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Klamath Falls
July 12, 2024

Meet KCSD’s Crystal Apples

Klamath County School District’s 2019 Crystal Apple Awardees personify the highest example of educators who go above and beyond to inspire, educate and help students. Five teachers and three classified staff were nominated and awarded the top honor this year and will be recognized Tuesday at the KCSD’s annual Crystal Apple Awards Gala. Glen Szymoniak, superintendent of the Klamath County School District, said the district is an amazing place for staff and students.

“Throughout the district, staff members are dedicated to empowering all learners,” he said. “Their passion for positively shaping students’ futures inspires students to use their talents to improve their school and community. The Crystal Apple Awards represent a meaningful way to recognize and thank those who inspire others.”

Glen Szymoniak, Superintendent Klamath County School District

Originally the Crystal Apple Awardees were only nominated by school administrators. In 2017, the district opened the nomination process to staff and students and continued that tradition this year. The Klamath County School District is honoring its best with the seventh annual Crystal Apple Awards.

The eight awardees for 2019 are:

Business teacher, FBLA advisor
Mazama High School, 4 years with KCSD

Sergio Cisneros remembers taking keyboarding at Mazama High School, literally in the same classroom, staring at the same brick wall that his students do today. The Crystal Apple award winner, now a business teacher and FBLA advisor at his alma mater, uses his experiences – and his struggles – as a way to inspire and establish common ground among the teenagers who are dealing with the same issues he dealt with a decade ago.

“I was a student who went to Mazama High School, who faced similar challenges, who knows what it means to be a student in a rural community,” Cisneros said, “and I can identify with their challenges and their struggles.”

Sergio Cisneros

Cisneros, 28, was nominated for the Crystal Apple award by six former and current students who described him as inspirational, a selfless leader, a role model, an anchor and the ultimate resource for every student.

“Through his stories and experiences, he has shown us that anyone can achieve their goals, despite hardships and background,” writes Mazama senior Tuyen Tran. “I am not a business student or an FBLA member, yet he has spent his weekends, time after school and work, and prep periods to help me write scholarship essays that will help me get a step closer to achieving my goals.”

Tuyen Tran

Senior Gordon McCreadie, an FBLA officer, and a business student wrote: “Every teacher is to some extent an apple. But not all are crystal apples. …the most valuable crystals in the world require extensive time and the perfect circumstances to form. As a result, they are rare. Mr. Cisneros of Mazama High School is the embodiment of a crystal apple.”

Cisneros learned English in elementary school, motivated by his desire to read Pokemon cards. His family owns and operates Sergio’s Mexican Restaurant, where he worked growing up. After high school, he went to college, studied political science and economics and after graduating and working for a time, returned to Klamath Falls before applying to law school.

After picking up what he thought would be a temporary substitute teaching gig, he realized he had found his calling and has been teaching business and leadership skills to high school students ever since. At Mazama, he is an FBLA advisor and a key organizer of the annual Klamath Community College Business Skills Academy. He also volunteers as a youth soccer referee and was involved in the community-wide effort to successfully obtain the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant.

Cisneros says every day he learns more about himself and about teaching.

“I have always been a person who has valued a growth mindset when it comes to education,” he said. “I tell my students, ‘You’re not competing against anyone else here, you’re focusing on you – where you’re starting and where you want to finish, and my job is to help you get from where you are now to where you want to be.’ ”

Sergio Cisneros

Bus Driver, Bonanza Schools
7 years with KCSD

“There are better ways to pass things forward,” Bonanza bus driver Willem DeJong informed a fifth-grader who had tossed an item to a classmate. Then he turned, smiling at another student who called his name. DeJong, 42, who also is a pastor at Bonanza Community Church and community youth group leader, believes he is where he is supposed to be: Driving school bus for 68 students who attend Bonanza Schools.

“I had this strange desire to drive a school bus, and it wouldn’t go away,” he said. “I think God was trying to tell me something.”

The Crystal Apple Award winner has been driving the bus for the Klamath County School District since 2012. His 211-mile daily route (100-plus miles in the morning and again in the afternoon) includes Bly, Beatty, and part of Sprague River. He starts at 5:15 a.m., picking up his first students at 6:15 a.m. He knows the area well – he was born and raised in Bonanza and attended and graduated from Bonanza Schools. The current high school principal, Art Ochoa, was his English teacher. Ochoa, elementary school principal Jennifer Hayes and vice principal Heather Wright joined nominated DeJong for the Crystal Apple.

“Willem is so much more than a bus driver,” they wrote, adding that he is on a first name basis with his students and most of the families because he takes the time to get to know and connect with them. “He takes the time to sit down and talk with students about concerns or issues they have … it is Willem’s desire that all students feel heard, valued and respected. His ability to communicate with staff, students and families is superb and greatly appreciated.”

