“I was fine in grade school. Just a normal kid in the neighborhood. But things changed in middle school. I started to get peer-pressured into bad situations. A lot of it was based on where we lived: my parents were struggling and we were living in a motel. I got pulled into a lot of bad things with the other
By 6th grade, I was getting into trouble all the time. I kept getting suspended and I was starting to get involved in gangs. In 7th grade, I finally got expelled for an encounter with another student. They told me I had the option of going to the West40 Safe School, which I had never heard of, and I was completely against it. At my home school, I had friends and a girlfriend and the thought of going to another school didn’t sound good to me at all. On top of it, my parents weren’t necessarily encouraging me to keep going. They’re immigrants and they had a different attitude about education—the thought was, good grades are fine, but making money is what really matters. They certainly didn’t know what the Safe School experience would be like for me.
But I decided to try the Safe School anyway. And right away, I had people encouraging me. My Safe School teachers were Mr. Giosa and Mrs. Tiemann [now the principal and program director at the Safe Schools]. They helped me think about my situation in a new way. No one had ever been that realistic and honest with me. They said, Yes, you’re living in a motel and your family is getting government benefits. That’s just how it is. But that doesn’t have to define who Juan is.
After a few months at the Safe School, I was making progress. I finally trusted the teachers there. Our daily talks and our ‘Circle of Courage’ meetings had an impact on me. We decided that I was ready to go back to my home school. I had things to prove to the people there, people who never believed in me.
At first, things at my home school were better. I made the basketball team. I was doing well in my classes. But unfortunately, my living situation was the same. The motel kids looked up to me because I had gotten expelled and thought I was ready to cause havoc. I was able to resist it for a while, because I had the foundation that the Safe School had given me. But eventually I slipped back into bad habits. Soon I was suspended again, this time for some gang-related writing they found in my notebook.
Now I was given the chance to join the ALOP program, which gives you a support system inside your home school. At first, I didn’t even realize it was a West40 program. The ALOP advocates gave me a sense of comfort. I felt like, ‘these are my people.’ They were there to help me, to tell me that I needed to shape up and focus on academics. They told me I was better than this. But the real value wasn’t in passing classes. It was about the emotional challenge too. I could talk to the advocates in a way that I wouldn’t talk to other adults.
My journey wasn’t over. And neither were the challenges. But for now, I was back on track to graduating. And I couldn’t have done it without West40.”
Read Part 2 of Juan’s story here.