medical professional.
“You are a literal life-saver for our community. Thank you for being prepared and proactive in your care for our kids,” Smith said. “Your professionalism and expertise truly make our dedication to excellence possible.”
Buckles, who wasn’t expecting the honor or the formal recognition from the district superintendent, had a hard time finding the right words to express her gratitude. Surrounded by colleagues and friends, Buckles laughed, cried and thanked the entire Fox Ridge community for the award and the shout-out.
“This is the biggest honor I can imagine,” she said.
On any typical morning at Polton Elementary, Kristine Willett is on the front lines of getting students prepped for an engaging, rewarding and exciting day of learning.
Willett, a physical education teacher at the school, was one of the masterminds behind Polton’s “Hug and Go Lane,” a morning dropoff system that sees students being welcomed by teachers and administrators. Cars will pull up, and Polton staff will be there ready to get kids prepped for a great day of learning.
With her bottomless store of enthusiasm and genuine investment in the well-being of all of Polton’s students, Willett is one of the best representatives of the “Hug and Go” system.
“Let me just tell you, day in and day out Ms. Willett is running up and down the sidewalk opening car doors, yelling, “Good Morning!” to all the kiddos, and getting the students “pumped up” to start their day,” said Lyndee Salomonson, a Polton parent whose twin fifth-graders have had Willett as their gym teacher since first grade. “Last year she almost scored a 100 percent at being the one and only teacher to open my girls' doors!
“We all look forward to seeing her face when we turn that corner into school every morning,” Salomonson added.
Willett’s unfailing energy and commitment to students recently earned her the Cherry Creek Heroes award, an honor designed to celebrate those in the CCSD community who show an extraordinary dedication to the district. According to those who nominated her for the award, Willett was a perfect candidate for the honor for her full dedication to Polton’s students, parents and fellow staff members.
“You can tell she loves each and every student she encounters every day. She puts her full heart and soul into all aspects of her teaching. She cares greatly about the health of her students in many ways,” Salomonson wrote in her nomination letter. “Not only does she teach P.E., but she also runs flag football, soccer club, running club and a fun jump-roping and gymnastic club called the ‘Jump Arounds.’ Supporting kids no matter their level of ‘fitness’ is so important and she makes it a priority to make sure everyone feels included and important.”
CCSD Superintendent Christopher Smith joined Polton Principal Angie Lore and other school staff to formally celebrate Willett and present her with the Cherry Creek Heroes plaque. Smith, who joined Willett at the morning welcome line before school started on Jan. 26, praised her unflagging energy and kindness.
“You show care and investment in every student you interact with, and that’s what our district is all about,” Smith said. “Our mission is ‘Dedicated to Excellence,’ and that comes through in the way you deal with every kid, every parent and every one of your colleagues. Thank you for living the values we hold so dear in Cherry Creek Schools.”
Brittany Peitersen’s commitment to the students at Falcon Creek Middle School could inspire a Hollywood film.
Peitersen is a paraeducator at Falcon Creek, and according to her colleagues, her typical day features all the action and intrigue of an inspirational movie. Peitersen plays the role of the committed classroom hero, as she invests all of her energy, focus and attention to meeting the needs of every single student, no matter the circumstances.
“Although Peitersen is a paraeducator, she goes beyond the expectations of what a paraeducator's responsibilities entail. She has supported many students in our building,” wrote Brady Goode, special education teacher at Falcon Creek. “She provides much needed social/emotional support, guidance and academic support to ensure that our students are achieving their very best. Her patience is that of a saint and her wisdom is well beyond her years.”
Peitersen’s service and investment in her students recently earned her the Cherry Creek Hero Award, an honor that celebrates those who show an extraordinary commitment to the CCSD community. Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Perry traveled to Falcon Creek to present Peitersen with a plaque and praise her extraordinary service to her school, her district and her community.
“Your work with your students exemplifies the values that inspire us in Cherry Creek Schools,” Perry said, as Peitersen, Goode and a group of students looked on. “Your everyday commitment is what our dedication to excellence is all about. You are a shining example for all of us!”
Peitersen responded with humility, offering gratitude to her colleagues, her students and her friends. Goode was there to point out just how much work she does on a daily basis, and how that work positively impacts students. Peitersen, he said, helps kids learn every single day, and her dedication to her students has a measurably positive impact.
“Brittany has problem-solved with administration, staff and students to ensure that everyone is safe and comfortable in our academic setting. She often figures out before anyone else what is impacting our students and is usually first to lend a helping hand,” Goode said. “A movie could be made about a day in the life of Ms. P and it would be an edge-of-your-seat, tear-jerker, epic embodiment of strength and resilience for all.
“I cannot say enough about the positive impact that this young woman has on our school,” he added. “She deserves the moon and more!”
Rebecca Blauw makes all of her students feel welcome, valued and appreciated in her classroom at Timberline Elementary, and that commitment made a big difference for one particular student.
When a five-year old kindergarten student moved from a small Montessori school to Timberline, he felt overwhelmed and stressed. The change in size and culture between the two schools was a lot to handle, and according to the student’s parents, the shift made learning difficult.
That’s where Blauw and her approach in the classroom helped make the transition less overwhelming and frightening.
“Mrs Blauw has gone above and beyond her normal teaching duties to contact us and to accommodate my son in her classroom,” wrote Holly Cheng, the student’s mother. “She tried several social-emotional techniques to help him interact. She even helped him walk up to the lunch counter and sat with him for several weeks so he would feel comfortable eating his food.”
Blauw also enlisted the aid of her fellow educators and professionals at Timberline, drawing on the combined expertise of counselors, teachers and social/emotional learning experts to make sure the student’s transition into the Timberline “wolf pack” is healthy, safe and complete.
This commitment to her students recently earned Blauw the Cherry Creek Heroes award, an honor that recognizes those in the CCSD community who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire district. CCSD Deputy Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Perry recently visited Timberline to present Blauw with a physical award and personally thank her for her extraordinary investment in the everyday well-being of all of her students. The 5-year-old student’s father was also on hand to personally thank her for her work in making his son feel like he was a part of the school community.
“Your dedication to your students is a perfect example of our district’s mission. This is what being dedicated to excellence is all about,” Perry said. “Your work with your students proves that excellence isn’t just an idea; it’s what our teachers do in our classrooms every day. Thank you for your hard work and your commitment to all of your students.”
Blauw’s commitment makes a real difference in students’ lives and in their classroom learning, as the grateful mother of the kindergarten wrote in her nomination letter.
“My son is starting to engage and interact with friends and I have no doubt this wouldn’t have happened without Mrs. Blauw,” she wrote.
Julie Ahlgrim’s commitment to the students at Campus Middle School goes far beyond the school day.
As one of the school’s counselors, Ahlgrim never hesitates to put in the extra hours to support students’ mental health and well-being. She’ll go out of her way to create dialogue, offer positive feedback and simply listen when a student is in need. It’s a brand of investment and dedication that can save lives.
One parent at Campus can attest to Ahlgrim’s dedication, and just how big of a difference it can make. Her daughter was facing a potentially life-threatening situation, and Ahlgrim’s investment in the student’s wellness and healing made a critical difference.
“Julie went out of her way every day for a month to be there for my daughter,” the mother wrote recently. “I’m forever grateful to Julie Ahlgrim. She is a life saver and a hero.”
Ahlgrim’s approach to students’ well-being at Campus recently earned her the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor designed to recognize those who make extraordinary contributions on behalf of the entire district. During a formal award ceremony held in October, CCSD Superintendent Christopher Smith credited Ahlgrim with exemplifying the values of the entire district.
“Our dedication to excellence isn’t only about academics. At Cherry Creek Schools, we’re committed to our students’ mental health and social/emotional well-being. We’re committed to educating and supporting the whole child, to making sure our students are successful in all phases of their lives,” Smith said. “Your work here at Campus is a perfect example of that approach. You give your heart and soul to make sure that our kids have the support they need in all phases of their lives. Your work matters, and it makes a difference.”
For her part, Ahlgrim was hesitant to take any part of the spotlight. Her work is about students, and the focus should be on their stories – their successes, their achievements, their hopes, ambitions and journeys.
But Ahlgrim’s daily dedication makes sure that students have access to that kind of success. The testimony of countless parents, students and colleagues proves that Ahlgrim is part of what makes the Cherry Creek School District so special.
When Eli Mahnken added the words “I can run” on a drawing of him competing in a race, it symbolized a special kind of victory.
Mahnken, 6, wrote those words after a long and challenging battle against cancer, an illness that had temporarily robbed him of his mobility. Mahnken and his family had waged a long fight against the sickness, and they’d never shied away from defying the odds. Eli was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2017, and through relapses and hospital visits, he never lost his determination to live life to the fullest.
One of Eli’s ambitions in his fight against cancer was simple: he wanted to run on an Olympic-sized track. Thanks to a hero at Smoky Hill High School, his wish came true earlier this year.
Scott Cohen, Smoky Hill’s activities director, worked closely with the Mahnken family to make sure that Eli’s dreams were realized. After helping coordinate a Childhood Brain Cancer Awareness Month fundraiser for Eli in 2020 that raised over $5,500, Cohen went even further, working with the family and the school to bring Eli to run on the school’s track during Smoky Hill’s Homecoming game in September.
“Scott took Eli’s wish to a whole new level,” said Heather Mahnken, Eli’s mother. “He invited Eli to run on the track against Smoky Hill’s mascot during the Homecoming game … It would give Eli the opportunity to have hundreds of people cheering for him while he ran the race.”
The result was a scene worthy of an Olympic broadcast. Eli and the Smoky Hill Buffalo ran a tight race, but Eli won in the end. He crossed the finish line to the thunderous applause of hundreds in attendance at the game.
The Mahnkens credit Scott Cohen with helping Eli realize his dream. Cohen’s selflessness and investment hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rest of the district. Last month, Cohen received the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor designed to recognize those in the district who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire community.
During a formal presentation of an award plaque held at Smoky Hill in October, CCSD Superintendent Christopher Smith said that Cohen’s actions summed up the values of the Cherry Creek School District.
“In CCSD, we are dedicated to excellence, and that means taking an active role in our community,” Smith said. “Your actions were a perfect example of that value. You reached out to a family in need, and you made their lives better as a result. That’s what our district is about.”
The Mahnkens were also on hand for the presentation. Eli was able to personally thank Cohen for helping him find the opportunity to thrive, despite overwhelming challenges.
“It is true what they say: Everyone can make a difference,” Heather Mahnken said. “Scott Cohen, you are definitely a Cherry Creek Hero.”
Andrea Mohamedbhai and Reema Wahdan
Andrea Mohamedbhai and Reema Wahdan have had a direct role in improving awareness, engagement and diversity at Belleview Elementary.
Both are parents at the school, and have been active in Belleview’s community organizations and school PTCO. Mohamdebhai and Wahdan leveraged their active roles at the school to achieve a specific and critical mission: to spread the message of inclusion and awareness of students and families of all cultures and backgrounds.
The pair co-lead Belleview’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, an organization that works to educate the Belleview community and enrich students’ academic experiences. Through a combination of speakers, presentations and other outreach, the committee works to ensure that students, families and staff of all backgrounds and cultures have representation across the school.
“What is amazing about this effort is not only the great work this committee has done to create an inclusive environment for families and students of all backgrounds, with great speakers and presentations. It is also that the team saw a need in the community to improve parent engagement and school-wide awareness,” said Sophia Maharena, a member of the Belleview community who recognized the pair for their work. “Hopefully, their work will influence the experience of Belleview students and families for years to come!”
The pair’s hard work recently earned them a Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor designed to recognize those in the district who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire community. Earlier this school year, CCSD Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Perry presented the pair with formal plaques and words of appreciation from an entire community.
“Your work to create awareness and to educate the entire Belleview community has a direct benefit for our students,” Perry said. “You both have helped ensure that this school walks the walk when it comes to equity, inclusion and awareness. Thank you for your contributions to this school and the entire CCSD community.”
Stephanie Johnson never shies away from putting in extra time to serve students.
Johnson, the kitchen manager at Cherokee Trail High School, never hesitates to put in extra hours, even when the rest of the district is on break or vacation. Indeed, Johnson has frequently logged hours in the kitchen when the rest of the school is quiet, and she’s done it with a simple mission in mind: to ensure that every student has access to the nutrition they need to succeed and thrive. Since she started in Cherry Creek Schools in March of 2020, Johnson has established a pattern of commitment and investment on behalf of hundreds of students, no matter the circumstances.
