On Tuesday, a group of nearly 20 Sequoia Middle School eighth graders travelled to Vang Pao Elementary School in Southeast Fresno to read to their younger peers. Outside the classroom, they described themselves as former trouble-makers. Many admitted they had cut school, acted out in class and disrespected teachers.
"I would get distracted, try to be the class clown," said student Genaro Grabiola. "Last year they put me in a class for only bad kids and I didn't really like it."
He and the others said, at one point, they were barely passing their classes and teachers told us, they were eventually identified as at-risk of dropping out.
"They had a high number of suspensions, low G.P.A.'s, were really at risk of being in trouble a lot at the middle school level," said teacher Richard Perez.
Now, the students are developing leadership and communications skills by taking part in a variety of community projects like reading to a group of students at Fresno Unified's newest elementary school.
"It was nice today because we got to read to little second graders and I guess they liked the book," said student Michael Wright.
The project is part of the new Men's Alliance Program, an elective course where troubled youth are paired with adult mentors to develop personal behavior and academic skills that lead to success in the classroom, career and in life.
"I'm very proud of these young men," said Perez. "They've really come a long way from being on the verge of not succeeding in middle school and they're now becoming true leaders of our campus, demonstrating that through their work here today and also in the classroom."
The program began in the fall. Now just a few months in and teacher Richard Perez said he's already seeing results.
"This past semester we had four guys meet the Honor Roll or Principal's Honor Roll for the first time in their academic career," he said. "We have guys who are, for the first time, eligible to play sports, which means they earned above a 2.0. We also had students on the merit list for the first time ever so once they see or get a taste of success they'll continue to succeed later on."
Students described their experience as a life lesson they're grateful to be exposed to this early on in their academic careers.
"It's pretty good," said student Eric Funk. "It's helped me a lot in school, In grades and behavior. I haven't gotten in trouble as much as last year and I got way better grades then last year."
The program is so successful, Perez said, the school expanded it to include seventh graders. Fresno Unified is also looking to bring the Men's Alliance course to other schools in the district.