Salem-Keizer students beat the odds, honored at special ceremonies


Not every student grows up expecting to graduate from high school.

Take Jenneffer Martinez. At age 14, she became pregnant and dropped out of school.

It wasn’t until her daughter was a little older when Martinez decided she needed to set an example and finish earning her diploma.

Now 18, Martinez will be the first person in her family to graduate from high school.

Martinez isn’t alone in her accomplishment. In fact, she’s one of the hundreds of students in Salem-Keizer Public Schools who was honored this year for reaching the finish line against stiff odds.

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The district hosts a handful of ceremonies every spring for students who had a harder time completing their K-12 education for a variety of reasons.

One ceremony is the Turnaround Achievement Awards, which recognizes middle and high school students who turned their life around in the face of adversity — some were pregnant, some had issues at home, others were homeless.

Another is the Eagle Feather ceremony, which honors Native American students in the district, a classification of students with one of the lowest graduation rates of any traditionally marginalized group.

And finally, there’s the AVID graduation ceremony, which acknowledges the hard work of students in the Advancement Via Individualized Determination program, designed to help students who wouldn’t otherwise have the support or resources to go to college.

Together, these events help recognize students who faced additional obstacles and still earned a diploma or GED, setting them and their communities up for future success.

Turnaround Achievement Awards

Even before Martinez became pregnant, she didn’t see herself graduating.

“I was angry at the world and thought the world owed me something,” she said. “I thought schools hated me and I hated schools.”

So she dropped out. And she didn’t realize how important education was until her daughter reminded her.

Martinez thought, “If I want to be successful and I want to see my daughter be successful, I have to be the example.”

Martinez started applying herself once she enrolled in Robert High School’s teen parent program and got the support she needed.

There, she was able to pursue her own coursework while her daughter, Mia, now 3, was cared for in a nearby classroom with the other children.

And because of that work, Martinez, now 18, earned her diploma on time.

Martinez was honored with more than 20 students from across Salem-Keizer in the district’s annual Turnaround Achievement Awards ceremony in Keizer on May 23.

The event began with a lunch for the honorees, their families and their friends. A staff member from each school was called to speak about the work the students did to get this far.

Nine students honored at this year’s event also crossed the graduation stage at their individual schools’ commencement ceremonies.

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“These awards are a small way for us to recognize students who faced and overcame extraordinary obstacles and made a commitment to making new, positive changes in their lives,” said Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry in a statement.

Martinez attended with her mom, the one person she said stayed by her through everything.

“If you’re actually committed to becoming successful,” Martinez said, “no matter what obstacles you face, you can overcome them.”

Martinez now plans to study psychology and sociology at Chemeketa Community College in Salem for two years. She wants to become a police officer and focus on addressing domestic violence.

Mia dreams of becoming a firefighter.

Eagle Feather Graduation Celebration

Evan Harvey watched his brother earn an eagle feather upon graduating last year, a moment that significantly impacted him.

“The whole experience for him was surreal,” he said. “He loved it as much as I did.”

Every May, all Native American students registered with the district’s Indian Education department who earn a diploma or GED are honored at the Eagle Feather Graduation Celebration.

The ceremony includes a color guard, drum ceremony, the gifting of graduates and a reception.

This year, the event was held on May 30 in the McNary High School auditorium in Keizer. More than 60 graduating seniors were honored.

Harvey, a senior at McNary and member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, said the ceremony celebrates the students while wishing them well in the next chapter of their lives.

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Harvey, 18, plans to study at the University of Oregon this fall, majoring in business administration with a concentration in marketing. He hasn’t decided yet if he wants to minor in German or international business.

“Once I finish college, I want to have something to look back on, something that I can be proud that I’ve done, aside from just obtaining a degree,” he said.

“I think (because of) the people I’ve grown up with and my heritage, I think working with (Native American) students is something they could really benefit from.”

This year, there weren’t enough eagle feathers available through the permit process for each of the students honored in the ceremony.

Some families, including Harvey’s, decided to pass down an eagle feather that was already received by someone else.

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Harvey said the ceremonial eagle feathers are extremely sacred and come with great symbolism. But the feather and ceremony don’t just honor the heritage of the students; it honors the hard work they put in to fight the odds.

In Oregon, Native American students graduate at lower rates, perform worse on state assessments, attend fewer days and receive more suspensions and expulsions than their peers, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

For graduation rates alone, Oregon’s Native American students are graduating at about 56 percent, compared to the state’s overall four-year graduation rate of 74.8 percent.

“Native American students … are so historically disadvantaged — financially, academically — and that’s been a problem that the PAC’s been trying to solve for as long as we can remember,” Harvey said.

“Once out of college, my goal is to try and get those students … the support they need.”

AVID Senior Recognition Night

Come fall, West Salem High School senior Maya Vences will begin her collegiate career at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, studying to become a mental health nurse.

But that wasn’t always her goal.

In fact, while a student at Walker Middle School in Salem, Vences remembers thinking she’d never go to college.

She wasn’t a star student, she struggled with mental illness and her family was dealing with issues regarding her mother’s Bipolar 1 disorder.

Yet when Vences overheard an announcement about the school’s Advancement Via Individual Determination program, also known as AVID, she figured that could be her shot.

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AVID is a national program that strives to prepare young students for college and life after education.

While in the program, students are provided academic, social and financial support, given help with college visits, talks with families and more. The program is designed to help students who wouldn’t usually have the support or resources to go to college.

Vences recalled the Bipolar episodes her mother had before she herself was diagnosed with the same disorder, as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and experienced a psychotic episode.

“I just remember being in the hospital and being scared all the time,” Vences said. “That was my life for about a month.”

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Vences went through multiple hospitals around the state, seeking help. Eventually, she was able to get the support she needed and learned, along the way, what she wanted to do with her future.

“I saw the impact that the nurses had on my life,” Vences said. “It was just amazing to see that these people could really improve people’s health, mentally, and just be there.”

Vences hard work paid off. She was recently recognized as this year’s Boys & Girls Club Youth of the Year for Oregon and was one of about 250 AVID students across the district honored at North Salem High School on May 9 for the AVID Senior Recognition Night.

At the event, student speakers presented, teachers were also given awards and recognition and after the ceremony, students celebrated in the gym with cupcakes.

Vences said the AVID program was a large part of her academic career and personal growth.

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The program taught her how to be organized, how to ask more in-depth questions in class and how to speak publicly, to name a few benefits. But more than that, it provided her with a family, a support network.

“Working with AVID has opened doors for me,” Vences said. “I don’t come from a background where people go to college.”

She said AVID lays out the steps on how to get to there. It shaped her confidence as a student and gave her the support to reach higher.

“AVID has given me that motivation to stay on track and make myself proud, and also my parents proud,” she said.

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Contact Natalie Pate at, 503-399-6745 or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate or on Facebook at

Published by Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She wrote about education for more than seven years at the Statesman Journal and now covers education and other topics throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is originally from Colorado and earned her B.A. in Politics and French from Willamette University.

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