Modesto Bee Highlights Graduation Coaches

By Nan Austin

The tween time, that pull-parents-close-just-to-push-them-away age, confounds us all. But research shows those tumultuous years are the pivot point for young lives. The slide toward dropping out in high school most often begins right here, in the middle school years. Those who work every day with the most at-risk junior high students, however, have hope.

“In those three or four years, the world and everything in it changes. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but having a front-row seat is a special treat for those of us who don’t mind the human drama,” writes middle school teacher Beth Morrow on www.middleweb.com in an article titled “Crazy Love: Six Reasons Why I Teach in the Middle.” Morrow talks about the lurching progress toward maturity, often tactless honesty and the hopefulness of watching them struggle past obstacles despite it all. “The egocentric middle school mind is hardwired for the biological fear that they are the only person in the history of the universe to fall down at lunch – wear non-matching socks – fail a test – have a cowlick on picture day,” she notes.

"PARENTS SHOULD KNOW THAT MIDDLE SCHOOL ISN’T SO EASY."
Girl, 13, aspiring doctor, at Creekside Middle School career day

Students polled at career fairs in Patterson’s Creekside Middle School and Blaker-Kinser Junior High in Ceres overwhelmingly said parents did not understand how hard they worked and did not give them time to recover after a stressful school day. “We actually do get a lot of work,” said one Ceres eighth-grader. “When we get a break, we need that break,” he said.

“I have to do chores right when I walk through the door. Let me rest!” said an eighth-grade girl at Blaker-Kinser. “They don’t notice the good grades. They just see the bad,” said her classmate. 

"PARENTS SHOULD KNOW THAT SOME PEOPLE CHANGE IN MIDDLE SCHOOL. THERE IS POINTLESS DRAMA."
Girl, 13, aspiring psychologist, at Creekside Middle School career day

Her comments were echoed by mentors hired through a United Way program finishing its second year at three high-needs middle schools. “Celebrating all successes is really important. They work really hard, and if nobody notices, they just say, ‘Why bother,’” said Alicia Sequeira, graduation coach at Hanshaw Middle School in south Modesto. “Sometimes it’s just study habits, school habits. If that’s not doing their homework, not showing up on time, that’s going to go with them to high school. If we get them early, we can change those habits, get them going,” said Luis Tinajero, graduation coach at Creekside Middle School in Patterson.

“(Problems in) discipline, attendance, grades – they’re all symptoms of something else going on,” said Sandra Chavarria, graduation coach at Prescott Junior High in north Modesto. “It’s hard to be faced with your failures day in and day out. ‘Hey – you’re failing!’ ‘You’re failing.’ ‘You’re failing!’ I think it helps to have a graduation coach who says, ‘You’re failing today. But maybe you won’t fail tomorrow.’”

"PARENTS SHOULD KNOW THAT MIDDLE SCHOOL IS THE TIME THAT WILL EFFECT YOUR KIDS, GOOD OR BAD, FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIFE."
Girl, 13, aspiring police officer, at Creekside Middle School career day

The three coaches have worked since October 2013 in a prevention program run by the nonprofit Center for Human Services and funded by the United Way, Stanislaus County. President Francine DiCiano said her research showed middle school was where a small program could have the greatest impact. Each year, the team picks 40 incoming seventh-graders to mentor at each school, based on recommendations from their sixth-grade year. While not every kid turned around completely, Tinajero said, “they all progressed.” That means better attendance, fewer discipline problems and higher grades.

Grades are a sore point, however, because bringing up an average takes consistency. The semester average has to top 60 percent to erase an F, the first thing parents see. “I’ve had kids with grades in the 20 percents bring their work up and start getting 60s and 70s. That’s huge progress. But if we’re just looking at that letter, it’s still an F,” he said.

Family issues add to the load for many of their kids. Homelessness, responsibility for getting younger siblings up and off to school, squeezing in homework while juggling other duties – all can take a toll on grades and attendance. The mentors check in with families, check in with the kids about once a week, confer with teachers and get calls from the vice principal when one of their caseloads has a setback.

"I KNOW SOME KIDS WHO ARE LIKE, ‘HOW MUCH CAN I DO TILL YOU GIVE UP ON ME?’ THEY TEST YOU."
Luis Tinajero, graduation coach at Creekside Middle School in Patterson

That community feel took time to build. Chavarria describes her first efforts to contact parents as “feeling like a stalker.” When a call from the school always means something’s wrong, she said, “here some stranger says they’re going to help your child. When negative calls are the expectation, it takes a while to get used to this person who is always saying nice things about them. It takes a while to adjust to the idea.” Teachers, too, were skeptical at first. Seeing better behavior from their most challenging students helped, as did seeing the kids buckle down and work during after-school time with the coach.

“We all stay after school for help – if not help, just attention,” Tinajero said. “A lot of times, there’s no quiet, comfortable place at home where they can work,” Chavarria said – someplace without siblings grabbing their papers or grown-ups yelling. At Hanshaw, former students now going to Downey High come back to tutor, Sequeira said. “Sometimes the kids don’t need the help, they just want to be there. So I have the Downey kids bring their own homework, model that behavior.”

Kids know their academic performance labels them, Chavarria said. “They’re being judged on their grades. We tell them, ‘We see your grades. We still want you to try.’ Even if they didn’t get it right away, it will stick with them. There were folks that cared along the way.”