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Program Helps Teenagers Grow by Helping Others

By Ann Williams
Staff Writer

Editor's note: The students' names in this article have been changed to protect their privacy.

October 4 -- Susana was late so many times in sixth grade -- when she was there at all -- that she was in danger of being forced to leave John Adams Middle School.

"My mother has to be at work at seven," Susana explained, adding that by the time her mother and brother got ready, they were usually running late.

But last Thursday, the shyly beaming seventh grader accepted a certificate for perfect attendance from her teacher as her classmates applauded.

"I told (my mother) I wanted to be on time this year," Susana said with pride. "I told her all these plans we worked out, and she picked one. We wake up at six, get dressed and get here at 6:45."

Susana is one of more than two dozen students enrolled in the Valued Youth Program, a class at John Adams Middle School (JAMS) that teaches disaffected teenagers how to change their behavior while appealing to their better natures by pairing them with elementary children who need help with their schoolwork.

VYP, as it's called, is committed to the proposition that "all students can learn and the school values all students," according to JAMS community liaison Maria Rodriguez who coordinates the class taught by counselor Maricela Gonzalez.

Modeled on a nationwide program, it's one of the Santa Monica-Malibu School District's responses to workshops held at JAMS last year where community members tackled the root causes of gang violence. (See related story)

"If our students are involved in their education, if they know they have a stake in their learning, I believe they will succeed," Superintendent Dr. John Deasy wrote in an open letter to the community after the workshops in which he described VYP along with other programs for "disengaged" students.

"If students are interested and feel they can be successful, reasons for discipline cease to consume their time," Deasy wrote.

"I'm very pleased with the roll-out," Deasy said last week of VYP's "launch."

"Now we'll be watching it for a year," along with researchers at Rand Corporation, whose studies on student engagement inspired District officials to try out VYP at the racially diverse middle school in Sunset Park.

"It's a return of something we've done some years back," explained JAMS Principal Irene Ramos.

The difference now is that instead of simply sending the students into elementary classrooms to tutor, they attend a daily class where they are given "study skills, time to debrief and reflect on their own behavior," Ramos said.

The program also places great emphasis on parent involvement, including frequent parent meetings, Rodriguez added.

The District plans to "grow" VYP "up to the 10th grade," Deasy said, "supporting a whole group of students" who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

Most of the 30 students in the class are eighth graders, but five, like Susana, are seventh graders who are being groomed for leadership roles in next year's graduating class, Rodriguez said.

Four times a week, the JAMS students walk across the street to Will Rogers Elementary School to tutor grade school children who are having problems of their own. Once there, they're supervised by classroom teachers who've had special training in the program.

Then they go back to their classroom at JAMS where they talk over their experiences and learn new teaching methods.

The students are paid minimum wage for the hours they spend tutoring and will learn how to open bank accounts and manage their money.

But it's not all about the money, say the students, many of whose families are labeled "low-socioeconomic" by the District.

They feel honored to be chosen for the position of responsibility.

"Ms. Gonzales thought I could be a good example with the kids," said Kris, who, like Susana, sometimes has trouble getting to school before enrolling in the program. He says he is "teaching the kids right from wrong" so that "when they get to John Adams they won't be making the same mistakes over and over again."

"They had actually picked me," said Isidro, a tall, commanding young man who wears a faux diamond earring in his left ear. "That's what I do at home," he said, explaining that he helps his three brothers and two sisters with their schoolwork.

"These are the students I've seen many times in my office," counselor Gonzalez said at a recent school board meeting. Their teachers often sent them to her because of disruptive behavior and refusing to work, she said.

But as soon as they started preparing for their jobs as tutors, they seemed to transform.

The Friday before their first day on the job, the students, who had earlier been chatting, rapping on their desks and contorting in their seats, watched intently as Gonzalez led Isidro through a role playing activity in front of the class.

Gonzales instructed Isidro to sit closer to his "tutee."

"Hey, get out of my face," called out one boy, making fun of the anticipated reaction of Isidro's partner.

"That wasn't funny," Kris shot back from the back of the room.

"That was funny," the boy rejoined.

"If that was funny, I would be laughing," Kris silenced him as the rest of the class returned their undivided attention to the lesson.

And once they got to Will Rogers to teach the kids they'd met the week before, the middle school students were all business.

"They're taking complete ownership of this class," Gonzalez said.

"They're completely different people when they're in the classroom," Rodriguez added. "They take it very, very seriously."

Susana led her kindergarten girl to a picnic table outside her classroom, where they could spread out "ABC silverware."

Susana is very protective of her young charge. "She told me it was so sad, this little kindergartner was so sad because she missed her mom, and she had her arm around her," Rodriguez described their first meeting.

Other students read stories, helped with math lessons and went to P.E. with the younger children.

While Gonzalez and Rodriguez took advantage of a few spare minutes by themselves to make plans for a polo shirt designed by Isidro and Friday's awards for good behavior, one of the Will Rogers teachers came by.

They asked the teacher how their students were doing.

"Fabulous. They're doing beautifully. I'm really pleased," the teacher answered.

Not bad for the first day on the job.

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