Pat Murphy...Following behind Counselor Angel Chavarin, I was led out of the Counseling and Career offices and onto the campus grounds of Mission Vista High School. We briefly crossed a portion of the yard and I could see that the morning rain had stopped. It was only a short distance to a doorway that Chavarin opened and motioned for me to enter. Inside the room noise from dozens of voices all talking at once came bursting at me. The middle of the room was filled with students. They were going from person to person introducing themselves. The chatter was loud but no one was actually raising their voice. It was a friendly din and I could immediately tell it was a “Meet and Greet” activity. The PLUS Forum on the Timberwolves campus had already begun.
Chavarin introduced me to Counselors and Student Advisors, Ashley Atkins and Chivon Parli, who in turn introduced me to the student who had sent an invitation to theVistaPress.com. Trisha Crowell expressed great pleasure and maybe just a little surprise that our on-line publication had shown up to cover the PLUS Forum at Mission Vista High School. Crowell (whom I soon discovered to be very positive and always wearing a cheerful smile) heads the PLUS Community Connections Committee.
The PLUS program at MVHS is continuing for a second year and it is still growing. It’s like, “building a plane while flying it”, said Atkins. Last year PLUS was just a club on campus but this year it was elevated to become a class. It is now part of the curriculum for students like Caldwell that want to make a difference. There were 41 students in the room. Ten students were PLUS members and the rest had been invited to the forum.
All 41 Forum participants had taken a 20 question survey. 24% of the students had responded that they have felt “isolated/harassed” at school due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or even their appearance. The same percentage had said they did not know where to go on campus for Grief Support. A whopping 68% admitted that they feel stressed “most of the time”. On a more upbeat note, 93 % are happy to be at MVHS and 98% feel safe on campus.
Unlike the PLUS program I wrote about last year on another Vista Unified School District campus, I was told the program at MVHS deals only with on-campus issues and doesn’t try to deal with other social issues that may affect teens. However, the subjects that I watched these young women and young men tackle were serious topics that can be found in many work places. The topics included, bullying, dealing with classes and instructors that you don’t like, disability awareness, sitting for over one hour to hear someone speak, time management, drugs, depression, stress, and dress code.
Looking back at my career in Aerospace, I could immediately identify with a lot of the concerns the students were voicing, especially with Stress and Time Management. I even thought to myself that PLUS is a program could easily be used way beyond High School. It was, however, heartwarming for me to see how the students at MVHS were dealing with their issues. I was grateful for the invitation to the Forum and looking forward to sharing the experience with our readers.
Rules for the Forum were simple and were posted in the room;
– No side talking
– No cell phones
– No physical /verbal violence
– Be honest
– Be respectful
– Clap once, clap twice (for silence / attention)
The Forum took place over a 2 ½ hour period. After the Meet and Greet, chairs were arranged in a large circle. It was like musical chairs. One chair was removed and a student standing in the center would make a statement like, “I’m a person who likes wearing sweaters” or “I’m a person who likes stickers”. Everyone who agreed or identified with the “I’m a person who…” statement would have to get up go to the center of the circle and then find another chair to sit on. Of course with not enough chairs someone would always remain standing. That person would have to make the next statement.
Next the students were randomly broken down into 4 groups and the chairs were moved into smaller circles. Student Moderators Mars and Bri were sharp and focused as they directed the Forum with little assistance from their Advisors. The Meet and Greet was obviously successful as there was little sign of hesitation or shyness as voices addressed sensitive issues. The presence of adults in the room didn’t deter their open and frank comments.
But, what exactly is PLUS and what is a PLUS Forum? The Acronym PLUS stands for “Peer Leaders Uniting Students”. It is a youth facilitated program where social leadership is used to connect all students on a campus. It is made up from a diverse cross section of student leaders who focus on a series of activities that create communication, connections, caring and a sense of community among their fellow students. These student leaders aren’t your usual bunch. They aren’t necessarily the students making the top grades or excelling in sports. The PLUS student leaders were originally identified by teachers, peers, administrators, and advisors. These students are from a variety of backgrounds, ages, and personalities.
So then, what is a PLUS Forum? The Forum is an event where active PLUS members lead discussions that identify critical issues on campus. PLUS members invite students from all over the school to attend and participate in the Forum. At the Forum students discuss the similarities and differences that are perceived on campus, with the goal of breaking down some of the walls that teenagers tend to automatically erect. Brainstorming sessions are used to suggest solutions to these campus-wide issues. A white board was used to capture ideas that flowed like water from the students.
This was the 5th “PLUS Forum” that PLUS members have held at MVHS. I was impressed as Bri told everyone what to do if they ended up in a class they didn’t like. “Do your best”, she advised. She went on to tell us that experience has taught her that keeping a positive mind set will help you get past bad situations. Bri also commented that the teachers and counselors are here to help you. Mars encouraged the young men and women to “Be active” and to “Leave your footprint here”. After a big group hug, Mars thanked everyone for attending and then, as Bri passed out T-shirts, Mars said, “You’re in the gang now. I hope you had a good time”.
Bri told me that what she liked best about the program was “Hearing students voice their opinions”. She believes their voices matter and need to be heard. Mars likes “Uniting my peers” and creating a campus wide “sense of unity”. These two young women are natural leaders entering into their adulthood.
I was glad to have acted on my invitation from the PLUS committee members to view their forum and learn what PLUS does on their campus and for our community. I was extremely impressed with the maturity of all the students at the Forum. Even the younger students gave somber answers and made some excellent suggestions to the concerns being raised. The impact that will be felt on the MVHS campus for years to come is immense.
During the forum I also learned that PLUS members are already extending their lessons learned and applying them to worthwhile projects in the community. PLUS Community Connections members recently went to the Life Care Center of Vista where they delivered greeting cards and warm wishes to the residents. Trisha told me they were going to Operation Hope on the coming Saturday to deliver collected donations. So I met Trisha, Evelyn, and Anna at Operation Hope on Saturday. Evelyn’s three sisters Stephanie, Amayrani, and Eli joined the small group. I watched as Julie from Operation Hope accepted a large cart full of household goods from the young women. Julie told me it was “Great to see young kids involved and putting their weekend to good use”.
I came away from my experience at the PLUS Forum with a very hopeful feeling for our community and our future. I felt I had observed something very important. Yes, it was definitely a PLUS for me!