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2023 Pinellas Park High valedictorian and salutatorian represent Criminal Justice Academy

When Leonel Resendiz walks across the graduation stage on May 15, his mother’s unwavering support will undoubtedly be top of mind. Resendiz, who is Pinellas Park High School’s valedictorian, lost his father when he was 12, and has used his mother’s strength to motivate him ever since.

“My mom is such an amazing woman. She’s why I do what I do,” Resendiz said. “It’s all about hard work, commitment and determination.”

Resendiz and Aaron Booth, the school’s salutatorian, are the first Criminal Justice Academy students to hold the number one and number two spots in the senior class in several years. Resendiz is graduating with a 4.5083 GPA and attending the University of Florida. Booth is graduating with a 4.4828 GPA and after possibly taking a gap semester, will major in forensic science at the University of Tampa.

Both boys cited COVID as a challenging time to be a part of such a rigorous program with a heavy courseload while trying to maintain their strong GPAs, but ultimately, they both persevered.

Booth knew he wanted to apply to the CJA after taking a high-school-level Intro to Forensics class in eighth grade. His ideal job would be analyzing crime scene evidence, that is, if becoming a professional race car driver doesn’t work out.

“I never formally set the goal but knew during my junior year that I was really close, and it could actually happen,” Booth said of being named salutatorian. “I’m really proud of myself. It just means I worked hard and had good teachers who cared about me and my studies.”

Resendiz, on the other hand, has switched gears since entering the CJA with the intention of becoming an immigration lawyer. He will now major in mechanical engineering. He said it was during COVID, when he had extra time to get to know himself and explore new things, that he made the switch. He also decided to try out for the varsity basketball team his junior year, which is something he never thought he would do.

“That helped show me that I’m more than I see myself,” Resendiz said of making the team. “It really elevated my self-esteem. If I set out to do something, I can do it.”

Resendiz will be the first person in his family to attend a four-year university.

"I am so proud of them for achieving their goals of doing well in school AND in life," said Dr. Jalika Waugh, a CJA teacher. "They both have great plans for their future and they know we will support them even after they leave Pinellas Park."

Booth credits his parents and Pinellas Park for preparing him for the next steps.

"My parents were always a big motivating factor," Booth said. "They always wanted me to be the best I can. I definitely tried my hardest to do that."

In addition to his mom, Resendiz credits his teachers, staff and fellow students at Pinellas Park High School for the support to help him succeed.  

“It just shows that no matter how small something is, anything can come from it,” Resendiz said of attending one of the county’s lesser-known high schools. “You can always bet on yourself and make something of yourself.”

Pinellas Park High School Valedicatorian and Salutatorian