They are the students no one else can handle. Some have been kicked out of not just one but many schools. Coming here is their last chance before being assigned to a court-ordered, school or being incarcerated. When Principal Willie Horton Jr. walks down the halls of high school, he has one question for his students, a question he asks hundreds of times a day: “Are you on track?” Youth Opportunities Unlimited, or Y.O.U., used to be a place teachers feared – a world of anger at authority, extreme behavior problems, poor test scores, and high drop-out rates. Then something changed. This “last chance” school now has the lowest suspension rate in all of San Diego County—dropping from 17.5 percent to 0.9 percent. Its teachers enjoy coming to school, and its students are well-behaved and motivated to achieve. One parent compared the change as going from hell to heaven. What led to this drastic change? A shift in students’ values. Students still enter Y.O.U because they have used up every other option, but now they work at changing their lives rather than remaining in a dead-end world full of gang life, drugs, and violence. The transformation of the school, located in San Diego, California, has been credited to the leadership of Horton and to CORE Values, the character education system he introduced. “When I arrived four years ago, it was like a war zone. Kids defied authority, smoked pot in the hallway. No one wanted to work at Y.O.U,” said Horton. The first thing he did was meet with the staff to discuss implementing character education. He brought in teachers he had worked with in a former principal-ship to share the successes they had achieved. Then drawing on research that a habit could be formed or broken in 21 days, he issued his faculty a challenge. “I said, ‘We are really going to focus on turning these kids around in 21 days. We want to get them on track. Let’s do 21 days and then take a look at it.” That was the beginning.
The next step was to introduce the core values and a race track. While other schools of character may focus on values such as gratitude, patriotism, or loyalty, Horton states that to him these are secondary core values, and that “one must first be on track with their primary core values before they can develop their secondary core values.” Horton began to reflect on the questions: What are the basic values that you must have in order to achieve? What do you have to have to make it? What are the survival values that Y.O.U.’s students have not internalized? Y.O.U. found its answer in the following four CORE values:
Knowledge: the acquisition of facts, truths, and principles that focus on accountability, leadership, academic skills, and internalizing a positive value system.
Wisdom: the application of knowledge in decision making, and an understanding of right and wrong that enables fair decision making and positive social interactions.
Self-worth: the development of self-esteem, confidence, and productive behavior and attitudes that nurture respect, caring, tolerance, and empathy for others.
Wealth: using education as the “Big Payoff’ that leads to personal and career success and encompasses the values of self-motivation, self-discipline, responsibility, and cooperation.
To depict the CORE values, Y.O.U. uses a racetrack image with one lane for each value. The tracks are displayed all over the school, and students are constantly asked whether they are “on” or “off’ track for each value. The concept is simple: If students are abiding by the core values, they are on track to be successful. If, through a poor decision, they fall “off track,” they need to make amends and get themselves back in the race for success. “I tell the students that they have the power at Y.O.U.,” states Horton. “As long as you stay on track and adhere to core values, you will stay here. It’s up to you. They understand the concept of staying on track; they know the rules of the race. When they come into my office, I say, ‘Did you fall off track today?’ I may tell them that I fell off track last week but got back on. I say: ‘Do you want to get back on? What value did you violate?’ Then we talk about the values, and we come up with a valid consequence.”
The question, “Are you on track?” presupposes that students have a working understanding of the values and what they look like in action. It also requires the same understanding in parents and teachers. Enter STRIDE with Pride Spelled out, that is: Students Rededicated to Improving Discipline and Education with Instructional Teachers’ Help and Parents Rededicated to Improving Discipline and Education.
STRIDE is a four-day, mandatory CORE Values orientation seminar. At the start of each year, students receive a four-day training in the core values. The workshop is conducted by a counselor and gives students a common understanding of the values and what is expected of them at Y.O.U. The school repeats the training weekly to accommodate both the influx of new students and any student who needs a “refresher” course in values. A parent or teacher may refer students to retake the course, or a student may self-refer. The bottom line is that no student enters Y.O.U. at any point in the year without first being taught what it means to be “on track” with values.
WITH is an in-service workshop for teachers, who are considered “co-parents.” It is designed to provide information, techniques, and motivational activities that reinforce the CORE Values program. The result of this frequent training is a faculty dedicated to character education. This, of course, requires a great deal of internal commitment. “My teachers can’t show favoritism, they can’t pick on students – that’s off track,” says Horton. “I can’t defend my teachers when they are off track. They have to stand on their own two feet and apologize. So we all work hard to stay on track.”