“Stephanie has been on the front lines of feeding our students since she started in the district. Stephanie has worked every holiday and school break to ensure our students continued to have access to meals,” said CCSD Food and Nutrition Services Director Kim Kilgore. “Despite some personal challenges this summer, she has continued to be a constant, positive member of our team.”
This unwavering commitment to students recently earned Johnson the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, a recognition designed to honor those in the district who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire community. Earlier this school year, CCSD Superintendent Christopher Smith visited Cherokee Trail to present Johnson with a formal plaque and words of appreciation on behalf of everyone in Cherry Creek Schools.
“Academic excellence starts with good health, and nutrition is a critical part of that. Your commitment to making sure our students have the food they need has positively impacted hundreds,” Smith said. “Thank you for your willingness to go the extra mile, to put in the extra hours. It has made a huge difference.”
Johnson’s coworkers and supervisors were also on hand for the presentation in the Cherokee Trail cafeteria, and students who were getting ready to start the school day offered celebratory cheers and words of encouragement.
The impact of the celebration was clear, as Johnson held back tears and searched for the proper words of gratitude.
“I work hard for students. That’s why I do it,” she said.
Kilgore summed up the sentiment of an appreciative school and community as she stood at Johnson’s side.
“Thank you, Stephanie, for your dedication and genuine care for our students,” Kilgore said.
Emanuel Walker was ready to give up on academics.
When he first started as a student at Overland High School, Walker found he couldn’t connect with classes or curriculum. He faced social pressure and alienation as he tried to find direction and purpose. Walker, who emigrated to the United States with his mother from a Liberian refugee camp when he was only four years old, knew he was on a dangerous path.
“I was a student who was failing all my classes, down on my luck with no role models or any positive influences in my life,” Walker recalled.
One teacher helped Walker change his trajectory.
Melissa Lucero, who teaches social studies and coaches swimming and diving at the school, found multiple ways to get Walker engaged in his life as a student, an athlete and a happy, fulfilled individual. Not only did she help spark Walker’s enthusiasm for academics, but she also encouraged him to get involved in the school’s swim and dive team. Her concerted efforts to make Walker an active and involved member of the Overland community paid dividends far beyond the school day, and long after his time at the school ended when he graduated in 2017.
“It's because of Ms. Lucero that I'm one of the 2021 City of Denver Emerging Leaders. It's because of Ms. Lucero that I excelled and graduated from my college as valedictorian,” Walker said. “It was her believing in me and making sure I did nothing short of excellence in and outside the classroom that transformed my mentality and made me who I am today.”
Lucero’s commitment to Walker and all of her students recently earned her the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor designed to celebrate those in CCSD who make extraordinary efforts on behalf of the entire community. During a ceremony held at Overland High School on Oct. 8, Overland Principal Sybil Booker joined CCSD Assistant Superintendent of Educational Operations Dr. Nickie Rivale-Bell and a group of Lucero’s colleagues and students for a surprise ceremony in the school library.
“This is pretty incredible. It reminds you of why you do what you do,” Lucero said after receiving the award. “It’s all about building relationships and staying true to the core values of Overland and the Cherry Creek School District. I’m overwhelmed at this recognition.”
Lucero’s commitment to her students and CCSD’s values made an indelible impact on Walker, who’s gone on to find academic and professional success, and who remains influenced and inspired by the Cherry Creek School District’s commitment to excellence.
“She cares deeply for all of her students and goes out of her way to create an interactive classroom where learning is fun and where students look forward to attending school,” Walker said. “Ms. Lucer is genuinely is passionate about what she's teaching and always ties it back to real-world applications. Words cannot express the gratitude I feel towards her, nor can they express her greatness. She is one-of-a-kind, and she makes me proud to be a Trailblazer.”
Greg Von Feldt and Warehouse Crew
Greg Von Feldt is part of a team, and he insists that everyone knows.
Von Feldt, the manager of the CCSD’s central warehouse, played a central role in averting a crisis at Cherry Creek High School. According to CCHS administrative assistant Sharon Webb, the school nearly kicked off the 2021-22 year with a serious problem: thousands of student planners that the incoming freshman class relied on for academic success weren’t going to arrive by the first day of school. The 4,000-pound pallet containing the planners was stuck in transit somewhere in the Denver metro area; because of staffing shortages within the freight company, they couldn’t guarantee on-time delivery.
That’s when Von Feldt stepped in. Along with colleagues Chad Purcell, Greg Klotz and the rest of the warehouse crew, Von Feldt organized the pickup and delivery of the planners to CCHS before freshmen reported for the their first classes.
“I cannot think of a more heroic action,” Webb wrote. “Greg and his team graciously went to work for us and clearly SAVED THE DAY.”
This dedication and selflessness recently earned Von Feldt the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor designed to recognize those in CCSD who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire community. CCSD Assistant Superintendent of Educational Operations Dr. Nickie Rivale-Bell traveled to the warehouse on Oct. 8 to present Von Feldt with a formal plaque and a formal recognition of his honor.
Von Feldt, however, was insistent that the credit be shared among the entire crew at the facility.
“This is a team, and this honor is for the whole team,” Von Feldt said. “We operate together. Warehouse, printing – all of us. It’s a team, and I’m just part of it.”
That team was on hand to hear Von Feldt share his appreciation. Dozens of employees from the warehouse surrounded Von Feldt as Rivale-Bell thanked him for his commitment, service and dedication. They were there to support Von Feldt, and ultimately share in the gratitude he received from a thankful district and a thankful CCHS community. Because of them, thousands of freshmen started the year with the tools they needed to organize, plan and approach their academic year properly.
“Thank you to the CCSD Warehouse crew – you are the best!” Webb said.
Dr. Paul Tschetter
The Cherry Creek School District consisted of only a handful of buildings when Dr. Paul Tschetter moved to the area and started his pediatric practice.
A high school, a couple of middle schools and less than ten elementary schools made up the district that would eventually span 108 square miles and include dozens of buildings. Tschetter would have a unique perspective of the extraordinary growth and development of CCSD over a span of nearly 50 years, and he’d play a unique role in ensuring the health, safety and happiness of thousands of students.
Tschetter’s pediatric practice would continue for 49 years, and his investment, commitment and professional expertise would benefit of students across the Cherry Creek School District. As he served children across the Denver metro area through his Centennial-based practice, Tschetter also played a direct role in the evolution and growth of CCSD. He served as chair of CCSD’s Medical Advisory Board, and remains a member; he served on the district’s curriculum committee and its special education committee. His own children and grandchildren attended schools in the district, and for decades, he worked to ensure that they and every other student in CCSD had the resources they needed to excel.
That impressive resume of service and commitment recently earned Tschetter the Cherry Creek Hero Award, an honor designed to recognize those in CCSD who offer extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire district. Tschetter received the award during the Oct. 5 meeting of the district’s Medical Advisory Board, where current members took turns praising Tschetter’s professionalism, his commitment to students and his skill as a physician. Deputy Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Perry was also on hand to formally present the award and praise Tschetter’s decades-long stint in CCSD.
“You were a founding member of this committee, and you’ve served for over 50 years,” Perry said. “I value institutional knowledge, and I just can’t imagine the stability you’ve provided as the district has grown and changed. You’ve served tens of thousands of students.”
Members of the committee and CCSD administrators alike were quick to point out how that service impacted their own children. CCSD Chief Health Officer Michelle Weinraub recalled that when she moved to Colorado with her family in 1998, family members immediately recommended Tschetter as a pediatrician.
“Thank you for taking care of every one of my kids since the day they were born,” Weinraub said.
Tschetter offered his own reflections about his decades of service to CCSD and the broader community. In nearly 50 years of his practice, Tschetter said, he “didn’t have any bad patients.” He took pride in his work with CCSD, and in playing a role in the district that served so many. He also added that he's attended more than 400 district football games over the years.
“It’s a good feeling to know that you are contributing,” Tschetter said. “This is meaningful and special … Life is not a destination, it’s a journey (and) every day is a blessing.”
Dr. Leon Greos, who currently serves as chair of the committee, said that Tschetter’s skill as a physician stems directly from his personal traits.
“He’s a great pediatrician because he’s a great human being,” Greos said. “It’s always enjoyable to listen to the tales he has to tell.”
For many students at Smoky Hill High School, Gayle Brown’s art classroom is the safest place in the building.
It’s a place where they can come for support from both peers and teachers; it’s a place where they can feel safe, protected and recognized, no matter what they’re going through. Brown, a visual arts teacher, is always on hand to offer a sympathetic ear, wise advice and constant encouragement. Her classroom is a place where students can be themselves, whether or not class is in session. Brown has created an environment where students feel encouraged and accepted, whatever is going on in their lives outside of the walls of Smoky Hill.
That classroom made a huge difference for Jhohaivis Madrigal, a senior at Smoky Hill, when she and her peers faced an unimaginable tragedy.
“My best friend took her life October of 2020, and while I was not enrolled in Ms. Brown's IB Art class, she let me hang out and participate during my off period,” Madrigal wrote. “It became a safe place for me and my friends. She gave us the space to create and to mourn our friend. I will never forget how she taught me to use art as a means of letting go and becoming whole.”
Brown’s selflessness, compassion and kindness made a real difference for those students. In focusing on building relationships and attending to the mental and emotional needs of every single Smoky Hill student, Brown distinguished herself as much more than an art teacher. She played the role of a hero.
“Ms. Brown reached out to these students in the most caring and compassionate way. She was with them in their sadness, letting them know they had someone to turn to, someone who cared,” wrote Lydia Keff, mother of one of the students impacted by the tragedy. “She connected them with support services; shared with them the power of art to process grief; and, above all, was always present when they needed to talk -- or just be. She provided a safe, caring space for these students in a time of great need. I know they will always remember her and will remain grateful for her kindness and compassion.”
Brown’s extraordinary actions were formally recognized on Sept. 23, when she received the Cherry Creek Hero Award, an honor designed to celebrate those in the district who commit “extraordinary actions” on behalf of the entire community. Madrigal, Keff and others who had been impacted firsthand by Brown’s actions surprised her at Smoky Hill, offering emotional testimonies to the significant role she played in helping an entire community heal. CCSD Superintendent Dr. Christopher Smith, Smoky Hill Principal Chuck Puga and others were also on hand to present Brown with a formal plaque and thank her for the sterling example she set for the entire district.
“Your focus on being there for our students is what our core values are all about,” Smith said. “Thank you for personifying the standards we are all working to meet.”
Between tears, hugs and overwhelming emotion, Madrigal summed up what Gayle Brown and her welcoming classroom environment had meant for her.
“I chose to sit in your class, because it was one of the safest places in the entire school. You always gave such good advice,” she said. “I feel like you’re so much more than a teacher. You’re the heart of Smoky Hill.”
Ibukun Alao graduated from Smoky Hill High School more than 20 years ago, but the benefits of his education in the Cherry Creek School District persist to this day.
That’s in large part to the dedication, investment and encouragement of a particular teacher. During Alao’s senior year at Smoky Hill, he was enrolled in Brian Manley’s advanced automotive class, and that course had a distinct impact on Alao’s professional and personal life in the decades to follow.
“Many of Mr. Manley’s students were not honor roll students with a focus on college. He changed that mindset for many of us and challenged us to strive for more. One particular day, he gave a lesson that set the course of my career and education,” Alao said, specifically recalling an improvised lesson that saw Manley explaining just how valuable higher education could be in the automotive profession. Manley drew a pyramid on a white board, and illustrated plainly and simply how a high school diploma, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree could all lead to successively more significant career opportunities. “Seeing this laid out on the board helped me visualize what was practical and within my grasp. It was a short, impromptu lesson that influenced the next decades of my life.”
Alao went on to excel in all phases of his life. He attended Colorado State University at Pueblo, and pursued a successful career in the automotive industry. Two decades after graduating from Smoky Hill, Alao got a chance to offer his thanks to Manley for his investment, wisdom and guidance.
During a surprise ceremony held Sept. 22 at the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus, where Manley currently teaches automotive technology, Manley received the Cherry Creek Hero Award, an honor designed to recognize those in the district who make extraordinary efforts on behalf of their communities. CCIC Principal Steve Day and dozens of fellow instructors joined Manley for the ceremony, where CCSD Superintendent Christopher Smith recognized Manley for his lasting impact on generations of students, and specifically on one student who paid tribute at a recent Board of Education meeting.
“You have gone above and beyond for students, and this was clear during a recent board meeting, when a former student of yours spoke about your dedication to seeing students, and specifically seeing students of color,” Smith said. “Ibukun Alao spoke about how if it weren’t for your investment and kindness, he wouldn’t have pursued the path that has brought him so much success.”
