On Thursday the group at Alhambra High is talking about feelings. It’s the second to last day of the two-week "Fresh Start" program, and there is an easy familiarity among them.
The quote of the day is "no feeling is final," and they are in small groups filling out worksheets about the "stress spiral." The group takes apart a scenario about a student named Mark who had to join a program at school because he “ditched so much.” Mark tries to develop a plan to change his thoughts, feelings and actions.
The students have to identify coping strategies Mark uses — such as eating ice cream or playing guitar — to deal with his negative thoughts and feelings. And they try to identify how Mark’s feelings, actions and thoughts are linked together.
Sharon Chan, one of the therapists, leads 15 students in one of the three classes in a group discussion. "What if you have a day where eating ice cream, watching the TV, and those things don't work?...Sometimes it's having a friend or family support us, and that's OK."
Chan asks the class to come up with 10 coping strategies, and asks: "Who would you call if you got to the end of the list?”
"I'd call Maria," said Cassandra Contreras, 14, looking over to her friend's desk a couple feet away. "Even though I just met her last week, I'd call her and talk to her. She understands."
"Awwww," the class groaned collectively.
Then they start to put together their lists. Students shout out their coping methods: writing a letter and never sending it, keeping a diary, playing sports, posting to Tumblr.
Maria Guadalupe Lara, 14, watches the action with an appreciative and mischievous grin, shouting out her suggestions.
"You can come in here and say whatever you want, because we have the Vegas rule," Maria said. "What happens here, stays here."
Dianna Dolores Zuany, 14, was always a social butterfly and school leader. But as an eighth-grader, she was struggling in her classes for the first time and was worried she wouldn’t be able to graduate. Her grandfather died in December, she had a new boyfriend, and she and her childhood best friend were starting to drift apart.
"As an eighth-grader you have your drama, you have the little girls and the boys, the 'Oh I have a boyfriend' and all this, and the crossing the stage," Dianna said. "You had your worries, what if I fail freshman year, what if, what if, and you just worry, but this is a fresh start."
Near Dianna sat Arturo Jr. Cuevas, 15. For Arturo, Fresh Start really is a second chance. Arturo didn't cross the stage at his graduation ceremony because he failed a science class. He’d allowed himself to bend to peer pressure to slack off as an eighth-grader, and was distracted by trouble at home.
Yu Cheng Na sits quietly with his juice box and apricot-filled cookies inside an Alhambra High School classroom during a break. Around him, kids joke loudly, laughing with and at each other. He smiles and gazes about curiously, taking in the hyperactivity around him.
Two weeks earlier Yu Cheng, 14, reluctantly joined nearly 60 other students in the intensive high school transition program "Fresh Start." And though this was the last week of summer before school starts Tuesday, he'd decided: "It's OK. Quite fun."
For three hours each day, the soon-to-be freshmen gather to talk about their feelings, learning things like how to organize and complete tasks and how to ask for help. The program is aimed at bringing in students who may have struggled academically or socially in middle school, and providing them with the support to find success as high schoolers.
To Annie Tsi, 13, starting Alhambra High next week as a freshman is a very big thought.
"I'm actually going to high school," Annie said, whispering and elongating her words in awe. "In another four years I'll be 18...I'm just nervous. Because now I'm not in middle school anymore."
The nerves are natural. And they are one emotion the program is meant to assuage.
"They're making that transition from being a child toward moving toward adulthood," said Ben Cone, a clinical supervisor in the program. "The struggle for independence, wanting more freedom from their parents and teachers. Following their own rules versus following other peoples' rules...There's a lot they're dealing with at this age."
"Fresh Start" is a collaborative effort between the Alhambra Unified School District and Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services, a nonprofit children's mental health and welfare organization. It is but one example of the programs the district has pursued over the last eight years in an effort to identify and holistically target struggling students to ensure they don't go unnoticed.
Such work is part of the district’s “Gateway to Success” program, a comprehensive school-based mental health program that has brought the district local and national recognition. Earlier this year, L.A. County's Education Coordinating Council identified the Alhambra Unified School District as one of two schools in the nation that has successfully tackled the issue of improving attendance and decreasing truancy.
Gateway takes into account the district’s specific make-up: 52 percent of its more than 18,000 students are Asian and 43 percent are Latino, with a range of diversity and language needs within these groups. The district conducts extensive training on cultural awareness, providing “parent university” courses to acquaint them with information on issues such as bullying and dispel some of the stigma associated with mental health work.
With the help of a $6 million federal grant, the district has had dramatic success shown by a 42 percent reduction in its truancy in one year. It has also built mechanisms to identify students and track them throughout their time in the district to ensure they are referred to available services quickly if they should founder.
“Fresh Start” is a part of this effort, and about half of its students were identified by the systems that track truancy, said Laurel Bear, director of student services who has headed the Gateway program since its inception.
“What we know is kids won’t talk to adults unless we make it a climate for kids to talk to adults,” said Bear, who sits on a national advisory council and also works with multiple local districts to help them create similar programs of their own.
The students are picked for “Fresh Start” by teachers, their principal, their counselor, parents, friends, and even sometimes themselves. And the teens in “Fresh Start” are eased into this transition: “...Now they’re on our radar,” Bear said.
The program, which does not cost the families or district any money, functions as a safe space for students who have come to recognize their own worries and fears among the other students in their groups.
“We don’t have to be alone, there’s someone like us,” said Dianna Dolores Zuany, 14. “...It's really good for me. On the outside I'm always happy, and I am, at this point, I'm truly happy. But you know, everyone has their days, where they're just like..."
She lets out a big sigh, pausing to regain the evenness in her voice.
"There's always things going on in someone's life you don't know about, and I have those things going on in my life. Being here and able to talk about my feelings, and just being open, without being judged or criticized or commented on, it's cool."
The students start school Tuesday and they will enter their high schools equipped with new friends and some new social skills.
Yu Cheng is now confident.
"All of these people, I got to know, so I would trust them enough to speak, and so I'll probably trust a lot of people more," Yu Cheng said. He speaks deliberately, and sounds a little surprised by what he’s said.
The other students "really opened up to everybody else, and after seeing what they're willing to do, I thought I'd join in too."
Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).