PRIDE is a workshop designed to assist parents in developing positive parenting skills, in-home academic reinforcement, and positive behavior management. It helps parents see themselves as the primary teacher of their children. Parents or guardians attend an orientation meeting with their children and must sign a contract to uphold the core values to the best of their abilities. As it turns out, gaining parent support has not been difficult. Horton explains, “If you have a son or daughter and they’ve gotten in trouble in every school they’ve attended, what would you think when your student comes home successful and happy? How would you feel?”
To supplement the students’ initial training, every day begins with a 15-minute advisory period that expands and reinforces the meaning and application of the values. While on some days the content includes success skills such as job interviewing, study skills, and professional dress, the curriculum is often the morning newspaper. A teacher brings in an article or assigns a student to do so. Students read the article and determine its subject area, such as world news, sports, or business. They then ask one familiar question: Are the characters in the article on or off track? If they are on track, students discuss what they did to be on track. If they are off track, students discuss what the community can do to help these people get back on track. When the news was dominated by President Clinton’s impeachment hearings, the students applied that same question. ‘The answer was obvious,” says Horton. “The next question was, What can President Clinton do to get back on track? What can Congress and the American people do to help him get back on track?”
The school has many programs designed for its unique population and needs, and each program is centered around the CORE values. The City As School program offers student internships, moving students from the streets into legitimate businesses. WINGS, an independent study program, allows students to work one on one with teachers through independent study, building strong relationships. STEP (Smart Teens Educate Peers) is a teen pregnancy prevention program. There is also a School-Age Parenting and Infant Development Program, which provides child care and parenting classes to students who are single mothers. Youth Economic Zone trains students in entrepreneurial skills and public speaking, building on the values of knowledge, wealth, and wisdom.
One sign of Y.O.U.’s success is the activity of its graduates. “Graduated students are the ambassadors,” says Horton. ‘They say, ‘Look, staying on track works. When I came here I was a gang-banger, but now I’m at City College and have a positive future.’ They have hope and they share their hope.” Seniors and graduates of Y.O.U are encouraged to help younger peers stay “on track” by becoming peer counselors. The school provides these older students with regular instruction on how to help peers make good use of the CORE Values program, teaching peer mediation and conflict resolution skills. Peer counselors provide such services as counseling “off-track” students who have been sent to the counseling center to complete a CORE Values sheet. The peer counselor will discuss the violation with the student and encourage him or her to assume responsibility and reflect on how this behavior impacts individual success and society as a whole. Students who are “off track’ fill out a CORE Values sheet that serves as a discipline tool and helps students in the counseling center to reflect on their behavior and its consequences, and identify positive action steps. A parent or guardian must sign the sheet.
Many students exercise the CORE values by being active members of the Governance Team and School Site Council, the two major policy-setting bodies on campus. The students get to vote on issues that affect the school climate in a way that reflects the larger governing agencies in our nation. Other students participate in the school paper, ‘Street Teens’, which tackles difficult issues, such as drug abuse, in the context of core values.
For students initially skeptical about the program the value of wealth is the hook because they can see its concrete analogy in the real world Wealth at Y.O.U. is the earning of good grades which leads to a good report card, which is the same as their parent’s pay check,” explains Horton students soon see the other payoffs to staying on track, however.. Consider this student essay:
At my old school, I wouldn’t do my-homework or hardly any class work. I wouldn’t pay attention. I would make noise in class and disturb other students. I got kicked out of that school too and then they sent me to Y.O.U. Every day the principal asks all the kids when he sees us if we are On Track. I learned about the CORE values in orientation where they have a track poster with the four big values. I think all four values have helped me. I can’t say that one helped the most. I am getting Knowledge by doing good in school and have Wisdom which means I make good choices now to succeed and I stay out of fights. I don’t get suspended anymore. I have more Self- worth because I’m doing good in school and now I don’t fight as much at home either, so I get along better with my family. I have Y.O.U. and the CORE values to thank for all this.
The students at Y.O.U. still might not have the highest test scores in the state, but they have something more important—they have a bright future. And that’s something many of the students never dreamed of having. Horton explains that when the school gets recognition, he photocopies it for the students. “I say, ‘Look what you have done. You have earned this.’ They haven’t felt this success before, and it makes them happy. My students are happy.” What greater gift can be given to our youth?
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