Smith then handed over the podium to Alao, who joined the meeting virtually. Alao’s faced beamed on a screen for the entire room to see, and he spoke to the assembled educators about the profound impact that Manley had on the course of his life.
“You have invested in so many of us,” Alao said. “You are a great example of what an invested educator really is.”
Alao went on to speak about how Manley’s approach perfectly sums up the values and mission of the Cherry Creek School District; his teaching style incorporates a growth mindset, a focus on equity and engagement, a commitment to building relationships and a true dedication to excellence.
Smith was quick to note that Manley was not alone in his dedication to these values.
“I know that all the educators in this room work hard on behalf of our students,” Smith said. “I want you to know: What you do matters. Thank you.”
Tabby Quigley found a way to stay calm in the most stressful circumstances imaginable.
Quigley, a para educator at the Outback Preschool, was working with students at the home of one of the school’s families when a fire broke out. The blaze took everyone by surprise, including the children’s mother and their older brother. As soon as it was clear that the entire group was facing an emergency, Quigley drew on a deep store of resolve, determination and focus.
“I knew that someone needed to stay calm,” said Quigley, who is one of only two para educators at the school who work with students at their homes. “I realized that that was going to have to be me.”
According to the mother of the children and the owner of the home, Quigley’s quick response and calm demeanor helped make an emergency feel manageable.
“Thanks to the immediate action of my son and our awesome teacher para Tabby, everyone got out safely,” she said. “Tabby stayed for hours to help with the little boys, to help me in my overwhelmed state and to top it off, she loaned us a Pack-N-Play so (my little son) would have something to sleep in. Kudos to Tabby!”
That quick thinking and resolve recently earned Quigley the Cherry Creek Hero Award, an honor designed to recognize those who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire CCSD community. CCSD Superintendent Christopher Smith presented Quigley with an award and a personal tribute during a surprise ceremony held at the Outback on Sep. 8.
“This program honors those in our community who commit selfless actions, and what you did is about as selfless and brave as you can get,” Smith said. “We appreciate your commitment to our students, to our parents and to all those you serve as an educator. Thank you so much for all that you do.”
Quigley, who wasn’t expecting the award or the ceremony, had an emotional reaction to the tribute. Surrounded by fellow educators, Outback staff, administrators and by a group of preschoolers on the school’s playground, she seemed at a loss for words.
“I really love being able to help kids. It makes such a big difference,” she said finally. “Receiving this recognition really makes me feel good. It’s nice to know that people appreciate you, that you’re good at something.”
Yair Cervantes didn’t take the summer off from doing his best for students.
Cervantes, kitchen manager at Grandview High School, was hard at work while many students, staff and administrators were enjoying vacations and taking it easy. At the beginning of the break, he started thinking about those students who would be attending summer classes. Specifically, he thought about making sure that they had enough to eat.
“Yair and his kitchen staff approached us at the start of the summer school asking if there were any kids in need of lunches. I told them there was a chance,” said Jenna Schlehuber, dean of students at Grandview. “Yair reached out to CDE to ensure they were in compliance, and they were able to make meals every single day for any and every kid who wanted one.”
That effort made a difference for students outside of the school building. According to Schlehuber, one of the summer school students was taking care of his 10- and 3-year-old siblings at home, as his mother was spending most of her time at the hospital, taking care of their father who’d suffered a massive stroke.
“Because of Yair and his staff, the student was able to take meals home to his siblings to ensure they were able to eat while his parents weren’t home,” she said.
This extraordinary commitment to making sure that students had nutritious, dependable meals during the summer term recently earned Yair the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor designed to recognize those who make extraordinary actions on behalf of the district. CCSD Superintendent Christopher Smith joined Grandview Principal Lisa Roberts, Food and Nutrition Services Director Kim Kilgore, CCSD Executive Chef Brandon Durio, Schlehuber and other school officials on Aug. 10 to present the award to Cervantes.
“I want to thank you personally for your hard work and your investment in the health and happiness of Grandview students,” Smith said. “Your commitment makes a difference, and you are a true example of a Cherry Creek Hero.”
Cervantes himself was overwhelmed by the honor, and he spoke about the importance of offering every student access to nutritious meals on a regular basis.
“I’m just dumbfounded. I’m so appreciative of this community, and sometimes we take for granted the impact that we have,” Cervantes said. “We don’t always know how much of a difference a single meal can make. To see this response from the entire CCSD community is amazing.”
As for his motivation for his hard work on weekends, holidays and school vacations, Cervantes offered a simple explanation.
“I do it for the kids,” he said.
Scott Sage’s mark on Independence Elementary is clear to anyone passing by the building.
Sage has left a figurative impact on Independence during his nine-year stint as Before and After Care Director at the school. His investment in his work and his dedication to the community has benefitted hundreds of students over the years; according to his colleagues, “kids beg to attend his program because they love Scott so much.”
For all of the invisible impact that Sage has had at Independence, he also regularly leaves a literal stamp on Independence’s exterior. Sage is an artist, and his window murals sing the praises of the school, its students and the irrepressible spirit of accomplishment shared by all of the Independence “Patriots.”
“The community always waits in anticipation of what his next window mural will be,” said Sarah Conley, Extended Child Services Director. “He is well-rounded, respected and Cherry Creek Schools is so lucky to have him.”
Sage’s myriad roles as teacher, mentor, artist and involved community member recently earned him the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor designed to celebrate those in CCSD who demonstrate extraordinary actions. In Sage’s case, those actions come on a daily basis as he draws on his creativity and kindness to ensure positive learning experiences for all students.
“You have gone above and beyond to support the kids and families who are involved in the Before and After program here at Independence,” said CCSD Superintendent Christopher Smith during a surprise award ceremony held Aug. 6 at the school. “That kind of commitment matters, and it makes you stand out as one of our community’s heroes.”
Sage took a few minutes off from interacting with his students to pose in front of the school’s central windows, which bore messages of school spirit and community involvement in carefully painted lettering. Sage, who creates those messages, seemed moved by the recognition and appreciation.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” he said. “I’m just so happy to be a part of this community.”
If you know someone whose outstanding service or extraordinary action has made a difference to the students, staff or schools in CCSD, let us know! We want to acknowledge their work with a formal ‘Thank you’ that includes a plaque, a small ceremony and recognition across the district. To nominate, please go to https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/CCSDHERO. Send us information about your nominee and let us know why they deserve to be a hero of our community.
John Vargas has plenty of personal reasons to make sure that students across the Cherry Creek School District honor the sacrifices of veterans.
Vargas received the Purple Heart, the military’s highest honor, and the Distinguished Flying Cross awards for his heroism serving in the Vietnam War. He’s held several significant positions in veterans organizations across the Denver metro area, including as a current trustee with the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
Even so, Vargas’s consummate efforts on behalf of the district’s annual veterans celebrations aren’t self-centered. Vargas works tirelessly on organizing Cherry Creek Schools’ annual Veterans and Military Appreciation game, its Quilts of Valor celebrations and other events designed to pay veterans their proper due. Those who know him, however, insist that all of that work comes on behalf of others.
“John Vargas is an amazing individual, and he’s as humble as anyone you’ll ever meet,” said Larry Bull, CCSD’s Director of Athletics and Activities. Bull works closely with Vargas in organizing annual events designed to pay tribute to veterans and service members in the community. “He has been an asset to our district; he’s a remarkable individual who cares deeply about others and is always willing to help with any aspect of our celebrations.”
This unfailing kindness and dedication recently earned Vargas the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor that recognizes those in the community who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of Cherry Creek Schools. According to CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried, Vargas qualified for the award because of the generosity, commitment and investment that’s been consistent over many years.
“John has never hesitated in giving his all to celebrate our community’s veterans and service members,” Siegfried said. “Though he’s earned awards for his own heroism in the service of our country, John is focused on giving credits to others and making sure their contributions are recognized. This dedication has benefitted our students directly; year after year, they see firsthand just how much our veterans have given to our community and our country.”
Vargas’s wife Kathleen is liable to speak about her husband’s skills as a cook, his support of her artistic endeavors and his passion as a world traveler. All of these qualities are part of a bigger pattern of selflessness that have benefitted the entire CCSD community and far beyond.
“There are many attributes I could offer to describe John. But so many people from all walks of life know him for his kindness, authenticity and generosity,” Kathleen Vargas said. “Not surprisingly, he makes friends wherever we visit.”
The Cherry Creek School District is definitely on that list.
A singular purpose has kept Brett Clymens inspired and engaged in his work for more than a decade.
Clymens is the Before and After Care Director at Homestead Elementary School, a place he’s called a professional home for 12 years. Through his long stint of service – a stretch that’s included multiple challenges, including adjusting to a global pandemic – Clymens says his focus has remained constant.
“I feel really blessed; I really love what I do,” Clymens said. “I do it for the families. I do it for the students.”
Clymens’ dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed by his peers, or by those kids and parents he works so hard to serve. He’s gained a reputation for his consummate dedication to the Homestead community; he’s known for his investment and his infectious positive attitude.
“I have watched Brett grow up, from a 16-year-old assistant to one of the most experienced directors in Extended Child Services,” said Sarah Conley, ECS director for Cherry Creek Schools. “As a director, he relates to kids, he’s patient, kind and the community loves him. He is always actively engaged with students and coming up with new and exciting ways to challenge them!”
That consistency and kindness recently earned Clymens the Cherry Creek Hero Award, a recognition designed to honor those members of the CCSD community who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire system.
In Clymens’ case, those extraordinary actions have come inside and outside of the classroom, and have benefitted the Homestead community for more than a decade. His dedication remained constant over the past year, even as the entire district, state, country and globe figured out how to operate safely in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was difficult at first, but there is such a great staff here at Homestead,” Clymens said. “I leaned on them, they leaned on me, we leaned on each other. It really helped us navigate through the different demands of COVID.”
That kind of teamwork, compassion and ingenuity is the perfect definition of a Cherry Creek Hero.
“I’ve heard about how your energy and your kindness has directly benefitted the staff and students across the Homestead community,” CCSD Superintendent Christopher Smith told Clymens during a surprise award ceremony held at the school on Aug. 2. “This means so much to us all. Thank you for all that you do.”
Carter Young needed help, and he needed it right away.
Earlier this year, Young suffered a seizure when he was playing with his dad and sister at a park in Aurora. Young, 14, suffers from a seizure disorder, and at 140 pounds, the logistics of transporting him from the park grounds to his mother’s nearby car were hardly simple.
“My husband called for me to bring the car (for Carter), and I was there in minutes. However, I could not get my car close enough to assist my husband with ease,” Carter’s mother, Erin Young, recalled. “I quickly looked around and noticed a group of kids just arriving at the park to play catch.”
Alex Miller was in that group, and he didn’t hesitate to come as soon as Erin Young asked for help. Miller, then a senior at Grandview High School, had come to the park for a simple game of catch with his friends, but he ended up assisting in a way that could have very well saved Carter Young’s life.
“Alex helped my husband pick up our son, who was wet from snow on the ground, and unable to stand. He helped all the way to the car,” Erin Young said. “He was patient, cautious and calm.”
Alex Miller graduated from Grandview in the spring, but before he walked across the stage to receive his diploma, he earned formal recognition for his incredible act of kindness and selflessness in meeting the demands of that moment in early spring. In April, Miller received the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, a recognition that celebrates those in the Cherry Creek School District who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire community.
“What an incredible action you committed on behalf of Carter,” said Dr. Scott Siegfried during an online award ceremony held in April, a virtual gathering that included Erin Young, Carter’s father Mark Young, Grandview counselor Mark Fisher and Alex Miller’s parents, Sheryl and Michael. Siegfried presented the award before he retired as CCSD superintendent. “There’s nothing better than being a good person, and you displayed that you have the heart of a Cherry Creek Hero.”
Erin Young pointed out how Alex Miller was a voice of calm reassurance throughout the crisis at the playground – he helped Carter all the way to the car, asked his name and even spoke reassuringly to Carter’s sister.
“Alex was incredibly kind. Many kids are not so sure about Carter, and would not even take the time to say hello,” Erin Young said, adding that Miller’s path after his graduation from Grandview is bound to be special. “I wish for Alex to have big things happen in his life. He deserves it. He has a good heart.”
Heroism can come in all forms and can positively affect a community in myriad ways.
Marisela Ramirez, a family liaison at Sagebrush Elementary School, has found a broad range of ways to prove her heroism and her value to the entire community. She works tirelessly to connect with all of Sagebrush’s students, parents and family in order to ensure that every student has proper access to excellence. She has organized toy drives for students, collected supplies and essential materials for families and offered her colleagues an unending supply of generosity and kindness.
