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Home / Neighborhood / San Gabriel Valley / Pasadena Independent / Students Make up Credits, Learn Life Skills in Supportive SKILLZ Summer School Program

Students Make up Credits, Learn Life Skills in Supportive SKILLZ Summer School Program

by Pasadena Independent
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-Photo Courtesy of Beacon Media

– Photo by Matt Rose

By Joyce Peng

Energetic, up-beat music blared as high school students grabbed breakfast – bananas, pita bread, oranges and grapes – and headed into Lake Avenue Church’s Family Life Center auditorium for their morning session. Thursday, June 11 was the fourth day of SKILLZ, a free five-week summer school program for Pasadena Unified School District at-risk incoming ninth and 10th graders.

The staff members introduced the session by congratulating the students for almost finishing the first week and started off with a team building activity called the human knot.

SKILLZ seems like a fun summer day camp for teenagers, but it actually has an important objective. It provides underclassmen with the opportunity to make up 10 credits – five elective credits with the morning life skills workshops and five academic credits with the afternoon math or English classes. 86 students are currently enrolled.

When PUSD had to cancel its summer school due to budget cuts in 2010, Christy Zamani, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Day One, brought up her kids’ desires to make up credits over the summer at a Vision 20/20 meeting. Vision 20/20 is a collaborative non-profit coalition that works to stop gang and community violence.

Soon, Flintridge Center, an organization that strives toward combating poverty and violence in northwest Pasadena and west Altadena, and Lake Avenue Church collaborated with Day One to put together SKILLZ, Zamani said. As of right now, the church donates the facilities, Flintridge hires teachers for the math and English classes, and Day One teaches and coordinates the life skills workshops and sessions.

SKILLZ is broken down into three parts: morning session, life skills workshops and academic classes. The morning life skills session engages the students with creative, interactive activities. After, the kids break up into classrooms for an hour-long life skills workshop, where they learn various topics including sex education, healthy relationships, drugs and bullying. These topics are presented by Day One staff and local organizations such as Planned Parenthood and YWCA, who donate their sessions to SKILLZ. After free lunch provided by PUSD, students attend their academic classes.

One of the key goals of SKILLZ is to build bonds between the students and the adults. Many factors come in to play to establish this trust. Adriana Pinedo, a Day One staff member, said one factor is taking clues from the students. For example, in Thursday’s morning session, the students learned the process of good decision making. A student told Pinedo it is not always the boys who pressure the girls. She applied that tip into her decision-making skit, where she pressured her “boyfriend” Daniel Fong, another Day One staff member, to have sex with her.

“We do try to be very perceptive and receptive to what they say,” Pinedo explained. “So I think that helps them see that adults are listening and that we really bond and make that connection.”

Another way to connect with the students is to establish respect. Pinedo mentioned she tries to be blunt and honest and opens up her own life with them.

“I’ve always heard that you only can take people as far as you’ve come yourself,” Pinedo voiced. “So if I know if I’ve gone through something, I’m sure they’re facing it or they potentially could. I think it’s cool for them to see [that] – oh you’re an adult and your life isn’t perfect. They see that other kids are also struggling with similar things in the group, but also that there’s adults that they can relate to.”

The approach in the classroom is also different from the mainstream. Presenters are encouraged to talk in a teen friendly language, tell real stories and engage the students so they become part of the lesson. Once students realize the class is talking about their own lives, they will retain more information, Pinedo explained.

The high schoolers also obtain community resources. Presenters give students their contact information. Pinedo recalled a student writing to a Pasadena-based mental health agency wanting to receive counseling when the agency came to present a few years ago.

Alyssa Chavez, a student who took SKILLZ last year, commented that she felt comfortable talking the program’s adults.

“They’re very open and they’re there to hear you with what you have to say,” she said. “They don’t judge you off of stuff that you say. [Also], say you did something bad. They won’t be like – oh well I have to tell someone – but…they’d give you helpful advice.”

Because of its unique approach of teaching and guiding kids to be successful and healthy in all areas of their lives, SKILLZ has been effective. Tomás Taus, a student who took SKILLZ last year, expressed that SKILLZ helped him in his first semester of school, where he earned A’s and B’s. He got involved in Day One because SKILLZ showed him that he has the ability to help his community. Taus stated he was shy before the program and have since opened up.

“Someone told me that if you’re not open to other people, then you aren’t going to be successful,” he mentioned.

According to Chavez, SKILLZ allowed her to be more ready and open to learn in school.

Zamani said the reason behind SKILLZ’s success is just love.

“We tell the kids that we’re not getting anything extra from this,” she voiced. “We choose to be here. We believe in you and we want you to succeed.”

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