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).
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New City School in Long Beach has made a big ruckus over the past year. Long Beach Unified has moved to close it for poor performance and financial problems.
The small New City School charter campus in Long Beach has made a big ruckus over the past year, as Long Beach Unified officials inch ever closer to shutting it down for poor performance and financial problems.
District officials have scheduled a hearing Monday afternoon to hear from the school’s parents, students and staff. The school board could vote to revoke the school’s charter as early as Tuesday.
The K-8 grade New City School opened its doors 12 years ago with a very untraditional curriculum, including learning math through logical reasoning. Students learn math through logical reasoning methods, says co-founder Stephanie Lee.
"They’re given a problem, a situation," co-founder Stephanie Lee explains. "[For example], go to the garden and the strawberry plant has eight strawberries on it and you eat three of them. How many strawberries are still on the plant? Something like that."
Alicia Weng, of North Hollywood, competed in the girls-only international math competition — China’s 11th Annual Math Olympiad
While U.S. athletes were in London parading their physical prowess, eight American "mathletes" were scoring medals at China’s Math Olympiad. One of them is a 16-year-old from North Hollywood High School, Alica Weng.
When I called to speak with Weng, who says she's incredibly jet-lagged from her flight home from China last night, I interrupted her in the middle of her leisure time, doing math.
"It was an inequality from a hand-out that I got at the camp."
Weng, who's starting her junior year, competed in the girls-only international math competition — China's 11th Annual Math Olympiad. It was held in Guangzhou, the country’s third-largest city.
It's a grueling two-day competition where teen math whizzes are supposed to answer eight proofs over 16 hours.
If you're saying to yourself, "Meh, that’s not that hard," feel free to take a stab at the test. You’ve been warned. KPCC is not responsible for any loss of self-esteem that may occur as a result of knowing a 16-year-old can solve these and you can't.
Inglewood's school board met Wednesday afternoon to discuss ways to keep from running out of money, after taking steps last month to declare bankruptcy.
An exodus of students, deferred payments from the state and funding cuts have pushed Inglewood Unified’s budget $9 million into the red. Board member Trina Williams says a small increase in student enrollment this year will generate more money from the state, and the district has been appraising unused land.
"We got about six properties, land and building included. If we sold that I think we would be alright," Williams said.
One property, she said, is Center Park next to Worthington Elementary School. Another property under consideration is a strip of land behind Morningside High School. The City of Inglewood, Williams said, is interested in buying the properties.
As the academic year begins, students in the Southland will attend public schools with significantly unequal instructional calendars.
Students in the Southland may have a hard time lining up summers with their friends, as schools begin the 2012 academic year with extremely lop-sided instructional calendars. The administrators of some districts have cut instructional days in the school year in order to close funding deficits.
In June, LAUSD’s school board cut five instructional days from the 180-day instructional year. Superintendent John Deasy alluded to this in a back-to-school assembly last week at Washington Preparatory High School.
"I am very aware of challenges we face and they’re daunting," he said. "They’re huge, scary and seemingly impossible."
But in spite of "seemingly impossible" challenges, he urged students, teachers and administrators to continue improvements among English learners — both in the high school exit exam and in mandatory state testing.