All of this would be enough to have secured Ramirez the status of Cherry Creek Hero, an honor that celebrates those in the district who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire community.
But in addition to Ramirez’s consistent work as an educator, counselor and liaison for the students, parents and staff of Sagebrush, she’s also served as a literal lifesaver for one member of the school’s community.
According to Ramirez’s Cherry Creek Heroes nomination form, her knowledge of CPR was the difference between life and death for a visitor facing a medical emergency.
“Marisela saved a man's life because of her CPR certification. She sprang into action, completed chest compressions, and got the Aurora Police Department,” her colleague wrote. “The man is lucky to be alive today because our hero was there.”
Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried paid tribute to all of these feats of heroism during a virtual awards ceremony held earlier this month. Ramirez’s colleagues joined her online as Siegfried sang her praises and detailed exactly why her attitude and actions qualify her as a Cherry Creek Hero.
“You have shown that you’re more than willing and able to work hard on behalf of our students, their families and our entire community,” Siegfried said. “Not only have you made a measurably important and positive difference in the everyday life of our school, but your expertise has literally saved a man’s life. You are a hero in every sense of the word.”
According to those who work with her at Sagebrush, a simple but unfailing spirit of generosity is behind all of Ramirez’s work for the community.
“Marisela is the kind of person you hope you are lucky enough to have working with you. She works hard to connect with our families and gather resources that will support each of them,” a colleague wrote. “She is generous and kind to everyone she works with and goes the extra mile to help whenever and however she can. She has a heart of gold and a listening ear. The Sagebrush community is beyond blessed to have Marisela on our team.”
Michelle Mallin’s commitment and dedication has helped countless students in the Cherry Creek School District fully comprehend the meaning of service and sacrifice.
Mallin, who retired as the executive director of the Honor Bell Foundation in December, has played a key role in the district’s ongoing effort to recognize and celebrate veterans and active-duty military members in the local community. In her role with the Honor Bell organization, Mallin has helped ensure that the foundation’s namesake – a 1,000-pound bronze bell cast out of the personal artifacts of 12 fallen Colorado service members – serves as teaching tool for CCSD students, as well as a tribute to those who offered the ultimate sacrifice across the span of modern U.S. history.
“Michelle Mallin is a hero to the CCSD community because she has modeled to our students the meaning of service. She has inspired our kids; she’s shown us how our heroes have served others and served their country,” said Dr. Nickie Bell, CCSD’s Executive Director of Elementary Education. Along with Chief of Staff Chris Smith and Athletics and Activities Director Larry Bull, Bell has worked closely with Mallin to involve the Honor Bell Foundation with CCSD’s annual, districtwide Veterans Day celebration. “She has been committed to providing curriculum and learning for students that’s aligned with state standards, and that truly conveys information about the hearts and spirits of our American heroes.”
These efforts recently earned Mallin the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor to designed to celebrate those who have committed an extraordinary action on behalf of the CCSD community. By working closely with teachers, administrators and students to give the district’s Veterans Day celebrations a sense of depth, meaning and importance, Mallin has helped build a tribute that has become a model for other districts across the state.
Those efforts align with Mallin’s broader dedication to the cause of veterans across Colorado and beyond. A founding member of the Honor Bell Foundation, Mallin has spent the past years meeting with countless veterans and their families. She was a driving force behind the creation of the Honor Bell monument itself, a stirring tribute to Colorado service members rendered of medals, awards and other artifacts of fallen heroes. In 2016, Mallin accompanied the newly cast Honor Bell as it toured the state, and she’s been an integral part of its journey since then.
According to veteran John Vargas, Mallin is a “patriot, a mother, a volunteer and innovator who pursues living with a ‘never, never quit’ attitude.” Her devotion persists, despite recent health concerns and her recent retirement from the foundation she helped create.
As a leader in the local veterans community, and now as a Cherry Creek Hero award recipient, Mallin continues to pave the way for students, teachers, administrators and civic leaders alike to discover the meaning of service, sacrifice and patriotism.
April Biemiller is well aware of the critical role that communication plays in meaningful and impactful learning.
Biemiller is an ELA teacher at Sagebrush Elementary, where she works tirelessly in her official capacity to ensure that every student receives all the resources they need to thrive, regardless of the language they speak. This important work starts in the classroom, but Biemiller’s dedication to her students goes far beyond the boundaries of the typical school day.
Biemiller has organized yearly pantry programs and food drives at the school to support families and connect students with proper nutrition. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Biemiller organized a Family Literacy program, engaging families to become more proficient in English and play a more direct role in students’ achievement. She’s spent untold hours working directly with school interpreters to provide all the context and information possible during parent-teacher conferences. She’s acted as a direct liaison between the school and families, working to create individualized approaches so that every student can achieve excellence in and out of the classroom.
This firsthand engagement and personal investment recently earned Biemiller the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor designed to recognize those members of the CCSD community who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire district.
During an online recognition ceremony held on March 1, CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried pointed to Biemiller’s consistent engagement on behalf of students and families, even as the basic model of learning transformed with the arrival of a global pandemic.
“April has helped to provide an important safety net for many of Sagebrush’s ELA families, who would otherwise struggle with food insecurity,” Siegfried said, reading from Biemiller’s nomination form. “She has been a tireless advocate around equity for our students and our families … She’s a voice for those who may not always have a seat at the table or a voice in the process.
“Your commitment to all of the students at Sagebrush is clear; you are a true Cherry Creek Hero,” he added.
Biemiller has found new ways to pursue excellence for her students, even amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her work for all members of the Sagebrush community exemplifies the Cherry Creek School District’s core values both inside and outside of classroom. That across-the-board approach has served as a model for other teachers and staff at Sagebrush, as Biemiller’s nomination makes clear.
“As a highly effective teacher in her practice, she helps other teachers differentiate and implement practices that are more equitable for our ELA students,” a colleague wrote of Biemiller. “April Biemiller is deeply committed to our ELA families and her actions as part of our staff help us all do a better job to support them.”
Melissa Pearlman adjusts to the unique needs of every one of her students.
Pearlman, a teacher at High Plains Elementary, doesn’t expect her students to conform to any single academic mold or expectation. Instead, she adjusts her instruction to meet the passions, the strengths and the individual learning styles of everyone who enters her classroom.
In other words, Pearlman’s classroom is a place where innovation finds plenty of space to grow.
“She teaches both from the head and the heart, and makes sure each child is protected and safe, both emotionally and physically, throughout the day. She makes sure no child has to learn while hungry,” a High Plains parent recently wrote of Pearlman. “And she tends not only to academic needs, but also looks out for the emotional and mental health of her students.”
Cherry Creek School District Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried recited this tribute to Pearlman during a surprise online ceremony earlier this week, when Pearlman was formally recognized as a Cherry Creek Hero. This award honors those across CCSD who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the community.
In this case, the honor recognizes Pearlman’s longtime commitment to excellence, learning and the success of all of her students. It’s a commitment that’s persisted during Pearlman’s many years in the district, and one that’s weathered the storms of a year full of challenges.
As the High Plains staff worked to meet the demands of switching between Remote and In-Person learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pearlman helped ensure that the transitions took place effectively and smoothly.
Pearlman’s nomination letter illustrated her key role in ensuring the school’s success over the past year: “I believe the students’ trust in her, which she had cultivated through the first eight weeks of In-Person learning, made this transition possible. During this time of crisis, I am grateful I had the opportunity to listen to bits and pieces of her online classroom … Mrs. Pearlman is an outstanding academic teacher. But she is so much more than that. I hope her hard work, love of teaching, ability to motivate and inspire and her big heart are recognized, as she is a true Cherry Creek Hero.”
Siegfried and High Plains Principal Unique Cooper both praised Pearlman’s commitment, and both noted how big of a difference she’s made for the entire community.
“What you do matters,” Siegfried said. “We all appreciate what you bring to High Plains and our entire district.”
For her part, Pearlman was sure to offer credit to the her peers at High Plains. Excellence doesn’t thrive in a vacuum, she said, and Pearlman spoke to her colleagues’ hard work in making success possible.
“I’ve been in Cherry Creek Schools a long time, and I can tell you that teaching has always been a collaborative effort,” she said. “I believe in what we’re doing, and this recognition means a lot.”
Emilee Chavez is an expert at getting her students invested in reading.
Chavez, a fourth-grade teacher at Cherry Hills Village Elementary, knows that making a book come alive for students isn’t a matter of simply assigning chapters to read. Recently, she guided her students through the book “Wonder” by RJ Palacio, a story that follows a 10-year-old with a facial deformity who wants nothing more than to be accepted by his peers and lead the life of an average fifth-grader. The book helped spark a broader movement that advocates tolerance, kindness and acceptance.
Chavez wanted her students to fully immerse themselves in the message and meaning of the book, even as they progressed through it together virtually. Remote learning wasn’t going to stop Chavez from helping her students uncover the magic of a great story and the importance of a timeless message.
On her own time, Chavez prepared individual bags for her students with small prizes and snacks to commemorate their progress through the book. She hosted a virtual watch party with her students to see their reactions to the recognition. She reached out to the author of “Wonder,” RJ Palacio, and managed to arrange a meet-the-author virtual lunch interview for her students. As her colleague noted, Chavez “kept the students not only engaged academically but as a class and community.”
This is just one example of Chavez’s commitment to connecting her students with the power of reading, learning and connecting, and it’s just one reason why Chavez was recently named a Cherry Creek Hero. The honor recognizes those in the CCSD community who commit an extraordinary action on behalf of others, and Chavez certainly meets those standards.
“Your commitment to your students is a model for the entire Cherry Creek Schools community,” said CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried during the virtual Cherry Creek Heroes Award ceremony held for Chavez. “You have found multiple ways to keep students engaged and interested during Remote learning; you’ve made reading come alive for them, and you’ve shown what it means to be a truly dedicated educator.”
Doyle Barkus had very little in the way of advanced notice when it came to an extensive project that would make the entire Cherry Creek School District safer.
Barkus, a senior crew leader in the district’s Grounds Maintenance Department, received word mere weeks before the launch of the 2020-21 school year that every building in CCSD needed critical updates before anyone reported for In Person learning. Specifically, in order to make the school communities as safe as possible, the district would install plastic barriers at front desks and other key locales in buildings across its 108 square miles. These barriers would offer a critical physical boundary to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Barkus and the rest of the crew would have to get the barriers up in a matter of weeks.
“Doyle was given a project to make barriers for basically every building in the district. He was told that they all needed to be in place by the beginning of the school year, just weeks before classes started,” recalled CCSD roofer Ricky Alemany. “He worked tirelessly to make sure this would actually happen, working extra hours and weekends to ensure it was done before school started.
“I feel he went above and beyond to not only complete this task, but also to ensure our staff’s safety in these troublesome times,” he added.
District staff aren’t the only ones who’ve benefitted from Barkus’ hard work in the weeks leading up to the kickoff of the current school year. As CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried noted during a surprise award ceremony held for Barkus on Sept. 24, students, teachers, parents, administrators and a host of other district community members are safer thanks to the plastic guards in place at all buildings.
“You worked tirelessly to make sure we can all operate school safely and securely in the current circumstances,” Siegfried said, adding that the effort earned Barkus the status of Cherry Creek Hero. That honor was recently created to recognize those CCSD community members who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire district. “You are the definition of a Cherry Creek Hero for your willingness to put in the hours and the hard work on behalf of the entire district.”
Barkus was humbled by the honor, and he spoke about the weeks of hard work that went to properly preparing Cherry Creek Schools to safely operate in unprecedented conditions.
“We were working like crazy for the three weeks before school kicked off,” he recalled. “We were able to finish the Saturday before school started in August. We got barriers up in every single building.”
Such a seemingly simple step has made a real difference for all of those who are abiding by physical distancing and other safety measures in every CCSD school. The plastic barriers provide another layer of protection for all those who are working to keep up the district’s commitment to providing every student with innovative learning in the midst of a global pandemic.
“Your work has directly benefitted our community in challenging times,” Siegfried said. “We all appreciate what you’ve done for our students, our staff and everyone who visits our buildings.”
CCSD Contact Tracing Team - Anna Osborn Dolan, Marlo Barstad, Jennifer Ellerbrook
Every day, a dedicated team works tirelessly to make sure that learning runs smoothly and safely across the Cherry Creek School District.
