Monday, Oct 03 2011 02:00 AM

Back on track

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Students at Almond Middle School in Delano take off running during a touch football game after lunch.

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Behavior Intervention Specialist Luis Garcia gets a touch football game started at Almond Middle School in Delano.

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    The lunchtime touch football games at Almond Middle School in Delano are very popular and keep the kids active. These students were waiting for their turn to play.

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    By Felix Adamo/ The Californian

    Thirteen -year-old Joshua Gonzales avoids the tag of a classmate during a touch football game at Almond Middle School in Delano.

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BY KELLIE SCHMITT Californian staff writer

Carolina Rodriguez needed help caring for her troubled niece, who was frequently sent to the principal's office at Delano's Almond Tree Middle School after intimidating students and reacting to being bullied herself.

Rodriguez suspected that the girl's behavioral problems and floundering grades were in part the result of serious problems at home, especially considering her biological parents are absent.

And so she joined Almond Tree's "parent project" to learn more about the connections between mental health and school success, and the role parents can play in promoting better behaviors. At the same time, her niece is attending small counselor-led groups on campus that coach her on everything from anger management to social skills.

"She sees that someone really does care about her," Rodriguez said. "There's so much anger in our youth right now that if the parents don't get involved in a program like this, the kids are going to be lost."

Since the implementation of a mental health program last year, Almond Tree has seen dramatic reductions in the numbers of behavior problems. From the 2009-10 school year to last year, the number of expulsions dropped nearly half, from 25 to 14. Suspensions fell a whopping 65 percent, from 643 to 228.

That decline underscores the interconnectivity between students' mental well-being and their behaviors in the classroom, said principal Mike Havens. The school's extra effort has helped create a culture of high expectations where students are held accountable, personal relationships are emphasized and failure isn't an option.

"They all had different reasons for making poor choices," Havens said. "The one commonality in turning the corner was people watching and taking interest in their lives."

Funding the effort

The money for the new mental health programs comes via 2004's Proposition 63, which is known as the Mental Health Services Act and places an additional state tax on people whose personal income is more than $1 million. In Kern County, some of those funds have gone to creating mental health programs at 11 schools.

Almond Tree is "the shining star" of the program, says James Waterman, the director of the county's mental health department.

When selecting which schools to choose, the department looked at needs, and schools' suspension and expulsion rates. More than anything, though, they looked for schools willing to fully embrace the additional services.

"Some districts we approached took the position, 'Yeah, well, you can come on campus after 3:30 p.m.,'" Waterman recalled. "Delano said, 'Absolutely. We need the help. Come on campus. What do you need? We'll make it work."

Creating the program

Almond Tree has more than 700 students, about 89 percent of whom are Latino. The entire school is on the free and reduced lunch program.

"Yes, we're in an area of poverty but I don't like for that to be an excuse," principal Havens said. "Our kids are just as good and smart as kids everywhere."

That may be true, but many students had struggled with academic and discipline problems, including high rates of suspensions and expulsions. In 2008-09, just 68 percent of students graduated.

Thanks to the mental health funding, the school hired counselors Luis Garcia and Tomas Galarza. The two, who are bilingual, try to be visible on campus, organizing activities such as intramural sports that keep kids occupied during their break times.

"It also makes us normal to them, and not scary," Garcia said. "When you hear mental health, you might think it's negative, but we're doing something fun to change the stigma."

For students who have made frequent trips to the principal's office, they intensify the effort, pulling them from class for Anger Replacement Training three times a week.

In those small groups, they talk about simple social skills, such as how to introduce oneself --say your name, extend a hand and make eye contact-- or how to taken a deep breath and visualize a happy place when confronted with a sudden burst of anger.

Moral reasoning is part of the equation, too. Garcia and Galarza present the small groups with a situation, such as a bicycle that's left in a yard without a lock. Would you take it?

"We ask: 'What if it were your sister's bike?'" Galarza said. "That's when everyone's answers changes. We're helping them think differently."

One compelling project was a V-shaped diagram showing the paths of difference choices. On one side, misbehaving leads to the principal's office visits, suspensions, expulsions, and maybe even juvenile hall and jail. On the other side, good behavior leads to graduation and high school, college, a house, family and a nice life.

"The V shape shows how it's not too late to switch," Garcia said.

The counselors also visit students' homes and talk with their families about behavior problems -- yet another move that underscores the importance of each child.

Initially, the counselors worried that students would be embarrassed about participating in the program, but their attempt to normalize their presence is paying off, they said.

"Kids want to come see us," Galarza said. "They say, 'I'm bad, can I come to your class?'"

Parent involvement

Garcia and Galarza work 40-hour weeks, but they're able to vary their schedules to include off-hour meetings and phone calls, which is helpful in a community with many migrant workers. They also lead the "parent project," weekly evening meetings that help families deal with topics such as discipline at home.

Rodriguez, the woman who helps parent her niece, said the evening classes have taught her more about positive reinforcement and affection.

"After she did her homework last night, I high-fived her and said, 'I really do love you,'" Rodriguez said. "And she just smiled."

Her niece still has many challenges, including improving academics and making friends. But, Rodriguez said, the bullying has eased up and her behavior has improved.

Student Guadalupe Maya's family was also struggling with discipline problems at home, such as temper tantrums that have escalated since her mother and father separated. Even though she is a good student, her family worried those problems could transfer to the classroom.

The class has helped change how mother Maria Maya reacts to her daughter. Now, if Guadalupe,10, gets a lower grade, her mom will hug her, tell her that she loves her, and say she'd like to see something higher next time -- instead of immediately acting accusatory.

From Guadalupe's perspective, her home situation has changed, too. Before, she says she'd come home and do whatever she wanted such as watching television. Now, her family ensures that she does her homework, and rewards her for academic success.

"When I have straight A's, we celebrate with ice cream," Guadalupe said. "They understand me and know how I feel."

Other school efforts:

Delano may be the "shining star," but other local schools say they're making significant mental health strides, too.

After some adjustments, the program is working well at Woodrow Wallace Middle School in Lake Isabella, said principal Robin Shive. The school changed the small group sessions so that students would only miss electives, not core classes.

Shive says she's already noticed less fighting and aggression on the playground, behaviors that often stem from environmental factors such as an unstable home life.

In Arvin, a student ambassador program has been a key part of the mental health effort, said Haven Drive Middle School principal David Bowling. There, school officials chose 30 students from distinct social cliques, from athletes to top students to quiet kids.

Those student representatives will guide the discussion on school problems such as cyber bullying. The school will then use some of the mental health funds to bring in speakers or host parent training on those topics.

At Delano, even the students who aren't specifically involved in the program say they're reaping the benefits. Eight-grader Daisy Garcia says she notices that her classmates are focused more on graduating and less on playground fighting.

"Now, kids want to graduate and they know if they get into fights, they won't," Garcia said. "They want to make their parents proud, and they want to go to college."

That lends hope to principal Haven's prediction that this year's graduation rate will surpass last year's rate of 85 percent. Mental health is just one part of a puzzle -- along with numerous academic steps the school has also taken --but it's an important one.

"It's a ripple effect," he said. "If we can intervene now, there will be less problems in the future. Our kids want to learn so much."

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