DeJong volunteers hundreds of hours in the community and at the school, serving as an ASPIRE and Bonanza CARES volunteer, a mentor for local youth through youth group organizations and chaperoning students on field trips, they said. He also supports students by attending school activities and sporting events.

He chatted with elementary students the other day as they waited for the older students to join them. He smiles and joked about his job, but it was apparent he enjoyed what he does.

“I think we’re all a little bit crazy,” he said of school bus drivers. “Just in terms of driving around a 42-foot-long metal tube full of children on much-to-be-desired roads at times.”

He is a runner and has run a marathon by nowadays logs about 20 to 25 miles a week. He spends his free time studying as part of his work as a pastor and with a program called Youth for Christ.

“I love kids so I think my job is great. I enjoy the people I work with, and I love this place,” he said. “You try to imagine a world without kids and that’s just one miserable world.”

Resource special education teacher
Brixner Junior High School, 12 years with KCSD

There is one word special education teacher Robin De Long will not tolerate in her classroom.

“I don’t believe in the word can’t,” she said. “In fact, I’ll say, ‘I heard a dirty word’ if I hear the word can’t. The kids work with face challenges, but they’re very capable so I’m always looking for the positive, helping them develop confidence and to believe in themselves. My job is to help them figure out how they learn so they can go on to be the best that they can be.”

De Long, 57, is in her 12th year with the Klamath County School District and her fourth year as a resource special education teacher at Brixner Junior High School. She was nominated for the Crystal Apple by two co-workers, both teachers who say her tireless work allows her students to thrive and find the best educational route for each one.

“The growth each student has as a result of her continuous encouragement is apparent and easily recognized by the students themselves and her coworkers,” said Adrianne Morgan, a teacher at Brixner Junior High School. “She is at work before anyone else and leaves after everyone is gone. Robin is a constant advocate for her students … she works with other teachers and parents to determine the best possible route to success for each student.”

Aaron Von Tersch, the social studies teacher at Brixner, called De Long one of the most motivated teachers he’s ever had the pleasure of working with. “She is always willing to go the extra mile to modify and accommodate for the needs of each individual in her classroom,” he said. “Robin’s ideas on accountability and growth allow her students to find their best selves every day.”

Before entering the teaching field, De Long worked as a child abuse forensic interviewer for CARES in Klamath Falls and as a child welfare worker for the state Department of Human Services.

As a resource teacher, she teaches all subjects but specializes in reading and writing. “This is a dream job,” she said. “It’s just such a privilege to come and work with kids every day, and it’s such a positive way to touch their lives in a meaningful way.”

“It is truly a privilege to be a teacher,” she added. “I thank parents for trusting me to work with their kids. I thank my students who come every day and give me their very best and work their hardest.”

Head teacher, Klamath County Transition Program
4 years with KCSD

Since Randy Denson took over as head teacher of the Klamath County Transition Program three years ago, its
students have become part of the Klamath Falls community, operating businesses such as Jo2Go, a coffee art; Clean Sweep, janitorial service for the city of Klamath Falls; and Lunch Box Catering, a meal delivery program.
And the community has noticed. Denson was nominated for the Crystal Apple award by both a co-worker and parents of young adults in his program.

Vincent and Edith Vieyra, who have two sons in the program, called Denson “innovative, a visionary and tireless.”

“Our boys are a testament to what is possible for the special education population to achieve. As parents, we will be forever grateful,” they said. “Mr. Denson, with his staff, has created an incredible environment to springboard his students into lives of well-rounded, prepared and confident adults.”

The program, which Klamath County School District took over five years ago, teaches independent living and job skills to adults ages 18 to 21 with moderate to severe disabilities. In addition to their businesses, students are involved in town meetings, leading the Pledge of Allegiance. They volunteer at the animal shelter and are involved in sports activities. They learn to cook and experience the joy of community service.

Chris Rajnus, a paraprofessional who works closely with Denson in the program, wrote in her nomination: “He took a program with little direction and made it an outstanding program with opportunities for young adults to flourish … They grow by learning and doing.”

Denson, a 2010 Klamath Union High School graduate, as a youth volunteer in his mother’s special education classroom. He then went to college, studied special education, got his teaching degree and started his career as a resource/special education at Henley Middle School. He was there one year before taking over the KCTP. Currently, there are 25 young adults in the program.

“We’re always trying to figure out other places in the community where we can be and what opportunities they have that can teach us,” he said. “What I enjoy most are the events like the Starstruck dance. I call it my favorite time of the year. It’s nice to see you made a connection with your students to watch them grow and hear about how they’ve improved with their independent living skills at home. That’s when you know the program itself is making a difference.”

