It’s likely that, when one thinks of after-school programs, visions of art projects created at cafeteria tables and playground kickball games come to mind. But, when that post-schoolday program is located on a campus affected by racial tension, student-created segregation, and the occasional riot between groups of students of different races, activity directors have much more on their minds than facilitating arts-and-crafts lessons.
Candace Meehan runs Jordan High School’s WRAP, an after-school program funded by a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant given to Long Beach Unified School District and a grant called ASSETS (After School Safety and Enrichment for Teens), which is a federal grant that resulted from the No Child Left Behind initiative. The purpose of the program, according to the school’s WRAP information packet that is distributed to parents, is to help youth improve academically and provide them with a safe place to be after school, participating in fun and enriching activities. Faced with the racism and violence issues that have plagued Jordan’s students for years, Meehan is using her seven, grant-funded years in her position to do more than offer students there activities to do while their parents are working.
Meehan, who has a master’s degree in school counseling, believes the key to improving student relations and reducing, or altogether eliminating, school violence lies in the hands (and minds) of the kids themselves. She uses her programs to give students opportunities to take control of and responsibility for the social and environmental climate of Jordan. Rather than telling the students what the problems are and what they should do to address them, she allows them to determine and express what those issues are and how they should be resolved, and her approach seems to be working.
According to the school’s page on the district’s website, during the 2009-2010 academic year, Jordan’s suspension rate was 4.36 and its expulsion rate was .05. Last school year, those numbers were .08 and .0003, respectively. Meehan says the race-driven riots that characterized Jordan are now a thing of the past.
Last Monday, Meehan conducted he school’s inaugural Youth Summit at Long Beach City College’s Liberal Arts campus. The goals of the summit, according to the press release that the students themselves wrote, are to change the narrative of Jordan, create a safe school environment, gain knowledge of contributing factors, establish mentorship, and develop leadership skills.
Meehan and four other staff members took 93 sophomores, along with 11 older male students for “security,” on a bus for an entire school day to participate in the summit, which included a tour of the college campus from 9:30am to 11am, then two break-out sessions, each of which was divided into four workshops that addressed one of the eight key problems identified by the students. Those eight “core issues,” which became the titles of the workshops, were: Racial Group Segregation, Stereotyped Violence, Defacing and Littering on Campus, Bullying and Harassment, A Need to Build Student-Teacher Relationships, Rivalry Among Social Clubs and Sports, Remaining Silent About Issues (Contributing to the Status Quo), and Trying to Fit in Too Hard (Not Having a Self-Identity).
Meehan explained that the youth summit was partially the brainchild of Jordan’s head counselor, Debbie Hughes, who this school year had transferred from Poly High School to Jordan, along with principals Shawn Ashley and Jay Camerino.
“They’ve been doing huge things at Poly, and Jordan has been struggling for a long time, academically, with race riots, and all kinds of stuff,” Meehan said. “So they came over to Jordan to help change the climate, to help bring up the academics, bring up the sports, all these things.”
Hughes approached Meehan to conduct a youth summit with 10th graders, to help improve the climate of the school by instilling them with school pride. These younger students were chosen with the hope that there will be a lasting change that will affect Jordan’s future generations, and Meehan is utilizing her brand of youth-generated problem-solving to change the school’s climate. She charged the school’s older students to become leaders to facilitate the workshops with the sophomores, who in turn were expected to devise resolutions to the campus’s problems.
“I actually train other high-school after-school programs, and the reason my program is so successful is because I’m not the one up there all the time saying, ‘Hey, don’t litter.’ Those are kids [saying it],” Meehan said. “So, every single workshop [at the summit]– they’re all our youth in our program who are facilitating the workshops because [the 10th graders] are going to listen to them more than they’ll listen to us. So, we’re building our leaders. We’re building their capacity, not just for job skills.” Meehan then pointed to a student leader who was confidently addressing a group of about 25 students about how they can contribute to their high school’s cleanliness. “That one girl right there, she looks like a teacher… she’s a 12th grader,” Meehan said, adding that that particular student, before entering the program, had been having a rough time. “She struggled, physically and emotionally. I believe that this program changes their lives, and we’re doing it by engaging our own youth to take charge of their own campus. So, all the subjects you’re hearing about today, there are eight of them, the students chose those. All our programs are youth-led.”
Meehan suggested that part of the challenge with reaching the student body is that Jordan operates from two different sites. The 9th graders are on a separate campus that is about a mile away from the main campus. “So, what’s happened is, when these 9th graders get to [the main] campus as 10th graders, it’s a mess,” Meehan said. “They’re not transitioned in.”
Meehan explained that next year, the 9th graders will be taught on Jordan’s main campus. “I’m targeting 10th graders now because, what will happen is, those 9th graders that come over next year we’re going to target for a camp called Jordan North,” she said. “So what we’re doing is targeting these kids right here (attending the summit) to then lead this camp next year. So, it’s kind of trickling.”
As an example of her student-leader approach, Meehan explained that “security” is provided by students, in the form of 11 members of the Omega Brothers mock fraternity and the Male Academy, which is another leadership organization that consists of male students. The Male Academy was initiated in response to the race-fueled riots that were occurring on campus. A female organization is The Xi Sisterhood. Meehan said Jordan’s administrators discourage staff from calling the organizations “fraternities” and “sororities” because of the possible negative connotations that can come with those labels, so they’re usually referred to as “mock fraternities and sororities” or simply “service organizations.”
