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As Santa Ana school officials look at ways to improve student behavior and academic performance, a relatively new intervention program is getting a strong endorsement from the highest levels.

At a graduation ceremony this weekend for the Joven Noble program, Santa Ana Unified School District board members John Palacio and Valerie Amezcua said it’s the kind of program the district should be focusing on.

Amezcua, who has worked for years as a probation officer, told a program facilitator that the program now has support from board members and to “take it and run with it.”

Both board members encouraged the facilitator, Valley High School counselor Alex Padilla, to give a presentation to the full board about the program.

Palacio, who serves as the school board’s president, said he was excited to see programs like Joven Noble, which focuses on building a sense of self-respect and honor in male students who are struggling in school.

“You’re looking at the totality of the student” and what their needs are, said Palacio.

Restorative justice programs, which work to address underlying causes of violence and harm to others, have been getting more attention at the Santa Ana school district in recent years.

That attention comes amid requests by parents to re-think school discipline and a growing class of elected officials and school administrators who question traditional approaches that largely focus on suspension and expulsion.

Additionally, the district started pursuing reforms to its discipline approach a few years ago, as part of a program known as PBIS.

At Saturday’s graduation for Joven Noble, graduates spoke of past struggles with drugs, violence or failing grades, and of finding a strong sense of self-respect that has helped them get on a better path.

Valley High School student Guillermo Lopez said he’s had a problem with anger, which has led him to get into fights.

But, Lopez said, he now understands how it affects his family.

“Now I know how to control my anger,” he said, thanks to Padilla and Abraham Medina, the facilitators at Valley High School.

Graduates of the Joven Noble program with facilitators and school board members after their graduation ceremony.  Clockwise from top left: Guillermo Lopez, Jesus Sanchez, board member Valerie Amezcua, Isai Reyna, facilitator Alex Padilla, Jose Nava, Luis Ortiz, board member Cecilia Iglesias, Bertin Camarillo, facilitator Ignacio Rios, board President John Palacios, Makyon Vitae, facilitator Abraham Medina, Antonio Hernandez and OC Department of Education administrator Jim Perez.
Graduates of the Joven Noble program with facilitators and school board members after their graduation ceremony. Clockwise from top left: Guillermo Lopez, Jesus Sanchez, board member Valerie Amezcua, Isai Reyna, facilitator Alex Padilla, Jose Nava, Luis Ortiz, board member Cecilia Iglesias, Bertin Camarillo, facilitator Ignacio Rios, board President John Palacios, Makyon Vitae, facilitator Abraham Medina, Antonio Hernandez and OC Department of Education administrator Jim Perez. Credit: Nick Gerda / Voice of OC

The graduates spoke before an audience of about 40 people, including mothers, younger siblings, school board members and other graduates.

Joven Noble’s curriculum is based on material from the National Compadres Network and “focuses on emphasizing what does it mean to be a noble young man or young person,” said Medina, who is also the director of Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, which oversees the program.

“In order to begin that transition, you gotta start with yourself, and self love and respect,” said Medina.

Among its features, program facilitators work to create a safe space for young men to open up about their challenges in front of other men – something that graduates said had a powerful impact for them.

Lorin Griset student Jesus Sanchez said he wasn’t the type of person who could share about his challenges with other men.

So, he said, the idea of opening up to other young men was intimidating at first.

“I had lost respect, not for others, but for myself,” Sanchez said.

But the program “made me realize I can talk to anybody” about things I’m dealing with, he said.

“I’m a Joven Noble, I’m a man of my word,” and all men are my brothers, Sanchez concluded, to applause from the audience.

Padilla, the Valley High counselor, said during the ceremony that the program has had a huge impact on the students.

He added that he’d like to see the program “in all our schools here in Santa Ana.”

So far, the program has been funded entirely by the California Endowment, a foundation focused on health equity.

Medina said the current funding for four school sites expires in September, and that he hopes the school district is able to keep it going.

The benefits, he said, not only include a safer school climate.

Within a year or two, Medina said, the district could see greater academic success, higher graduation rates and better social and emotional development of students.

“We would like the school district to make it sustainable, because we only have this grant for a year,” said Medina.

Medina estimated the cost to be about $100,000 per school site per year, or about $400,000 total for all four of the current sites.

The district approved more than $7 million for restorative justice efforts in its current budget, using extra state funds known as local control funding.

In the next fiscal year, which starts in July, Santa Ana Unified is slated to get millions more in local control funding from the state.

The district is required to get community input on how to spend those funds, which culminates in a final budget approval in June.

About 40 students have gone through the program so far, Medina said, with that number growing to about 100 when a new session starts in two weeks.

“That is the beginning of a transformational process that could lead to hopefully healthier outcomes for” young people, said Medina.

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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