“Randy truly believes that all students can succeed,” said Laura Blair, the district’s director of special education. “He assists, not directs, the students, athletes and young adults that he works with to find their path and create a plan.”

Denson said his philosophy is simple: “It’s inclusion with everyone in special ed.” “When I first came into Transition I thought it’s all about getting jobs, it’s all about teaching them this and that, but it’s really about experience,” he said. “I preach to our staff that if we can just have three years of a student having the best experience they can, those create opportunities for them after the program.”

School home consultant, Migrant, EL Families
29 years with KCSD

Vitalina (Vita) Hernandez-Malakar, a school-home consultant for migrant and EL students and families, 29 years with KCSD Vitalina Hernandez-Malakar, KCSD’s only school-home consultant for English language learners and migrant students and their families, can sum up why she does what she does in three words: “I’m their voice.”
“I’m the connection between the home and the school for our migrant ELL families,” she explained. “I’m advocating for them.”

Malakar, who moved to Klamath County from Mexico at the age of 14, now speaks three languages – Spanish, French and English. She was nominated for the Crystal Apple by Angela Wallin, vice principal of Lost River Junior-Senior High School.

“Vita is a role model, especially for Hispanic students in our district,” Wallin said. “She always emphasizes the importance of receiving an education and the difference it has made in her own life. … For many students, she is their advocate from kindergarten through graduation. She continuously builds encouraging, mentoring relationships with students and their families. I credit her for many students preserving through challenges to earn a diploma.

Wallin added: “Her presence and ability to connect with our Spanish-speaking families increase parent participation at our events because they know they will have access to the content.”

Malakar assists Spanish speaking and migrant families throughout the district with school registration and helps them connect to programs and resources both in the schools and their communities. When families are unable to transport their children to needed medical appointments, she provides transportation and interprets for families if needed. She also makes home visits on behalf of the schools. She frequently participates in IEP (individual education plan) meetings, interpreting and translating complex education jargon and test results in a manner that parents can understand.

The 52-year-old graduated from Lost River Junior-Senior High School in 1985 and started working for the district in 1990 as a paraprofessional at Merrill. She has worked in her current position for the past 18 years; she also is the secretary for the district’s migrant summer school program. Malakar understands from personal experience the needs of migrant families and English language learners.

“When I first came I didn’t speak a word of English,” she said. “Back then we didn’t have the ELL programs or they were very limited, but had to learn to English if I was to survive and communicate.” She did so listening to English being spoken around her in the classroom and by watching television. In high school, she took French language classes and easily picked up that language.

Malakar enjoys her job because of the families she helps and the long-lasting relationships she’s able to establish. “Through the years I’ve been very blessed to meet a lot of families — families from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and of course Mexico,” Malakar said. “It’s been great to see kids graduate who I’ve known since they were little, and now many of them have families of their own. “I love my job. Working with these families and being their voice, and seeing these students grow and become someone, that’s my reward.”

Fourth-grade teacher
Shasta Elementary School, 5 years with KCSD

Dena Morosin, a fourth-grade teacher at Shasta Elementary School, 5 years with KCSD Dena Morosin is one of the most requested teachers by parents at Shasta Elementary School. She also is the person other educators rely on for training in Google Classroom and the classroom funding site Donors Choose.

“She goes above and beyond on a daily basis, and she’s about as innovative and as passionate a teacher I’ve ever seen,” said Randy Rose, principal at Shasta Elementary School. “She’s constantly doing things that are above and beyond for parents and staff. She’s very passionate about education in general. Her toolbox is full.”
Morosin, 46, who teaches fourth-grade at Shasta, was nominated for the Crystal Apple Award by Stephanie Harris, a teacher at Mazama High School.

“Dena is a dynamic educator who not only impacts and inspires her students but other educators as well,” Harris said. “She uses technology and old-fashioned teaching techniques to engage all learners. She donates her time to Mazama High School’s Kindness Club projects, and she also volunteers to help new and seasoned teachers.” Harris added: “Denainspires me to be a better teacher by promoting kindness and empathy amongst different schools. She has taught me to use technology to help my students.”

Morosin has taught elementary school for 19 years, the last five in the Klamath County School District. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said “I’ve worked in a lot of different careers, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. I get up every day and want to come to work.”

Work for her is teaching 22 fourth-graders math, reading, writing and social studies as well as life lessons such as goal setting and perseverance. “It literally is a different adventure every single day,” she said. “I want to cover the standards and make sure they are getting the material they need, but I want them to have fun doing it, and I want to be able to tie in the life lessons that they need to have also.”

Her students the last several years have been involved in a program called Classroom Champions, which connects the class with an Olympic athlete. That athlete (this year it is Olympic bobsledder Carlo Valdez), through monthly videos and live chats, mentors the students on goal setting and leadership, among other character-building skills.

