PUSD ‘Focuses’ students forward

Mentoring program moves outside of juvenile justice facility, goes mainstream

Parlier Unified School District Office is located at 900 S. Newmark Ave. (Kenny Goodman)
Parlier Unified School District Office is located at 900 S. Newmark Ave. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published February 15, 2024  • 
10:00 am

PARLIER – For the first time since its inception, a county program that mentors boys and girls in the juvenile justice system has moved outside of the walls of the juvenile justice facility and onto school campuses to help at-risk students.

Since 2006, Focus Forward (Focus), which was developed by the Fresno Board of Supervisors, has mentored young people caught up in the juvenile justice system. Marc Salazar, the program director for Focus, said Parlier Unified School District (PUSD) heard about the program’s mentoring program and asked if Focus would be interested in working with students in the district.

“This was our first project in mentoring kids who weren’t in the juvenile justice facility,” Salazar said. “But some kids who are at the schools have come out of the facility, so they were familiar with us.” He added that some of the students first came into contact with Focus as foster kids because the nonprofit also has programs in the child welfare system.

The program that Focus deployed on PUSD campuses is not too dissimilar to the program it uses for young offenders.

“It’s more of tweaking the original program a little,” said Salazar. He said the PUSD students Focus works with are Tier 2 students; that is, kids who are at risk of developing behavioral problems. The warning signs manifest in a variety of ways.

“Maybe substance abuse, maybe gang involvement, issues at home,” Salazar said. “We’re trying to curb that.”

Focus mentors are master level clinicians. Many have lived through what the at-risk or at-promise students are experiencing. The Focus mentors understand these students are standing on the precipice of an abyss.

“As far as the kids we’re working with at the school, they’re probably teetering, so we try to address the risk factors,” said Salazar. “We say, ‘If you keep continuing what you’re doing, you could end up in this other environment (jail) in which you don’t want to end up’.”

Salazar said that working with these students involves invoking the occasional cautionary tale – as mentioned. It also involves something more basic; something so pedestrian as just listening.

“A lot of the time, it’s been more of just being there and guiding them and giving them advice,” he said. “Sometimes it’s getting them a math tutor because they don’t understand the subject and we’re acting out in class.”

The mentors typically are on campus at 8:30 a.m. and remain until 5 p.m.

“Whatever the need is, we’re there, five days a week,” said Salazar.

THE RESULTS

In the year and a half Focus has been mentoring PUSD students, the results have been nothing short of remarkable.

Reedley-based Sierra Kings (Sierra) Health District and CalViva Health fund the program. Sierra CEO Chinayera Black Hardman said this year, the health district has provided over $300,000 in funding. The last grant Sierra provided for the program was $40,000; CalViva matched it with a grant of $20,000.

In a Jan. 26, 2024 Sierra press release, Hardman said the efforts of Focus, combined with a pilot program – Behavioral Intervention Program – Sierra developed with PUSD, have fundamentally changed negative behaviors at PUSD campuses.

This year, PUSD captured data to quantify the progress of Parlier High School and Parlier Junior High School students involved in the program. Prior to participating in the program, Parlier High students averaged four suspensions; since participating in the program, this average dropped to zero. Their absenteeism rate was more than halved – from 9.5 days to four days. Their average GPAs increased from 1.7 to 2.19.

The results at Parlier Junior High are more impressive. While suspensions have not been wholly eradicated – from 1.3 to .33 – the average number of days absent dropped from eight to two. But the most striking statistic has to do with average GPA. Prior to entering the program, Parlier Junior High students had an average GPA of 1.3. Since being in the program, their average GPAs increased to 3.15.

Hardman said there is a simple reason for the turnaround: engagement.

“By being present, by being in the chair, they’re able to start improving,” she said. “These aren’t kids who have learning disabilities. These are smart kids that were just not applying themselves. Just by virtue of getting them into the seats, obviously, it impacts them.”

Hardman offered a further, albeit anecdotal, explanation of why greater engagement in school translates to fewer behavioral problems.

“When kids are on the fringes of the wolf pack, their attention is not on academics,” she said. “Sitting in a class for eight hours? No.”

She said that maintaining at least a 2.0 GPA creates a new reality for students.

“When kids don’t have a 2.0 GPA, they are not eligible for anything. Sports, art, band. All those extracurriculars are not available to them,” said Hardman. She said it is the extracurriculars in school that inspire students; that provide them with an identity and focus.

“When you’re underperforming, you’re not inspired to do better,” she said. “You have no incentives. Extracurricular activities give them a reason to start exploring things that are close to their hearts. Some of these kids do well simply because they want to play baseball.”

After Hardman presented CalViva with the GPA, absenteeism and suspension statistics, it committed to fund the program next year and to increase its funding for PUSD in the future.

“We’re moving the needle,” Hardman said. 

Darren Fraser
Reporter