This group of CCSD employees has been a lynchpin in the district’s successful efforts to operate In-Person learning amid the considerable challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their efforts represent a combination of detective work, community outreach and first-rate healthcare; combined, these efforts have helped ensure that thousands of students have the option to safely learn in classrooms across Cherry Creek Schools’ 108 square miles this fall.
Indeed, the district’s COVID Response Team has helped make every single building in the district safer for students, teachers, staff and maintenance workers alike. Since In-Person learning resumed for the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, this team has carefully traced every possible case of COVID-19 across the district. They’ve formalized a procedure to help contact trace the virus and connect potential carriers with the most up-to-date and effective care. The team has come up with an effective approach to notifying school groups and individuals about the latest cases, and in the process have helped find a way to keep entire communities safe.
In doing so, Executive Assistant Marlo Barstad, Communications Coordinator Anna Osborn Dolan and Resource Nurse Jennifer Ellerbroek have helped create an example for other school districts across Colorado.
“You are setting the model for every school district in the state,” CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried told three members of that team during an impromptu celebration ceremony on Oct. 21. “You’ve played a key role in our effort to do the right thing during these challenging times. It hasn’t been easy, but you have all met the demands of the moment.”
Those three team members received the Cherry Creek Heroes Award on Wednesday for their consummate and trailblazing work. The honor recognizes those members of the CCSD community who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire community.
In this case, those extraordinary actions have included daily efforts over the past two-plus months. It’s meant carefully following the trail of possible infections; it’s meant helping coordinate quarantines and providing the best care to students, teachers and staff members alike. It’s also meant drafting emails, coordinating outreach messages and making sure that notifications get sent to dozens of recipients in multiple languages.
These three Cherry Creek Heroes have worked closely with district administrators, school-level administrators, teachers, staff, parents and countless others to refine a process that helps ensure that In-Person learning can continue in a safe and responsible way.
“These past months have been challenging for all of us, but thanks to your hard work and commitment to putting in the extra time and effort, you’ve helped streamline our process and keep our schools safe,” Siegfried said. “Your work has benefitted our entire community. You’ve helped create a model that others can look to and learn from. Thank you.”
Michelle Yardeny’s contributions to the Cherry Creek School District go far beyond a single act of kindness.
For years, Yardeny has been a constant volunteer presence at schools across the district, including Mountain Vista, Dakota Valley, Red Hawk Ridge and, most recently, Altitude Elementary. Yardeny, a Farmers Insurance agent who manages her own agency in the local community, has played myriad roles at all of these schools. She’s volunteered for large-scale school fundraisers and community events; she’s served as a sponsor for concerts, Veterans Day tributes and school fun runs. Across all of her volunteerism and activism, Yardeny has had a simple mission in mind.
“As a small business owner, you can make a difference and an impact for students and teachers,” Yardeny said. “It’s so important that we support our schools. It’s everything that I work so hard for.”
Yardeny’s commitment to Cherry Creek Schools hasn’t gone unnoticed. On Feb. 24, Yardeny received the Cherry Creek Hero Award, a new district honor designed to celebrate any member of the CCSD community who contributes in a wide variety of ways. The award is designed to recognize an “extraordinary action” by a CCSD community member; in Yardeny’s case, those extraordinary actions numbered in the dozens.
“Michelle, you’ve shown a whole pattern of selflessness at all of the schools you’ve impacted,” CCSD Superintendent Scott Siegfried said during a recognition ceremony held at Altitude Elementary on Feb. 24. Altitude Principal Scott Schleich was also on hand to celebrate Yardeny’s contributions. “Your commitment to our teachers, our staff and our kids is impressive. We are all thankful for all that you do, and we want you to know that you are a true Cherry Creek Hero.”
Yardeny, who reported to Altitude expecting only to take part in a planning session for the school’s next Veterans Day celebration, was surprised by the award and the ceremony. She spoke about her deep roots in the Cherry Creek School District, and noted that her immediate and extended family includes plenty of district alums. Getting a formal nod from the district that’s given so much to her community was a highlight of her professional and personal life, she said.
“This is the best award I’ve ever received,” she said. “This whole district is incredible, and I love everyone here.”
Yardeny only allowed so much time for celebration, however. After Siegfried had presented the award and after she’d received the celebratory balloons and goodie bag, Yardeny wanted to get back to business.
“We still need to plan for Veterans Day,” she reminded Principal Scott Schleich.
CCSD Cultural Liaisons
They’re the critical link between the Cherry Creek School District and its diverse community,
CCSD’s dedicated group of cultural liaisons are professionals who ensure that critical messages regarding the safety, health and learning of more than 55,000 students reach parents and families in a timely manner, no matter the language. In the past year in particular, this group has been a key bridge to families as the district, the state and the globe have faced unprecedented challenges from a worldwide pandemic. They’ve worked tirelessly to ensure that messages ranging from school bus notifications to important updates from CCSD’s superintendent are accurately translated into an array of languages accurately and rapidly.
These liaisons who work out of the district’s Office of Interpretation and Translation Services received formal credit for their important work during an online ceremony last month, when CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried formally recognized the group as Cherry Creek Heroes, an honor that celebrates those in the community who make extraordinary efforts on behalf of the entire community.
The group of honorees consisted of Amharic Cultural Liaison Telile Hirpa; Arabic Cultural Liaisons Jawdeh Dajani Alami and Jemaa Sebbahi; Chinese Cultural Liaison Andrea Han; Korean Cultural Liaison Leah Lee; Russian Cultural Liaison Larisa Baca; Somali Cultural Liaison Omar Nur; Spanish Cultural Liaisons Ilse Chavez Maldonado, Helena Gognat, Rosa Han and Miracle Nuanes; and Vietnamese Cultural Liaison Leslie Chung. Not only do these liaisons ensure that the district complies with federal and state laws when it comes to timely and accurate communication with families, but they also provide a critical sense of community and serve as a bridge for non-English speakers.
“Your ability to work with our parents is so critical to our district and everything it stands for,” Siegfried told the liaisons during the online awards presentation in December. “Creating those links with students and families isn’t just your job; it’s who you are, in your heart and in your soul. Thank you for being such an important part of what we do for all students.”
The work of the liaisons has been all the more critical in a stretch of months that’s seen an unprecedented amount of changes in the daily routine of Cherry Creek Schools. As the district has worked to comply with the latest safety measures tied to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the group has been integral in translating important messages regarding schedules, contact tracing and other subjects.
“We’ve successfully met the challenges of the past year thanks in large part to your work,” Siegfried noted. “You have kept our entire community informed and safe. Your dedication is valued now more than ever.”
Seanin Rosario’s efforts to keep the entire Cherry Creek School District safe have hardly been simple.
Rosario is the Director of Financial Planning and Analysis and of Supply Chain Management for CCSD, and she’s been on the front lines of the efforts to keep district schools and facilities safe since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year. That task has involved a whole host of duties, including sourcing, procuring, warehousing and distributing all of the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for Cherry Creek Schools.
From cleaners to wipes to plexi-glass shields and face masks, Rosario has played a key role in connecting students, teachers, staff and administrators alike with crucial safety resources during an unprecedented global pandemic.
“The logistical challenge of procuring all of the PPE in a timely manner, distributing it to schools and having a plan to replenish our supplies over the school year is immense,” said Scott Smith, the district’s Chief Financial and Operating Officer. “Seanin has set the entire district up for success this year.”
Indeed, the effective distribution of PPE across the district’s 108 square miles played a crucial role in the resumption of In Person learning for the 2020-21 school year. Along with physical distancing measures, carefully controlled cohorts and other measures, this equipment has allowed students and teachers from all levels to return to the classroom in a safe way.
For her role in making that transition possible, Rosario recently received the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor designed to recognize those members of the CCSD who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire district. Rosario joins other award recipients who have shown a special commitment to CCSD and positively impacted the entire community.
“You are truly a hero of keeping people safe across Cherry Creek Schools,” said CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried during a virtual awards ceremony held on Oct. 5. Joined online by her colleagues, Rosario received praise from Siegfried for her unfailing commitment to securing every single piece of PPE necessary to make the 2020-21 school year a success. “The task that was put upon you was considerable. You’re keeping our entire district safe, and many in CCSD don’t even know you exist,” Siegfried pointed out.
Be that as it may, Rosario’s consummate commitment to her work benefitted a district of more than 55,000 students, even if her efforts went under the radar.
“You were given a difficult task, one that had a direct impact on all of us,” Siegfried said. “We set the bar high. You more than met our expectations; you’ve helped keep us safe. Thank you.”
Empathy, kindness and strength can stem from tragic circumstances.
Adrienne Webb, the Cherry Creek School District’s only Before and After Care Director Sub, has experienced intense loss over the past months. Webb, who fills in at programs across the district’s 108 square miles, lost her husband in February. A year that’s been challenging for everyone has been especially trying for Webb.
That hasn’t stopped her from investing herself fully in her work. According to Webb’s colleagues, friends and mentors, she’s met the demands of 2020 with an inspiring amount of heart, warmth and dedication. Her dedication to her work has positively impacted students, teachers and directors alike.
“In her role as district Director Sub, Adrienne is asked to go to many schools and help out where needed. She helps new directors come in and get acquainted with the role at any given school,” said Gillian Rush, Before and After Care Director at Timberline Elementary. “She has a huge heart … She still loves working with all the kids and staff, and I have never seen her without a smile or complaint. She is amazing.”
Webb’s positive attitude and unfailing heart recently earned her the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, a recognition designed to honor those in the district who show extraordinary actions on behalf of their community. According to all of those who nominated Webb for the award, a year packed with loss, grief and tragedy hasn’t swayed her from her basic mission.
“Adrienne has faced challenges and traumas in her personal life that I couldn't even imagine how to overcome, but every day, there she is, giving 100 percent of herself to her position. Her strength and commitment to making each day productive and successful is truly remarkable,” said Nicole Lloyd-Sullivan, ECS Licensing Specialist. “Adrienne is a perfect candidate for a CCSD Hero Award, due to her being the true definition of someone who is committed to excellence.”
CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried was on hand to virtually offer the award to Webb during an online meeting held on Sept. 16. Siegfried noted how teachers, directors and staff from across the district offered nominations for Webb, citing her extraordinary commitment to students no matter the circumstances.
“Your colleagues have noted how good you are at quickly learning a new environment, and making connections with staff. Staff trust you, admire you and love your commitment to them,” Siegfried said. “That kind of commitment to your community, no matter the circumstances, is the true definition of excellence. We’re lucky to have you in the Cherry Creek School District.”
Olivia Causer was one of the many CCSD employees who found direction, strength and inspiration in Webb’s example. In nominating Webb for the award, Causer spoke about the difference she made for a new director still learning the ropes of the system.
“In my first few weeks of being a director, there was nobody that gave me more confidence than Adrienne,” Causer wrote. “I was very nervous but Adrienne is one of those special people … she has the ability to make you believe in yourself. She has been through so much and, in all honesty, she is the most resilient person I know.”
Tari Wood’s commitment to her students, her school and her community cannot be swayed by a global pandemic.
Wood has long been an icon at Grandview High School, where she teaches science and coaches the school’s girls’ soccer team. Wood has shown dedication, perseverance and a commitment to excellence in both of these roles, having earned a reputation as a top-notch educator and as a coach who has inspired players to greatness. The proof of the latter is in the Grandview Wolves’ recent record – the varsity girls’ soccer team has won the state championship four of the past five seasons.
Wood’s investment in her school and her students didn’t come to an end when the COVID-19 global pandemic upended academics, activities and athletics for Grandview, the Cherry Creek School District and the rest of the world. She found new ways to inspire, and she worked tirelessly to ensure that her students were still successful.
Case in point: Wood and her family helped make 650 masks emblazoned with the Grandview mascot for the school’s belated graduation ceremony this summer. The students who had to wait months to properly celebrate one of the most important rites of passage of their lives were able to do so with a one-of-a-kind memento, one that celebrated their school’s spirit and their own strengths in navigating an unprecedented challenge. What’s more, Wood and her family also made masks for the varsity soccer players, and hand-delivered them to their homes.
Wood’s consistent dedication to Grandview has inspired countless students, staff and CCSD community members. Most recently, it’s earned her the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor designed to celebrate those in the Cherry Creek School District who commit extraordinary actions on behalf of the larger community.
