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Jason Kurtenbach

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Matthew Lee

Based on an enthusiastic recommendation from Kristine Franco, a member of San Marino High School’s counseling staff, senior Matthew Lee was named the Rotary Club of San Marino’s student of the month for February.
And for good reason. Lee has a glittering dossier, topped by his recent acknowledgement as a National Merit Finalist, thus remaining in the competition for some 7,600 National Merit Scholarships worth more than $30 million.
The son of Yun (George) Li and Linda Jing Yang, Matthew is also the engineering president of Titanium Robotics team at SMHS and captain of the school’s math and science teams.
For the past year, Lee has also operated a group called TitanHacks, where he manages sponsorships and event planning for a what are called “hackathons,” where programmers team up to create original projects. With the leftover funds, TitanHacks operates a weekly food drive with the First Baptist Church of Alhambra.

Lena Richter

The San Marino Unified School District has hired Lena Richter as executive director of educational services.
Richter comes from the Glendale Unified School District, where she most recently worked as the director of categorical programs and interventions, a role in which she was responsible for coordinating and leading professional development in curriculum, instruction and program compliance review.

Photo by Mitch Lehman / TRIBUNE
San Marino High School physics and government teacher Scott Barton prefers to deliver lessons from his large classroom rather than instructing from home during the era of “distance learning” that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.

September at San Marino High School is typically accompanied by flocks of young people scurrying here and there, the notion of the return to classes and activities still fresh enough to provide mountains of optimism before everything begins to settle into a familiar groove.
But at least for a while, much is new: teachers, clothes, classmates and other things that might include vague concepts such as academic expectations and opportunities. Much if not all of the previous experience with this time of year, however, has been altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which might have affected education more than any of the nation’s institutions.
Where classrooms once buzzed with activity, computer screens now hum from muffled isolation, as students and teachers adapt to distance learning, which was introduced locally on the apocalyptic date of Friday, March 13.
Once the most active part of the educational process, teachers, counselors and aides have been relegated to the familiar role in an adolescent’s life of images on a screen. But with the task of providing a consistent opportunity for learning in an unfamiliar setting, teachers have looked for unique ways to strike the match of inspiration.
“It’s really about finding ways to be creative,” said Scott Barton, who is in his 14th year of teaching physics and government at SMHS. “And a lot of them are small.”

Photo by Mitch Lehman / TRIBUNE
Despite distance learning, Jason Kurtenbach is excited to begin his tenure as San Marino High School’s principal.

The first-day smiles exchanged by teachers and students were filtered through hundreds of miles of satellite transmission, but Jason Kurtenbach, San Marino High School’s first-year principal, was nevertheless enthusiastic about the first day of the 2020-21 school year.
It arrived on Wednesday without the typical array of ceremonial accompaniments such as the Senior Breakfast and Link Crew Welcome Assembly, but Kurtenbach is dedicated to making the best of the bad and lingering situation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. With 2½ months to reassess the pros and cons of distance learning, Kurtenbach is looking forward to turning the page.

San Marino Unified school board President C. Joseph Chang, graduating senior Madeleine Haddad, former Principal Issaic Gates and Superintendent Jeff Wilson — all wearing face masks in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — celebrated San Marino High’s class of 2020 at the school’s first “drive-thru” graduation ceremony last Friday.
Photo by Erin Rodick / TRIBUNE

It’s difficult to imagine a high school that celebrates graduation with more panache than San Marino High, with its glittering grounds, custom-made Grad Nights and community-wide sense of anticipation.
And last Friday morning, tasked with creating an efficient, safe yet meaningful ceremony for the class of 2020, approximately 40 teachers, counselors, board of education members, administrators and community volunteers pulled off a more than representative facsimile of the annual event.
Well over 200 of the 280 graduates took advantage of the drive-thru commencement format that has become so popular due to the restrictions forced upon the communities by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Graduates and their families decorated their cars with paint, balloons and other creative touches to provide a small slice of normalcy to the proceedings. Participants arrived at SMHS according to a predetermined schedule, cruising up the west drive of the campus, where they were met by staff members and led to an area where in short order, they heard their name announced over a loudspeaker, received their diploma and took a series of photos. Family members, who were required to remain in their vehicles, followed along, and were able to snap photos from a safe distance.
Staff members Jose Cairé, David Irie and Terry Murphy formulated the plan, which was met with approval by graduates and family members alike.
“Driving up to the ceremony, I could feel all of the love and celebratory energy from all of the faculty, staff and administrators who were present,” said Ashley Wang, outgoing ASB president, who will soon begin her studies at UC Davis. “The logistics were extremely well planned and gave the class of 2020 an opportunity to celebrate a huge milestone in a way that was safe for all. In addition, seeing everyone one last time after an abrupt end to the academic year was super refreshing and rewarding.

