Conflict resolution for Merced, Atwater, Los Banos students is working

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 19, 2013 

There's a new way of doing business at continuation high schools in Merced, Atwater and Los Banos that are operated by the Merced County Office of Education.

Called STRIVE, the new program aims to cut down on student suspensions and behavior problems, said Holly Newlon, MCOE assistant superintendent of career and alternative education.

By using a mediation process, Newlon said, the program is designed to repair the breach in the all-important student-teacher relationship caused by conflicts.

"It's a whole different way of running a school," Newlon said. "It's about fidelity, not giving up and reverting to the old way of doing things. It is helping kids stay in school and reducing incidents of poor behavior."

When a student acts out in class, the teacher hands him or her a form that sets up a mediation process and what is called a behavior intervention plan. The student fills out the form, ideally on the same day the problem occurred, and then meets with the teacher to discuss the issue.

About 1,000 sixth- through 12th-grade students attend classes at MCOE sites in Merced, Atwater and Los Banos, along with an independent studies program and Merced County Juvenile Hall.

MCOE serves students on probation, expelled from their regular school districts or referred by other districts, according to Newlon. Most of the students are in ninth through 12th grades.

Sixty-nine percent of students are on probation and 32 percent have been expelled.

STRIVE, which stands for Safe Trust Respect Inspiration Vision and Encouragement, has seen a 61 percent reduction in tagging, fighting and use of profanity.

Documented discipline cases are down 60 percent, with the expectation the issue will be resolved in the classroom.

Instead of being sent home on suspension, problem students go to in-house suspension classes at each school. Newlon said full-day home suspensions have been reduced by 63 percent from last year. And that means more time for instruction.

Carrie Harkreader, principal of Valley Community School in Atwater, said the STRIVE program has made an enormous improvement on her campus this year.

"Everyone has embraced our new school posture and the students are happy they have a voice in the discipline process," Harkreader said.

Michael Richter, principal of Valley Community School in Los Banos, said the program sets the tone at his campus for students and staff.

"The program sets high expectations for everyone and holds them accountable as well," Richter said.

Newlon said parents want their children to be successful and stay in school. Where there is consistency, she said, students exhibit more positive behavior patterns and can be successful.

"It's better students are in school learning rather than out of school and not learning," Newlon said. "In the end it will really pay off. Teachers and students are working together to resolve the conflict. Students have lots of opportunities to make things right."

Frank Zarate, an English teacher at Valley Community School in Merced, said the resolution process can take from one class period to five days depending on the severity of the offense. And there may be a delay if the student is unwilling to work with the teacher.

"I believe the process has an overall good foundation, but there is still progress to be made in order to make it a truly effective program," Zarate said.

Leslie Suffecool, who teaches English and history at Valley Community School in Los Banos, said once students fill out the referral form it is then used as a mediation tool to resolve the issue.

"The goal of this process is to restore and build relationships," Suffecool said. "These relationships are the foundation for establishing a school community conducive to learning."

Newlon said a majority of teachers have embraced the new discipline model and see that it's helping students. The whole philosophy is about building relationships with students.

Oscar Alvarez, a senior at Valley Community School's Merced campus, said STRIVE has helped him considerably this year. Being in school to earn credits is an important part of the program, he added.

Irania Anguiano, a senior at Valley Community School in Atwater, said the program works. She has attended the school for three years and said students' behavior has changed for the better thanks to STRIVE.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or

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