“She has taught her players to stay humble and to remember that past success does not guarantee future success. She always reminds them that it takes a lot of hard work and team work,” CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried noted during Wood’s online Heroes award ceremony on Sept. 15. Siegfried offered tributes drawn from the input of Wood’s colleagues and from Grandview’s principal Dr. Lisa Roberts during the online recognition, and he noted that Wood’s approach in the classroom and on the field reflects broader values that have always been at the core of CCSD. “She holds students and players accountable and in return she earns much respect. She works endlessly to be the best she can be.
“That makes her the true definition of a Cherry Creek Hero,” he added.
Siegfried spoke to Wood and other faculty members from the Grandview Science Department during the remote meeting. He acknowledged that the 2020-21 school year has already posed challenges to students and teachers alike, and he noted the hard work of every teacher in the department.
“Thank you to everyone on the call. You’re all working hard to give our kids the best experiences they can have while they’re in school, and you’re helping to keep them and those around them as safe as possible,” Siegfried said. “Teri, thank you for being an example of that dedication for everybody.”
For Wood and countless student athletes, the challenges of the current moment have meant a momentary pause in familiar and treasured sports, activities and athletics. Siegfried expressed confidence that the games would continue eventually, and when it was safe to do so, Wood would help lead the Wolves to another important victory.
“Let’s get that number five championship. We’re going to keep working at it,” Siegfried said.
Larry Bull has always been committed to learning.
Bull has long been an educator and mentor – he started in the Cherry Creek School District more than 30 years ago as a Special Education teacher at Eaglecrest High School before moving to posts as a school dean, athletic director and assistant principal. Bull, who's served as the Cherry Creek School District's Director of Athletics and Activities for more than a decade, is just as committed to his own role as a lifelong learner as he is to the education of students. He has consistently worked hard to keep up with the latest trends in his field – last year, for example, he earned the title of Certified Athletic Director from the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association last year.
But Bull’s commitment to educating the CCSD the community and himself goes beyond the classroom and beyond his role as Athletics and Activities Director. As one of the organizing forces behind the district’s annual Veterans and Active Military Appreciation Game, Bull has worked hard to make sure that every student, teacher, staff member and administrator in Cherry Creek Schools knows the importance of service and sacrifice. That annual effort has most recently earned Bull the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, a recognition designed to celebrate those who display an extraordinary commitment to the CCSD community.
“We appreciate what you’ve done for this community over all of the years you’ve been here,” said CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried during an awards presentation ceremony on Sept. 1. “Between your commitment to our students, our staff and those across our district who’ve sacrificed everything, you’ve shown how invested you are in every facet of Cherry Creek Schools. You exemplify what it means to be a Cherry Creek Hero.”
For six years in a row, the Veterans and Active Military Appreciation Game has been a vehicle for honoring the service of veterans and active military members alike. Every year, the entire CCSD community turns out to welcome its heroes; service members from every generation have reported to Cherokee Trail High School and Legacy Stadium to receive recognition and enjoy some football.
Bull has been an organizing force behind this annual event, and the current challenges posed by the global COVID pandemic haven’t stopped him from keeping the tradition alive. The game has been postponed until February, but Bull and the other organizers of the event have worked hard to make sure the 2020-21 school year still features the important tribute.
They worked so hard to keep the yearly event going because of its importance to all attendees. John Vargas, a Vietnam veteran who participated in the event held in September, 2018, said the yearly contest offers honorees a crucial reminder that they’re loved, honored and appreciated.
“It's a wonderful thing,” Vargas said. “It means that we're honoring the soldiers present today, and we're honoring those heroes who did not return.”
For Bull, the yearly event is a vital way to keep the CCSD community properly focused on its values of excellence, innovation and respect. The game is a chance to keep students and staff alike educated about the story of the broader community; it’s an opportunity to make sure that everyone across the district’s 108 square miles remembers its history as they support their student athletes.
Education, after all, is what Bull has always been all about. 0“When you're in education, it's always valuable to keep picking up new skills," Bull said last year. “It's great to keep learning.”
In good years and bad, budget planners in the Cherry Creek School District have been able to count on some constants over the past decades.
No matter the state of the local or national economy, those planning the fiscal future of the district had enough solid data by the spring to accurately plan for the coming school year. For decades, this dependable calendar gave those running a school district that spans more than 100 square miles enough time solidify their approach for the coming months and communicate that vision to the Board of Education and the entire CCSD community.
2020 was different.
“We usually know what our revenue is in March or April; we usually have plenty of time to brief the community, the board and have solid plans,” said Scott Smith, CCSD’s Chief Financial and Operating Officer. “This year, the revenue picture didn’t get finalized until the beginning of June. Up to that point, there were massive swings in the estimates.”
In the wake of a global pandemic that’s completely upended the state’s funding for Cherry Creek Schools, the district’s budget team had to come up with a plan on extremely short notice. What’s more, that plan had to address staggering revenue shortfalls –the state is looking to cut $3.4 billion from its budget, which will result in unprecedented cuts to K-12 education. The Cherry Creek School District is facing a $60 million budget deficit, largely due to cuts in state funding.
Budget Manager Marilyn Coming helped lead the district’s budget team through those historic challenges, assembling a fiscal plan for the 2020-21 year in a matter of weeks. Coming’s quick work helped CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried and the Board of Education to transparently communicate the situation to the Cherry Creek Schools community and begin looking for solutions. Her commitment also earned her recognition as a Cherry Creek Hero, an honor that recognizes those in the community who commit extraordinary actions for the district.
“Marilyn’s ability to lead her team and lead the budget process without knowing all the details when we usually know them was extraordinary,” Smith said. “The sudden drop in revenue at all levels more mirrored the Great Depression 100 years ago than the recession in 2008. It was something that hasn’t been seen in generations … Despite these challenges, Marilyn and the team were able to show the timeline in a way that was clear, concise and transparent.”
As leaders across the district kick off a school year in unprecedented circumstances and look to an important bond and budget election in the fall, that quick work has been critical in helping the district assemble a solid plan for the coming months.
“Marilyn and the entire budget team have been consistent and dependable in inconsistent and chaotic times,” Siegfried said during a remote Cherry Creek Hero Award ceremony held earlier in the summer. “We are all working to make it through difficult times, and their work has been critical for our entire community.”
Indeed, while Coming’s name is on the award, Smith said that equal credit goes to the entire budget team, a group of dedicated professionals who were able to remain focused in the face of historic shortfalls.
“If I could’ve, I would have nominated the entire team. There’s a ton of great work that comes out of this department. It’s really a team effort that makes that happen,” Smith said. “While Marilyn is the one we recognized, I shared that the award is meant to recognize all of them.”
In the midst of a global pandemic, Sarah Conley has found inspiration in the example of Cherry Creek School District students.
Conley, the district’s Director of Extended Child Services, has been integral in organizing and updating the department’s summer camp program to meet the needs of the moment. With the safety, security and health of students in mind, Conley and her department have helped organize summer activities and learning sessions that have kept students from kindergarten to fifth grade engaged when school is out of session.
The result has been impactful not only for the students involved, but for Conley and her staff as well.
“Students have no experience living through a pandemic; none of us do. To see them learning how to do it and remaining positive and engaged has been really powerful,” Conley said. “All of the kids are wearing their masks and staying six feet apart as they’re learning and interacting with their peers.”
The students’ engagement has come thanks in no small part to Conley’s consistent hard work. As ECS director, Conley has been a tireless advocate, working nonstop to make sure that students have options to safely learn, grow and thrive, even in the face of health restrictions and physical distancing guidelines.
Conley’s hand-on approach in the face of recent challenges is nothing new. Since starting as ECS director six years ago, Conley has served as an example for students and staff alike, working constantly to make sure the department meets its commitment to excellence. Recently, Conley received recognition as the latest recipient of the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, an honor that celebrates those in the district who show an investment in the community through extraordinary actions.
Those who nominated Conley for the award cited the endless support, kindness and empathy she shows for coworkers and students alike.
“She will drop everything she is doing to support us and our staff. She’s done it multiple times for me personally, and I know multiple directors can say the same thing,” wrote ECS employee Baylie Mueller. “With the current pandemic, we’re going through an especially hard time right now, and Sarah and the ECS team are doing an amazing job keeping us connected, comfortable and loving our jobs … I’m not the only one who believes that Sarah is definitely a hero to us directors in ECS.”
During the remote Cherry Creek Heroes Award presentation ceremony held last month, CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried offered a similar note of support, citing Conley’s unerring leadership and crisis during the most daunting challenges of the current moment.
“I appreciate everything you’ve done for our students, our staff and our community,” Siegfried said. “Your commitment to our district is clear, and your leadership is an example for all of us.”
The mission of the Cherry Creek School District’s Food and Nutrition Services Department is straightforward.
No matter the circumstances, no matter the conditions, the department ensures that every student across CCSD’s 108 square miles is fed. Connecting kids with healthy, nutritious food is what the department does, even amid summer breaks, adverse weather and global pandemic.
As director of the district’s Food and Nutrition Services Department, Kim Kilgore plays a critical role in seeing that mission fulfilled, and her job has been far from straightforward over the recent months. As the entire district suddenly shifted to remote learning and operating from home, Kilgore helped make sure that CCSD students maintained access to food. Thanks to regular districtwide distribution events, kids across the K-12 spectrum could count on receiving meals.
Kilgore was instrumental in making sure that operation ran smoothly, an effort that’s only one part of her everyday work to feed a district of more than 55,000 students. Kilgore’s unwavering commitment to feeding every student in the district recently earned her the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, a recognition designed to celebrate members of the CCSD community who show extraordinary commitment to making the district a better place.
Though Kilgore is more apt to shift the focus to the dedicated employees across the Food and Nutrition Services Department rather than accept any credit herself, her work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Nominations from her colleagues and from district supervisors noted her extraordinary investment in her work and her tireless efforts, even in the most difficult circumstances.
“Making sure every student has the nutrition they need to learn is difficult even under the best circumstances, but recent months have offered extraordinary challenges,” said CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried during Kilgore’s remote award presentation. “You’ve worked hard to make sure that all of our kids have the resources they need to be successful, even in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis. That’s the very definition of excellence.”
That commitment predates the current crisis. Under Kilgore’s leadership, the district’s food operations have received top ratings from state inspectors. In December, the CCSD Food and Nutrition Department underwent an administrative review by CDE’s Office of School Nutrition and received commendations regarding everything from menu design to food procurement.
“This kind of quality didn’t just happen over the past two months, as we were preparing for the review. These are measures we take every day at every school across the district,” Kilgore said. “This is our job. All of us work to instill the importance of making a difference every single day. It’s the culmination of always keeping the student in mind.”
Stephen Zhang knows that some of the most valuable learning happens outside the classroom.
Zhang, who’ll kick off his junior year at Cherry Creek High School in the fall, is a diligent student, and he’s committed to making the most of every academic opportunity available at the school. From enrolling in AP classes to participating in multiple clubs, Zhang has made scholarship a priority during his two years at CCHS.
But Zhang has also committed himself to another kind of education, one that’s rooted in his broader community. Most recently, Zhang was at the forefront of a student effort to make a positive difference during the current COVID crisis. Zhang helped coordinate efforts to secure thousands of protective masks and other pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) for local health care workers and CCHS community members. Working with fellow students from Youth Creates, a company dedicated to community activism, Zhang has made a measurable and critical impact during an unprecedented crisis.
“We got overwhelming support from our local communities and people whom we never met,” Zhang said, pointing to the steady response that’s continued since the drive began in March. “Many children donated their personal savings to the cause. It is a very heart-warming collaborative work.”
Zhang wasn’t the only one affected by the outpouring of support. Leaders from Cherry Creek High School and the Cherry Creek School District found inspiration in Zhang’s initiative and compassion, and they wanted to make sure he received proper credit. Zhang is the latest recipient of the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, a recognition designed to celebrate extraordinary actions by members of the CCSD community.
Zhang formally received his award on May 21 during an online meeting that included CCHS Principal Ryan Silva, CCSD Health Services Director Michelle Weinraub and CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried.
“We are so proud of your initiative, your kindness and your commitment to our community,” Siegfried said. “You’ve shown a commitment to excellence in the classroom, but you’ve also shown a dedication to positively impacting your world beyond the CCHS campus. Your work is a perfect example of what excellence means in the district.”
Weinraub echoed the praise, pointing out that Zhang’s work had an inspirational ripple effect across the district. From CCSD’s 80 nurses and 50 health technicians to the warehouse workers who worked firsthand with Zhang to see thousands of masks and PPE pieces distributed effectively, this high school student has had an impact far beyond his campus.
“You’ve made such an impression on us all. I can’t tell you how many times warehouse employees have talked about your work; they have asked me multiple times, ‘Have you met Stephen?’” Weinraub said. “I’m so proud to know you; your work means so much.”