Credit the organizers of San Marino High School’s Grad Night for, among other things, persistence, even though they eventually weren’t quite able to find Nemo.
In the end, it was announced last Friday afternoon that a Grad Night for SMHS’ graduating class of 2020 isn’t going to happen for now.
“It pretty much came down to an order from [Gov. Gavin Newsom last week] that you could not have that many people around each other,” said San Marino Police Chief John Incontro. A recent resurgence in cases of COVID-19 has forced health officials to backpedal on plans to loosen restrictions on gatherings, and SMHS’ iconic, all-night graduation party — which this year had been dubbed “Finding Nemo” — paid the price.
Event co-chairs Michele Carter, Jane Chon, Jennifer Chuang and Beth Davis had held out hope for a Friday, July 31, Grad Night accompanied by some form of graduation ceremony. Workers had recently been putting the finishing touches on the set before the new restrictions were announced.
The school is now planning a drive-thru graduation ceremony on July 31, and Grad Night has been rescheduled as a class reunion and is slated for Saturday, July 3, 2021. The new event will be called “Celebrating Nemo: Swim Home in 2021.” As before, it will include dinner, music, entertainment, the casino, games, prizes, rides and activities at the all-night party. This one, however, will be a little more reunion and a little less farewell.
On July 31, SMHS graduates are invited to partake in the drive-thru graduation procession, which will be confined to the campus and surrounding area. Graduates each will be able to drive or ride in their car across the running track, leave the vehicle for a photo, and pick up their diploma and yearbook.
“We are of course disappointed we were unable to bring a more typical graduation experience to our class of 2020 due to the restrictions and guidance of our county authorities,” said SMHS Principal Jason Kurtenbach. “However, we will do our best to make the drive-thru graduation experience on July 31 unique and special as a final farewell to this amazing class.”
In answering surveys throughout the spring, members of the class of 2020 held out for in-person events, even if it meant delaying them beyond scheduled dates. In fact, many voted for Grad Night to take place over the holiday break in December 2020.
The 2021 version of 2020 Grad Night will piggyback, slightly, on the 2021 Grad Night event. Davis said the funds donated for Grad Night 2020 will remain in an account to be held for the reunion party in 2021.
“We have worked hard and stayed committed up to this week to provide the class of 2020 a traditional Grad Night on July 31, 2020, but the public health restrictions just don’t allow us to provide anything that even closely resembles the honor and fun this class deserves,” said Davis. “Now we are setting our eyes and putting all of our energy into throwing a fantastic evening in the classic Grad Night fashion for all of them next summer. We will celebrate the class of 2020.”
Davis thanked all of the volunteers who had remained dedicated to the effort, working and raising funds until just days before the announcement.
“Thank you for the countless ways you have supported us,” Davis said. “We are so grateful for you all and cannot express how appreciative we are of you continuing to swim against the COVID current with us.”

The San Marino Police Department is continuing to investigate a case involving allegations of racist content and hate speech but reported there have been no new leads.
Police Chief John Incontro said Tuesday that the department received an anonymous tip last week by email, but that the activity described “did not rise to the level of a crime.”
“It would be great to speak with this person, but they have chosen not to speak with us,” said Incontro.
On Thursday, June 4, complainants contacted the SMPD and alleged that racist comments, videos and photographs had been posted on various social media platforms by a San Marino High School student and two SMHS graduates. Investigators began meeting with an individual who identifies himself as a “whistleblower,” a minor whom police will not publicly identify, Incontro said. The SMPD continues to meet with the individual and has also filed search warrants on records at the high school and various social media sites.
Though new information has been scarce, the San Marino school board addressed a related topic at its meeting on Tuesday, June 23. At a special meeting before its open session, the board discussed curriculum, instruction, professional development and training related to issues of racism, equity, implicit bias, diversity and inclusion that were the subject of two recent petitions. The petitions had been circulated through social media since George Floyd died while in police custody in Minneapolis and allegations about the San Marino matter surfaced.

Though it is clearly not alone in confronting the trend, the San Marino Unified School District is entering a period of significant declining enrollment, according to a report received by the school board at a recent meeting.
Enrollment in California’s public schools at the K-12 level dropped by 1.5% in the past decade and is forecast to take an additional 7% hit by the end of the 2027-28 school year, according to Linda de la Torre, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources.
The SMUSD predicts a drop of just over 200 students for the 2020-21 school year alone, according to the report. The district ended the 2019-20 school year with an enrollment of 2,973 students and projects 2,764 for the opening of the 2020-21 school year, which is expected to begin on Aug. 12.
By comparison, the SMUSD ended the 2009-10 school year with 3,228 students, according to the presentation, during which De la Torre stated that 3,200 students “is ideal.”
Based on California’s funding model, average daily attendance is the main source of revenue, with each student bringing $10,200 annually to the district’s coffers.
“Most declines last about 10 years and require drastic downsizing,” said De la Torre.
To possibly offset the shrinkage, the SMUSD plans to market and promote its new legacy interdistrict permit program, suspending the signing of students seeking a release from the SMUSD and meeting with site administrators to discuss staffing and enrollment issues.
Passed by the board last month, the legacy inter-district transfer permit program, allows the grandchildren of those who have lived in San Marino for 10 years or more to attend SMUSD schools. Since its inception, the program has received five applications, according to De la Torre, who also noted that the projected enrollment figures could be artificially low due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Some parents might be reluctant to enroll their students,” said De la Torre. “Some might be waiting until the environment improves.”

Students in the San Marino Unified School District returned this week from what, in the “Safer at Home” era, will have to pass for spring break, and forged on in distance learning for the fourth quarter of the 2019-20 school year.
Students will not be allowed back on campus until further notice and they will not receive final grades for the second semester, which began after the New Year and was scheduled to end on Friday, May 29.
SMUSD shut down its campuses effective Monday, March 16 and began what is known as “distance learning” on Monday, March 23.
Students in SMUSD have not been technically graded for their work online thus far, according to Executive Director of Curriculum & Instruction Jason Kurtenbach, but virtual attendance is taken. The district is in the process of implementing an online-grading system as it observes how policies continue to evolve elsewhere, he noted.