Program gives Modesto students a big lift

Juan Tobar attended 13 elementary schools in Tracy, Stockton, Modesto and Turlock. As an eighth-grader at Prescott junior high, his grades, by his own admission, were "mostly F's" by the end of the first quarter.

But the 15-year-old will walk the stage today as a graduate, thanks to a special program begun by Principal Tom Freeman and Assistant Principal Susan Jeffery.

Juan and 17 other eighth-grade boys, who each had a 1.0 GPA or lower, participated in what they affectionately called the "Bad Boys Club."

Each Friday, Freeman treated them to lunch, often accompanied by talks from community leaders. On Wednesdays before school, they played basketball; because of their poor grades, none were eligible for the school's athletic teams. In between, Freeman and Jeffery checked in with the boys and kept track of their progress with their teachers, offering extra tutoring when needed.

It all worked. Seventeen of the 18 boys improved their grades significantly. Eight earned grades high enough to graduate. One, who is younger than the others, will repeat eighth grade because he wants to graduate next year. The others will go on to high school with better study skills and attitudes.

And each of the 18, if he graduates from high school and goes on to Modesto Junior College, will earn a full scholarship to attend, plus receive a laptop computer when he gets there and a $1,000 bonus when he completes his first year. That money was donated by the school's parent foundation and by Leslie Williams, who plans to donate $10,000 a year in honor of her late husband, John Williams, a valley native who was employed first as a social worker and later in mortgage banking.

The scholarships and prizes were announced at last week's school board meeting.

"My mouth literally dropped open," said Daniel Elisaia, 14, another group member who will graduate today. "It was amazing. It proved there are people out there who really care about kids' education."

No more 'doing bad things'

Juan said he was ready for a change when he was approached about joining the group.

"All my life, I've been told that people looked up to me," he said. "I have three younger brothers, and they all looked to me as a role model, along with their friends. But I was doing bad things and hanging around some bad people.

"(After I joined), my grades started going up for the first time. This quarter, I'm getting one A and the rest B's and C's," he said. "I found a new group of friends. Now, I'm always telling my brothers to do their homework, and I'm teaching them how to play football, spending time with them."

"The program has been great," Daniel said. "I was the class clown, not caring about the people I made fun of. I didn't know I was hurting myself by playing around and goofing off. Now, I get all my work done. I plan to play basketball in high school and college."

He said he was especially impressed by one of the Friday speakers, who arranged a trip to the state Capitol for the group. There they met several Assembly members and caught a glimpse of life outside of their neighborhoods.

Friday speakers included Modesto Police Chief Mike Harden, Jamie Contreras from the Probation Department, Stephenson Streeter from the University of California at Davis Trauma Wraparound Program and former Irish Republican Army member Billy Reid. All told stories of growing up or the consequences faced by people they knew who had made bad (or good) choices in life.

"I've tried mentoring programs before, but they never seemed to work," Freeman said. "This time, we found a successful model. It didn't take a lot of money; it took a lot of our time. But it was so rewarding. The joy in seeing what happened was worthwhile."

Besides the rise in grades, there was a huge reduction in the number of times these boys were sent to the office. In the first quarter, the 18 boys made that trip 68 times. Since October, the number has dropped to three.

"The referral rates have been the biggest shock," Freeman said. "Yes, their grades have gone up. But even more important, their attitudes have changed. It's heart-warming. It's like they're on another road; they've been given a second chance."

"Every little bit of success makes them want to achieve more," Jeffery said.

The program, Freeman and Jeffery said, will "absolutely" continue. They hope to add a girls club.

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at or 578-2012