“Perseverance is a big one in our class,” she said. The class has two sayings that relate to that lesson — “Got grit?” and “The struggle is real.”

“That’s when real learning happens when you’re struggling,” Morosin explained “If things come really easy to you then you’re not learning so “the struggle is real” is a big part of my classroom.”

CHRIS RAJNUS Paraprofessional/substitute teacher Klamath Co. Transition Program, 10 years with KCSD

Chris Rajnus had never made soap before, but that didn’t stop her from teaching young adults in the Klamath County Transition Program. “Skylar, can you go ahead and boil some water?” she asks one of the students. As Skylar starts his task, she lets each of her students smell the shea butter that they will turn into scented bars of soap.

The school district’s Transition Program teaches independent living and job skills to adults ages 18-21 with severe-to-moderate disabilities. It is Rajnus’ fifth year as a paraprofessional and substitute teacher with the program. Her job is to help students learn those life skills and she supervises the students as they operate the program’s business – it’s coffee carts, Jo2Go, and janitorial service, Clean Sweep. She helps students learn everyday life skills as well, such as hygiene and how to do laundry.

Nancy Denson, special programs principal, nominated Rajnus for the Crystal Apple award for her ability to help young adults with disabilities lead productive, happy lives.

“She has a great sense of humor and is patient, but holds students to high expectations,” Denson wrote. “She’s learned some sign language to be able to communicate and takes care of the most basic needs we take for granted. She is always professional and so respectful of these students and always, always treats them with dignity.”

When asked to describe her job, Rajnus answered immediately: “Awesome.” “The kids make my job,” she added. “If I can’t smile and laugh a handful of times during the day, then I’m doing something wrong. To see one success whether it’s small or large … it makes my day. … Some take a little longer to process and some just need different ways to learn, so my philosophy is to come and see what the day brings. Every day I’m going to try and teach or figure out a different way to get them to understand.”

Rajnus, 43, is a Bonanza Junior-Senior High School graduate. Before finding her calling working with Transition students, she worked as a janitor at Bonanza Schools and in the kitchen at Henley Middle School. She was a one-on-one paraprofessional at Henley High School for three years before taking her current position.
In addition to her work at the Transition Program, Rajnus volunteers with an adult social group; fundraises for and volunteers at youth sporting events; and volunteers for extra activities for students, including the Snowflake Parade, dances, and graduation day activities.

Kindergarten teacher
Peterson Elementary School, 22 years with KCSD

Geralyn Smith has spent 28 years teaching kindergarten, the last 20 at Peterson Elementary School. She is known for meeting the individual needs of each student as well as fostering lifelong learning in her students.

”I believe when a child enters (the classroom), they give me their best part and I try to move from there,” she said. “I try to find the best part in every kid, and hopefully I can use their skills to guide them to become a lifelong learner.”

Jill O’Donnell, a Klamath County School Board, and retired kindergarten teacher, nominated Smith for the Crystal Apple award. “To visit her classroom is an opportunity to observe children engaged in meaningful and joyful learning,” O’Donnell said. “She is a very conscientious and dynamic teacher … she is respectful of each student and fosters respect in the children for each other.”

As a staff member, Smith is actively involved in various roles, serving on Peterson Elementary School’s PBIS and safety teams. She also is a member of the district’s Academic Freedom Committee. Smith recently served on a state-level committee evaluating changes in the Oregon Kindergarten Assessment, which is given to all kindergarten students in the fall. She is actively involved in the Klamath County Education Association’s union as an RA delegate.

She has been a member of the Klamath Chapter of the Oregon Association of Education of Young Children since 1993 and has helped plan, assist and conduct workshops at the chapter’s annual Early Childhood Conference. Smith also is instrumental in the planning and success of the Children’s Learning Fair, which is attended by more than 600 young children and their families each year.

Smith, 57, grew up in Dodge, Neb., and before moving to Oregon, taught in Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa.
She has been an educator for 37 years. Of those, she’s spent 28 years teaching kindergarten, three years teaching third grade and six years as an early intervention specialist. She started at the Klamath County School in 1997, teaching for two years at Stearns Elementary School before moving to Peterson.

“My job is to have children love learning and to be curious about learning, and of course, to get all those skills –their letters, their sounds, and their numbers, and blending sounds and making words. We want them reading by the end of the kindergarten year,” she said. “It’s a big thing. And social skills have to go in with all of that – turn-taking, using the right tone of voice, being nice to their friends. All that stuff goes along with academic learning.”

Travis Fast, principal at Peterson Elementary School, called Smith a distinguished teacher and an outstanding staff member. “She is a very nurturing kindergarten teacher and does a great job developing quality character traits in our students,” he said.

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