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Lili Venegas, Carly Sims, Sierra Wishard and Justin Roberts have a lot in common.

They’re all recent Kelso High School graduates. They all have fond memories of their days in Kelso schools. And today they’ll all start their first full-time teaching assignments — all in Kelso schools.

Wishard, Sims and Roberts were classmates, so at a recent orientation, “We looked around and said it’s like a high-school reunion,” Wishard said.

The four teachers are among the nearly 350 faculty members that will greet Kelso students when they show up Wednesday for the first day of school. All four said they wanted to return to the “family” of Kelso School District and give back to the Hilander community.

Lili Venegas, Beacon Hill Elementary School

Lili Venegas, KHS class of 2015, spent the last few weeks decorating her third-grade classroom at Beacon Hill Elementary School with motivational phrases and colorful bulletin boards. Years ago, she attended Beacon Hill herself, and in May she graduated from Washington State University Pullman with a degree in elementary education.

Teaching in Kelso wasn’t a surprise for her. As a senior at KHS, Venegas’ five-year plan was to graduate from WSU Pullman and teach at Beacon Hill, which she attended with her sisters.

“I feel fortunate that I get to come full circle. I had a wonderful time here growing up, and everyone has been very welcoming now.”

Most of her family went to school in Kelso, she said, including her mom and grandmother, which makes returning as a teacher a little surreal.

“I’ve always loved this area geographically, but I also love this community, so it was definitely my top choice,” Venegas said.

Venegas is excited to meet her pupils and help them move on to the next grade.

“I’m excited for the kids. All of their personalities can bring such a unique aspect into the classroom, so I’m excited to get to know them,” Venegas said.

Her biggest challenge, she said, is getting students to see their potential and push themselves, but she’s ready for whatever the year brings.

“I feel prepared in an educational sense, but it’s going to be a humongous learning experience.”

Carly Sims, Butler Acres Elementary School

Five miles away at Butler Acres Elementary School, Carly Sims has been decorating and organizing her fifth grade classroom. After graduating from KHS in 2013, she spent two years at Edmonds Community College before transferring to Western Washington University. She graduated in December with a bachelor’s of education in psychology and a certification in elementary education.

“It has always been my dream to come back and help to make a difference in the community I grew up in and helped me become the person I am,” Sims said. “I really love the district of Kelso and what they do to support families and all the teachers that really genuinely care. I wanted to be one of them.”

She is following the footsteps of both her mother, a teacher at Butler Acres, and her father, a teacher at Beacon Hill.

“They were a big part of what inspired me to go into education, especially watching my mom go back to school when I was in elementary school so she could get her degree and be a teacher,” Sims said. “Both are coaches, too, so I got to watch the joy they got from all the ways they helped the community.”

Sims is looking forward to learning from her faculty colleagues and investing in the community.

“It won’t really hit me until that first day, but it’s so exciting,” Sims said. “I’m trying to be in my classroom a lot right now, getting it set up.”

Sierra Wishard, Coweeman Middle School

Incoming Coweeman Middle School seventh grade math teacher Sierra Wishard said this year will test her organizational skills. The 2013 KHS graduate will teach math, lead the Newcomer and English Language Learners programs, and coach volleyball.

“Middle school is new for me, so I’m excited about that opportunity and just diving into those relationships and getting to know the students,” Wishard said.

Wishard wants to focus on making sure she connects with all her students and that they all have a voice, which will be a challenge with 140 students, she said.

Wishard originally wanted to become a dental hygienist, but she found she didn’t like it. Instead, she worked for a few years to save money and attended WSU Vancouver, graduating in May with a bachelor’s degree in education. She applied to Kelso School District because of the close relationships she remembered teachers creating for her as a student.

“The relationships that they build with the students are so strong that it feels like family here, so it was a great fit,” Wishard said.

Justin Roberts, Kelso High School

Justin Roberts will start this year as a language arts and social studies teacher at KHS, as well as the Varsity K Club adviser. He said he spent plenty of time in the district as a coach, instructional assistant and substitute teacher while getting his bachelor’s degree in social sciences at WSU Vancouver and master’s degree in teaching online from Western Governors University. Still, it feels strange to be back as a teacher, he said.

“I didn’t realize how weird of a feeling it was going to be, because I had already been working in the schools,” Roberts said. “But I am teaching freshman English in the room that Mr. Gardner taught me freshman English.”

Roberts said he’s prepared to create a great experience for students and teach them to love learning and literature.

“I’m going to be working with freshmen and encouraging them to develop a desire to read, which is not always everyone’s favorite thing to do,” Roberts said.

Roberts said he’s looking forward to the chance to give back.

“I’m excited to teach these kids and see them start to understand what it means to be a part of Kelso, as someone who has been in their shoes who decided to stay, and stay a Hilander.”

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