First Del Norte High graduates reflect on being ‘trailblazers’
By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
For 241 Del Norte High seniors, theirs is the graduation that almost was not — as Nighthawks.
The school’s first graduates could have been the Class of 2013, but because district officials worked out the financing and a group of then-freshmen and their parents pleaded for a Class of 2012 at Del Norte, three years later these “trailblazers” are crossing the stage in the school stadium this afternoon (Thursday).
Principal Greg Mizel said the venue could not be more appropriate.
“Aug. 20, 2009 we had the very first school meeting as an entire school in that stadium,” Mizel said, recalling when he addressed 500-plus freshmen and 260 sophomores on that first day of school. Del Norte’s focus was — and still is — “college ready, future focused and globally aware.”
Because the critical mass of 275 sophomores could not be reached, despite students from throughout Poway Unified plus Ramona, Escondido and surrounding communities requesting transfers, district officials were wary of opening PUSD’s new high school with sophomores because there would not be enough to offer the Advanced Placement classes available at other high schools.
Mizel said officials did not want to hinder students’ chances of being competitive with their peers when applying to colleges.
Diana Heflin, who transferred from Westview and plans to major in chemical engineering at the University of Notre Dame, said she came in with two years of Spanish, but knew continuing the language would no longer be an option.
Heflin and Noam Habot, who transferred from Rancho Bernardo and plans to major in mathematics at UCLA, said they had to suspend their math studies for a year because AP calculus was not available that first year.
“It was kind of hard to decide,” Heflin said about attending a school with academic limitations. “I had a really relaxed sophomore year, but then the school caught up with me.”
“I signed up knowing not everything would be offered,” said Daniel Drew, who is headed to UC Davis. He went to the school board to plead their case.
Yet the students and their parents were willing to take an academic chance and three years later Mizel said they are better for it. Yes, their only option was AP European history as sophomores, but the leadership skills and confidence they learned by being upperclassmen for three years, establishing traditions and forming clubs are skills that will influence them in college and beyond, he said.
“They lost a little, but gained a little … their leadership skills are more than their peers. These skills will never show up on a standardized test, but will matter to future employers, their communities … in every arena,” Mizel said, adding, “Our graduates are very competitive, have been accepted to (the same) schools (as their peers) and done quite well.”
Helfin said she was yearbook editor as a sophomore, something not likely attainable to her at Westview, along with playing field hockey.
“Westview was a huge school,” she said. “I couldn’t really be involved.”
Drew said he did not make RB High’s baseball team, but played baseball at Del Norte. Neil Alcantara, who will study biochemistry at Sonoma State University, said he was on Mt. Carmel’s JV swim team, which led to him swimming at Del Norte and playing water polo for three years.
“I came for the opportunity to set traditions because a new high school does not open every day,” Habot said. “I saw it as an opportunity to meet new people since everyone was new.”
“We had to be good examples to everyone else,” Heflin said.
“We’re the founding fathers who set the traditions, started the clubs that will be carried on in Del Norte history,” Drew said. “People watch how we behave, how we act. … If we’re friendly to everybody and have a positive feeling, Del Norte is positive too.”
“We take the initiative at pep rallies to set the spirit and all follow suit,” Alcantara said.
Habot said that feeling of wanting to be here carried over to the teachers. “The teachers volunteered to come,” he said. “They were not forced. They wanted to be here and you could see that in their teaching.”
“This group’s experience will always be unique,” Mizel said.
They learned how to no longer be Broncos, Sundevils, Titans and Wolverines, a concept that took a few months, Mizel said, recalling how initially sophomores stuck together based on their former school identities. But as they formed organizations and competed together against their former schools, they united under the colors of blue and green.
He also said the class is more inclusive, a core value emphasized on the 4S Ranch campus. “This senior class is very friendly,” Mizel said.
“We’re really welcoming; a school not with cliques,” Alcantara said.
“As upperclassmen, we had to be welcoming and create a friendly feeling for all,” Drew said, adding that spirit has passed down to those following in their footsteps.
“They are a small group who have left a lasting legacy, been part of every first, every highlight,” Mizel said. “They own Nighthawk Nation.”
He added, “I’m proud of them. They set the bar that every (class) will measure themselves against and seek to raise.”
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