Zhang accepted the praise with humility, and he made sure the other members of his team received their due credit. It was only thanks to teamwork and collaboration that the drive raised more than $44,000, he said. He gave credit to his fellow students, to the broader Chinese community in the Denver metro area – he made sure to mention that his mother was also involved in the drive.
“It wasn’t just me,” Zhang said. “This is such an honor, and it was truly a collective effort.”
Nevertheless, Zhang’s individual determination helped make that collective generosity possible. The drive was organized through Youth Creates, a company that Zhang helped create – he currently serves as its CEO and Web Support technician. The company’s official mission – to “take the initiative to lead youth to create values for the greater society” – helped ignite the effort to connect thousands with sorely needed PPE resources.
According to Silva, that kind of initiative and creativity is typical of Zhang’s approach to his work as a student and a responsible community member.
“Stephen is a well-rounded and complete student,” Silva said. “He does well in the classroom; he challenges himself there, but he also sees the value of being involved in leadership opportunities that can impact that community.
“He embodies the spirit of the school and the district,” Silva added.
Reggie Polk has always made his presence felt at Eastridge Elementary School.
Before the quarantine shifted learning from Eastridge’s physical classrooms to remote spaces, Polk played a key role in making students, teachers and staff alike feel comfortable and confident in the building every day. It’s a role that goes beyond Polk’s official title as Eastridge’s building engineer. In addition to his work handling the daily demands of keeping Eastridge in top functioning order, he brings a deeper, human dedication to the entire Eastridge community.
Indeed, taking care of the physical building is only part of Polk’s approach to his job. He puts just as much care and attention into making the entire Eastridge population feel safe, happy and ready to work and learn.
“Reggie is the sunshine in the day at Eastridge. He is always there with a smile and a willingness to help that would melt even the hardest of hearts,” said Eastridge Principal Amy Cribbs. “Reggie finds a way to make others feel better about asking for his help with anything.”
That investment in the people of Eastridge epitomizes the Cherry Creek School District’s broader commitment to excellence, and it recently earned Polk the Cherry Creek Heroes Award. The honor seeks to recognize those in the CCSD community who go above and beyond through extraordinary actions. According to Cribbs, Polk commits those kinds of actions on a daily basis when school is in session.
“Anyone who doubts that one individual can make a difference hasn’t met Reggie. He is truly a gift beyond words and he is loved, respected and admired by students, staff and families,” Cribbs said. “He rarely takes a day off, but when he does, I don’t have to announce it. Everyone feels his absence so keenly, because Reggie is a true professional and does his job 100 percent every single day.”
Of course, the current circumstances kept Polk from receiving the award in person. During a recent online meeting of Eastridge staff, CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried made a surprise, remote appearance to pay tribute to Reggie and his work for the Eastridge community.
“You are truly a Cherry Creek Hero, Reggie – your work inspires everyone you meet to think, to learn, to achieve, to care. We are so appreciative that you share your gifts with Eastridge and with the Cherry Creek Schools community,” Siegfried said. “We have to be apart because of the current circumstances, but your warmth continues to help the community feel less isolated and more united.”
For his part, Polk gave credit to the broader school community, pointing out that excellence isn’t the result of any one person’s efforts.
“I love being part of the CCSD family,” Polk said.
Linda Doniger knows the importance of making sure that learning is accessible to all students.
As the health tech at Campus Middle School, Doniger is on the front lines of keeping kids healthy and ready to learn. Her commitment to the quality of education at Campus comes from personal experience; a mother of two graduates of the Cherry Creek School District, Doniger counts herself as a dedicated member of the community. Her own ties to the school and the district have helped strengthen her commitment to every student’s health and learning.
This extraordinary dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed by her peers. Earlier this month, Doniger received the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, a recognition designed to celebrate those in the CCSD community who show extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire district.
Due to the constraints of the current moment, Doniger’s award ceremony was virtual. CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried popped up unexpectedly during an online meeting with staff from the district’s Health Department, and he shared tributes from Doniger’s coworkers and fellow Campus Middle School community members.
“Linda is a parent of three Cherry Creek Schools graduates; she came to her work by way of family experience and she shows a real passion to make sure all students can access their education, even if they have chronic health conditions,” Siegfried explained. “She understands the middle schooler and their development so well, and she is an amazing partner working in tandem with her registered nurse partner at one of our incredibly busy middle school clinics.”
Siegfried stressed that Doniger consistently shows a commitment to students of all backgrounds, interests and abilities, an investment that makes the school and the district a better place.
“She performs many delegated tasks and supports the important work with special education students,” Siegfried said. “Linda is always optimistic and tends to find the best in everyone. She models this behavior for her students, staff and families – and for all of us.”
Siegfried used the impromptu award ceremony to offer a similar tribute to the entire Health Services Department.
“You are all my heroes,” Siegfried said. “I want to thank everybody on this call. You make a daily difference for our entire community, and your work during the current crisis has been invaluable.”
For her part, Doniger accepted the praise with silent appreciation. When asked for her response to the award and the communal outpouring of affection, she offered simply, “My eyes are misty.”
Nick Stevens and Huy Tran
The current COVID crisis has posed unique challenges for the Cherry Creek School District’s Information and Technology Department.
As students, teachers and administrators have shifted their everyday work to their homes, CCSD’s IT team has worked tirelessly to find innovative ways to coordinate the effort. In addition to maintaining the district’s vast online networks and resources, the department has collectively helped plan, clean, inventory, prepare and distribute more than 6,400 devices to students and families across the district’s 108 square miles.
Nick Stevens, the district’s manager of IT Service Delivery and Huy Tran, CCSD’s Director of Technology Services, have been at the forefront of that effort, and their contributions were recognized during a ceremony designed to fit the demands of the times. When the district’s IT department logged on to Teams for their weekly meeting on May 1, Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried logged on to formally present Stevens and Tran with the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, a recognition designed to celebrate extraordinary actions by CCSD community members.
Both Stevens and Tran have been integral in helping a district of more than 55,000 students connect with learning, technology and innovation during a pandemic. From first-graders making crucially important educational foundations to high school seniors preparing the final academic work of their K-12 careers, all students have benefitted from the commitment, ingenuity and coordination of Stevens and Tran.
“You are truly Cherry Creek Heroes. This is an unprecedented time for our district, our state, our world, and you’ve been a key part in helping us meet the demands of the moment,” Siegfried said during the online meeting. “You have been an essential part of our continued excellence during these challenging times.”
Though the awards featured Stevens and Tran’s names, Siegfried was careful to point out that their extraordinary efforts were part of a larger effort by the entire IT team.
“Our entire IT staff could qualify as Cherry Creek Heroes over the last five weeks, as we’ve been forced to move rapidly to remote learning. Our entire district has been impacted in numerous ways, and you all have played a key part in helping us persevere,” Siegfried said. “Thanks to all of you for being heroes among heroes.”
The current crisis hasn’t dimmed the light of the heroes in the Cherry Creek School District.
Nicole Mar is one of the most recent recipients of the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, a recognition that celebrates those members of our community who demonstrate extraordinary actions on behalf of the district. Mar is one of four Resource Nurse Coordinators in the district, and her commitment to keeping students safe, healthy and ready to learn started long before the COVID crisis hit.
Mar has just kicked off her fifth year on CCSD’s Health Services Team, and her dedication to excellence has been a constant throughout her tenure with the district. According to CCSD Health Services Director Michelle Weinraub, “Her collaborative efforts between Health Services and Early Childhood Education have been critical to districtwide success with this community, and she was an important leader in developing the now annual ‘Preschool-Palooza,’ which has become a huge success in preparing our youngest families and students for their first Cherry Creek Schools experience.”
Mar supports the nurses and health techs in the Cherokee Trail High School feeder area, as well as all CCSD early childhood nurses. It’s a considerable task for any healthcare professional, but Mar’s expertise, investment and huge heart shine through in every aspect of her daily work in the district. Mar’s brand of medical professionalism and boundless empathy is critical at all times, and especially valuable in our current circumstances.
Although the CCSD community is currently confined to their homes, Mar’s supporters still found a way to celebrate her recognition and her achievements. During an online Health Services meeting held on Friday, April 24, CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried made an appearance to share the good news with Mar and her colleagues. CCSD Heroes ceremonies usually feature a physical awards ceremony, complete with a plaque, balloons and other marks of celebration, but Mar’s recognition took place entirely online.
That didn’t dim the importance of the moment, and it didn’t take away from the genuine gratitude of Mar’s teammates and colleagues.
“You are dedicated to excellence in all that you do,” Siegfried said during the online meeting. “The Cherry Creek Heroes Award recognizes those who go above and beyond in their daily work, and you meet those standards perfectly,” he added, pointing to the fact that Mar is equally at ease fielding a tough phone call from a parent or getting down on her hands and knees to interact with CCSD’s tiniest students.
Mar, who’s a proud resident of the Cherry Creek School District, keeps the health and happiness of all students as a top priority. Her focus, investment and heart have made a concrete difference for the entire community over the past five years, and it’s bound to keep making Cherry Creek Schools a better place in the future.
“Nicole is quietly confident, and she is one of the most empathetic nurses we have,” Weinraub said. “She can help coordinate complex projects assigned to her, while always keeping the student and their well-being at the front of everything she does.”
The past two months have offered a startling sense of perspective for Leslie Navarro-Walker, the Cherry Creek School District’s Homeless, Title I and Community Engagement Liaison.
Like the rest of the CCSD community, Navarro-Walker has seen profound changes to her own daily routine as a result of the restrictions and quarantines stemming from the COVID crisis. But her own personal experience has come along with in-depth, daily views of those in the district who have been impacted in profound and dramatic ways. Navarro-Walker has been on the front lines of the crisis in CCSD, working with students, parents and families as they face trials ranging from food insecurity to domestic violence to homelessness.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Navarro-Walker was en route to buying food for a family facing hard times – the mother was pregnant, and she felt uncomfortable leaving the shelter of her home to buy essentials. Before heading out to secure food for the family, Navarro-Walker insisted that her work in recent weeks has made her see the Cherry Creek School District in an entirely new light.
“This whole experience has opened our eyes to what our families’ needs are,” Navarro-Walker said. “In CCSD, there’s a huge population that’s all over the board socio-economically speaking. It makes me love the district even more; I’ve been able to work with all of these wonderful people of all these backgrounds, cultures and economic situations. It truly takes a village, especially right now, and it’s important that our community’s eyes are open to all of these needs.”
Navarro-Walker isn’t wont to take credit for her recent work in the community – she points instead to the larger, varied district team that includes Assistant Superintendent for Performance Improvement Michael Giles, Director of Food Nutrition Services Kim Kilgore, Chief of Staff Chris Smith, Counseling Coordinator Joi Green, Cherry Creek Schools Foundation Executive Director Jill Henden and countless others who’ve worked hard to ensure that those hit hardest by the crisis have the resources they need to persevere.
Navarro-Walker’s humility aside, her hard work, personal investment and extraordinary kindness haven’t gone unnoticed by her peers. Last week, Navarro-Walker received the Cherry Creek Heroes award, a recognition designed to celebrate those who perform extraordinary actions on behalf of the entire community.
During a virtual meeting with her team members, CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried dropped in to read excerpts from Navarro-Walker’s nomination forms and offer a firsthand note of gratitude for her commitment to the community.
“Leslie has filled countless grocery carts, only to turn around and deliver the food to families who have lost jobs or who do not have the means to go shopping. She has taken trip after trip to homes, hotels, motels and shelters to deliver food, computers and clothes,” Siegfried noted. “She has worked weekends to secure funding to move families, and to ensure that some families did not have to move.”
Navarro-Walker isn’t focused on her own plaudits when she talks about her work. She mentions all the individuals she’s met in the past weeks – the mother and twin boys who had to leave their home due to domestic violence, the family who was living out of their car, the parents and kids who needed assistance to keep their shelter in a hotel room and find food.
“There was a district employee who donated $300 of their stimulus money. With $100 of it, I paid a family’s storage bill,” Navarro-Walker said. “If they lost their storage, that was everything. I made it current so they could start anew.”
As the fallout of the COVID crisis continues, so do these families’ struggles, and Navarro-Walker isn’t interested in taking breaks. She’s been a tireless, mobile presence across the district, working with individuals and families to secure resources from whatever source, whether it be donations from the Cherry Creek Foundation’s Emergency Fund or assistance from the state.