“Only Xi and Omega are directly funded by WRAP and were created by me,” Meehan said. “Male Academy is sponsored by WRAP, meaning we pour additional funding from what they already have to help enhance their program. The Male Academy is a program at the district level that I helped start here at Jordan, not WRAP. So I work with the counselor, Lionel Gonzalez, who is in charge of all of the Male Academy programs at each site.”
Patricia Chambers, who oversees all the after-school programs at Jordan, Cabrillo and Renaissance high schools, was one of the adults “behind the scenes” at Monday’s summit, and she said she has seen a difference overall in the relations among various demographics at Jordan because of their program. “I think, for one, it breaks down a lot of racial tensions that can exist, especially between the African-American and Latino community,” she said. “This is my third year working with the program, and, just to see young men and young ladies who might not otherwise come together realize what they have in common and realize that, ‘You know what? We’re a lot more in common than we are different,’ and that sort of permeates itself throughout the campus.”
Chambers mentioned that, as opposed to the numerous racially charged fights that had occurred, now many of the Latino male students have started attending football games to support the African-American male students on the team. “So, it’s just really decreased violence,” she said. “It’s increased brotherhood and sisterhood, and [promoted] coming together and feeling like a family.”
At the summit, the grown-ups weren’t the only ones singing the praises of Jordan’s intervention programs. Jose Salas, a 12th-grader who is president of the Omega Brothers, not only credited the programs for helping him, he seems to take great pride in helping other students who need guidance. “We help people go to the right step, and the right step is college,” he said. “We get people that…not people that are doing bad, but that need that little push. Everybody needs that push so that they can get a step above. We bring them in, we help them out with school, we have tutoring sessions.”
Salas said he joined the organization last year but wishes he would have gotten involved sooner. “It helps you with a lot of things. It really, really helps you,” he said. “It keeps you away from trouble that you could be [getting involved with] out in the street.”
Another student, Dany Wang, has been involved in Meehan’s program since last year. “It brings me, like, to a second home,” she said. “You feel so safe here, like you can do anything and you can accomplish something that you want. It guides you on the right path.” Wang said that, if the program didn’t exist, she thinks she would have no direction. “I would be doing nothing– just staying home,” she said. “I might not even go to college.”
She said that she has changed a lot as a result of the program. “I have a better attitude. I have a better future,” she said. “I understand why I should go to college and why I should be a better leader.”
When asked what specific characteristics of the program have transformed her, Wang cited the support of the Xi Sisters and Omega Brothers, and especially Meehan and “Fonzie,” whose real name is Alfonso Raya, a 2008 Jordan graduate who has been working with Meehan the last two years.
Raya said that, while a student at Jordan, he wasn’t very involved in school until he entered the program. “When I was a freshman, my family suffered a big loss, so I was just kind of trying to not even be at school. It wasn’t until my junior year that I started getting involved. One of my friends–” Raya then chuckled. “One of my friends actually invited me to go to a jewelry-making class that Long Beach WRAP had,” he said, smiling. “Now we laugh about it because it’s funny that that was my first program. From there, I joined [Meehan’s] board.”
Raya explained that the activities instilled in him a sense of responsibility. Until then, he had only known his life at home, caring for his younger brother while his father worked, but the WRAP program made him feel a part of “something bigger.” He said that Meehan provided him, not only with academic support, but also moral guidance.
Now, he serves as Meehan’s assistant director and also facilitates the Omega Brothers program.
Another key adult figure facilitating the program is Chris Covington, a volunteer with the California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ) and Long Beach’s Building Healthy Communities, whom Meehan hired to help facilitate the programs and organize the summit. Covington, who is currently the vice chair for the Building Healthy Communities initiative in Long Beach, said he was recruited by Meehan because of the work he does with community youth. He said she approached him to organize a program that would encompass human relations and contribute to Jordan’s becoming a safe and inclusive school site.
“We met, and we came up with [the idea of] getting youth leaders to come together and talk about those issues,” Covington said. “The issues that they came up… are racial segregation [by students themselves], bullying, it’s student-teacher partnerships…littering, defacing on campus. Those issues came up from the youth. They were like, ‘These are the issues at our school, and this is how we want to tackle it.” Covington said the youth leaders would meet each Tuesday, sometimes for up to four hours, and they would discuss how to engage others. After recruiting students, the youth leaders would have sessions in which the participants would openly talk about those issues and share their feelings. Then, the students themselves would generate solutions to the problems on campus.
The youth leaders used those previous rap sessions to decide on the workshops’ topics, and they developed their own “lessons.”
“So for littering, they threw trash everywhere, and the component of their presentation was to partner up and pick up the trash and throw it away,” Covington said. “For the racial segregation group, they talked about prejudice and how it plays into segregation and how it plays into the school environment, so they made a ‘Wall of Segregation,’ and they broke it down. They ripped up the paper. Other groups showed videos, other groups did one-on-one communication. So, it’s very creative, and it was pretty much all their ideas. I wasn’t the person to put it all together.”
Covington mentioned the negative reputation that the school has had and how he, the other advisors and the students hope to change that perspective. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, Jordan is whack, Jordan is an unsafe school, it’s nothing but gangsters, their test scores are low,’” he said. “But these are passionate students from the WRAP program who really want to change that, to be like, we are a school of professionals, we are a school of people who want to go to college, we are a school of youth who really want to make a change– not only in our school, but in our community as well.”