For her, it’s what any good neighbor should do. The Cherry Creek School District community is vast and varied, and Navarro-Walker said she’s inspired by the sense of solidarity that’s emerged from all corners over the past several months. Her recent Cherry Creek Heroes recognition is an afterthought; the community is the priority.
“I want to make sure our families know they can identify their issues with us in a dignified, caring way. These are hard conversations. We are here to help. This is not fun or easy to talk about. I make sure they know they can call or text; whatever is most comfortable,” Navarro-Walker said. “I have a really hard time accepting recognition. There are so many other people who have helped. It’s not just me; it’s a collaborative effort.”
Even so, Leslie Navarro-Walker’s commitment has inspired many to be a part of that collaboration on behalf of the entire Cherry Creek Schools community.
PJ Robinson just knew that he wanted to give back.
Robinson, now a sophomore at Cherry Creek High School, had come to the school from Prairie Middle School. Though he arrived from a different feeder area, Robinson quickly set about making CCHS his home. He made that effort in the standard ways – excelling in athletics, paying close attention to his schoolwork and making new friends. But Robinson also made a place for himself through selflessness and generosity.
Robinson, an accomplished track athlete in his own right, traveled to neighboring Campus Middle School after his own classes ended to work with the school’s budding track athletes. Robinson gave his own time on a regular basis to work directly with CMS students as they worked to hone their skills as athletes. Robinson easily took on the roles of coach, mentor and role model, working with the middle schoolers to improve their times on the track and to help foster a positive attitude about working hard.
Robinson’s impact on the students was immediate and profound. They were among the many supporters who nominated Robinson for the Cherry Creek Heroes award, and they pointed to the positive effect his presence had on their approach to their sport: “He really helped me with my starts. He taught me so much this year,” wrote one student. Another noted that “it was awesome having someone to look up to. He helped me feel more confident. I can't wait to do track at Creek next year with him as my teammate.”
A group of friends, family, teachers and administrators gathered at CMS on Nov. 5 for a surprise ceremony celebrating Robinson’s contributions. Among those who met in the library to surprise him were his mother Shauna Robinson, CMS staff and CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried, who presented Robinson with the inaugural CCSD Heroes award.
“We want to thank you for all you’ve done for CMS and for our district,” Siegfried said. “Thank you for being a hero.”
Robinson took in the praise with a broad grin. He thanked Dr. Siegfried, the CMS staff and gave his mother a huge bear hug. In the end, he said, the inspiration for his work with the CMS students came from his own experience as a middle school student, when he was fortunate enough to find older students to look up to.
“I looked up to the older kids, and their help meant a lot to me,” Robinson said. “This recognition means everything to me – I was not at all expecting it. I hope to come back next year.”
The CMS crew quickly stepped in to hint that Robinson didn’t have much choice in the matter. Teachers, staff and students all want him back to resume his role as a coach, a mentor and a CCSD Hero.
Tina Snider was amazed at how easily the 6-year-old with the bright smile and the big dimples could pull off a somewhat unorthodox hairstyle.
The particular hairdo was as minimal as one could get; indeed, Jade, a student at Village East Elementary had shaved her head completely bald. Snider, a teacher librarian at the school, knew that she’d taken the step because of alopecia, a condition that can cause baldness. Even so, Snider was struck by the student’s beauty and radiance, even after the big change.
When Snider learned that Jade’s new look had drawn some unkind responses from peers, she took it personally. Snider wanted to take action to teach the entire school lessons about alopecia specifically, as well as general lessons about the value of kindness and encouragement in everyday interactions.
“I wanted to turn it into a lesson for the entire school,” Snider said. “It was a chance to teach the kids how to be kind and how to be complimentary.”
To kick off that effort, Snider reached out directly to the young girl who’d made such an impression on her. Snider wanted to shave her own head in solidarity, and as soon as she received the green light from the student and her parents, she headed to a Great Clips close to Village East.
“Jade and her family were right there with me,” Snider said from the Village East Innovation Space. Snider’s hair was just beginning to come back. “After we were finished, Jade said, ‘You look just like me.’”
Schoolwide discussions about bullying, compliments and kindness followed, as did a special photo shoot with Jade. Snider, who’s a professional photographer when she’s not working at Village East, gave the 6-year-old the chance to show offer her infectious smile for the camera.
These efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Snider’s daughter, Dani, who works as a teacher’s assistant at the school, submitted her mother’s name for CCSD Heroes, a new district awards program that honors those in the Cherry Creek Schools community who contribute in a variety of ways. Snider was one of the first recipients of the award, and CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried dropped by the school on Nov. 13 to formally recognize her during a surprise ceremony.
“Your lessons to Village East students about the value of empathy are what this district is all about,” Siegfried said. “We thank you for your extraordinary action, and for making the school a kinder place for all students.”
A temporary fix wasn’t good enough for Ben Sadler.
The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s deputy had already spent nearly an hour in the frigid cold, using boot laces, tape, bailing wire and other improvised tools to fix the 40 American flags that had been set up outside of Grandview High School. The flags, placed on the road outside Grandview to commemorate the school’s Veterans Week celebration, had been covered, obstructed and knocked over by the significant snow and wind that had hit the night before. Sadler was finishing his night shift in the early hours of Nov. 11 when he’d heard about the tribute, and decided to fix the array before the first student showed up on a chilly Monday morning.
Using materials he found on his person, in his patrol car and on the ground, Sadler had saved the display by about 6 a.m. through sheer resourcefulness and ingenuity. By the time he wrapped up his work, however, he knew the bailing wire and boot laces wouldn’t hold for the rest of day, let alone the entire week.
That’s why he decided to come back and finish the job. Sadler formally finished his shift, picked up hardier materials and headed back to the school to make sure the flags wouldn’t fall again. He spent another 45 minutes securing his initial work with zip ties and other durable materials that would hold up.
That effort earned Sadler recognition as a Cherry Creek Hero, a new district recognition program designed to celebrate any member of the CCSD community who contributes in a wide variety of ways. CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried formally presented Sadler with the award during a ceremony at the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office on Dec. 9, praising the deputy’s initiative as “a perfect example of what it means to be a Cherry Creek Hero.”
Sadler accepted the award with humility, admitting that his first response to the honor was bewilderment.
“My first reaction, honestly, was that I don’t really deserve an award,” Sadler said. “To me, picking up the flags was just something that needed to be done, plain and simple. At first, I felt like I was getting an award for just doing what you’re supposed to do.”
Sadler’s sense of duty when it comes to paying proper respect to the symbols of American freedom and service have a lot to do with his own personal story. The son of a Vietnam War veteran whose life was cut short due to the aftereffects of the deadly Agent Orange chemical used on the battlefield, Sadler was raised with a sense of solemn respect and duty when it came to acknowledging the contributions of the country’s military service members.
Indeed, as Sadler was finishing up the graveyard shift in the early morning hours of Veterans Day, the import and weight of the holiday was foremost on his mind.
“My father was a Vietnam veteran, and often times, those service members did not get the appreciation they deserved during that time period,” Sadler said. “Veterans Day is a very hard day for me, because it was my father’s favorite holiday. I knew the flags were out there, because I’d seen them on my way into work.”
It was when Sadler was helping scrape the ice off the windshields of his coworkers’ cars at the Sheriff’s Department that he’d heard that the flag display had been hit hard by the weather, and he decided to take action.
“For me, it was almost a way of saying ‘Thank you’ to the school for doing something so nice for our veterans,” said Sadler, whose resume includes stints as a high school teacher. “It’s very personal to me. Seeing a school and an entire district honoring our veterans, it makes me tear up. My father never got that kind of tribute, and I know how important it is.”
As Sadler accepted the Cherry Creek Hero award and received firsthand thanks from Siegfried, Grandview Principal Lisa Roberts, CCSD Chief of Staff Chris Smith and other district officials, his thoughts were with his father. He beamed as he hefted the award and smiled broadly at the universal praise, but he still seemed to be adjusting to the honor.
“I don’t consider myself a hero,” he admitted. “My father – he was the hero.”
Frank Sargent is quick to point out that he’s the talkative type.
Luckily, he’s got plenty to talk about. In 1978, Frank and his wife Sherri Sargent were parents of Cherry Creek School District students, and they were looking for a way to stay informed about what was happening across the system. The Sargents worked to create the Parents Information Network, a group that’s flourished over its 40-plus year history.
Frank Sargent is full of stories and perspectives from those four decades spent as an active and engaged member of the Cherry Creek School District. Long after his own children graduated, Sargent remained a thoughtful, concerned and generous member of the CCSD community. Even after his wife Sherri passed away, Frank remained committed to the cause that had always been so close to her heart. He still makes a point of attending P.I.N. meetings and speaking on behalf of the district’s 55,000-plus students.
“What began as an informal gathering of a few parents has developed into an important organization for everyone in Cherry Creek Schools,” Sargent said at the opening of the P.I.N. meeting held on Jan. 14 at the Fremont Building. “Individual schools had PTOs, and they didn’t get the benefit of seeing what was going on across the district. We got buy-in from the superintendent at the time; the feedback was so good, and it just grew from there.”
Frank Sargent’s decades of engagement and selflessness have won the admiration of many around the district, including the district’s current superintendent. Indeed, Dr. Scott Siegfried was on hand at the meeting on Jan. 14 to personally thank Frank Sargent for his years of service, and to present him with the Cherry Creek Heroes Award, a recognition that celebrates those who’ve committed extraordinary actions on behalf of the community.
“Frank, you are my hero,” Siegfried said simply, as Frank Sargent’s grown children looked on. “You are a living example of what it takes to be excellent. You’re an institution in the Cherry Creek School District.”
Janice McNally, CCSD’s Wellness Coordinator, offered similar praise in Frank Sargent’s official Cherry Creek Hero nomination form.
“Frank’s kind eyes, warm smile, generous spirit and wisdom positively impact any and all who are fortunate to be in his sphere,” she wrote.
Those qualities were in full display as Sargent accepted his award with no small amount of humility and grace. He had reported to the meeting expecting only to offer insights about the history of P.I.N. and its significance for the community. Instead, past and present district parents alike were on hand to thank him for decades of service to the community.
For a rare moment, Frank Sargent was speechless.
Being an adequate runner helped Dwayne Johnson pass a critical test with a student who needed a friend.
The key was being an adequate runner, and not a superlative track star. Johnson, a security guard at the Joliet Learning Center, ran just fast enough to pursue an active and energetic student. Johnson never managed to catch him, and that was what helped earn the trust, admiration and friendship of a young man who was starting out on a new path.
The chase began when Cameron Dolan started classes at Joliet earlier in the 2019-20 school year. Dolan, 14, had just returned to the Cherry Creek School District after spending three years at an out-of-district school for students with special needs; Dolan has autism, and according to his mother, he doesn’t immediately warm up to new people.
Johnson helped overcome those boundaries with a simple game of chase. During recess, Johnson ran after Dolan, who always managed to elude him. The daily pursuit offered the 14-year-old valuable physical exercise, as well as an outlet for energy. More importantly, it built trust with an engaged adult who wanted to see Dolan succeed in a new environment.
When Dolan’s mother first heard that her son had been chased on the first day of school by a security guard, she was concerned. But as soon as she learned that the pursuit had all been in good fun, she realized how beneficial and important it had been for her son. She wanted to recognize Johnson for his extraordinary effort in making Cameron feel welcome in a new environment.
“I love that Mr. Johnson helps Cameron get the exercise he needs and helps him have fun while he does it,” she wrote on Johnson’s official nomination form for the Cherry Creek Hero Award, a new district recognition program designed to celebrate any member of the CCSD community who contributes in a wide variety of ways.
Johnson officially received that award during a surprise ceremony held at Joliet on Jan. 28. Cameron Dolan and his mother were in attendance, as were dozens of students who’d also been impacted by Johnson’s kindness and investment. CCSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Siegfried was also on hand to celebrate Johnson’s extraordinary action.
“Dwayne, your kindness and your ability to reach students on a personal level proves that our work doesn’t end in the classroom,” Siegfried said. “You are making a real difference for our students’ learning, health and happiness every day, and that makes you a Cherry Creek Hero.”
Cameron has since moved on to the ILC program at Smoky Hill High School, and his friendship with Johnson has helped him come out of his shell and make new connections.
“He chased me a lot,” Cameron told the crowd assembled at Joliet, before Johnson replied, “I almost caught you several times.”
For Johnson, who also runs outside programs designed to reach at-risk kids, the recognition from the Dolans was high point.
“It just means so much to me,” Johnson said, as students clamored to get a high-five from their favorite security guard. “You never know what kind of impact a simple gesture can make.”