Merced County Times Newspaper
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Student advocate helping at-risk kids to avoid fights

Taylor Alandzes is a student advocate at Valley Community School.
Taylor Alandzes is a student advocate at Valley Community School.

Taylor Alandzes is meeting the demands of a challenging job at Atwater Valley Community School in Atwater.

Her position — student advocate — is paid for by the Valley Crisis Center, a local domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking service provider.

By working with students on self-help techniques, Alandzes, a dedicated advocate, assists those who have a tendency to act out develop awareness about how to stay calm when solving conflicts and avoid fights with others.

According to Pana Lee, campus coordinator for Valley Crisis Center, who supervises Alandzes, the Student Advocate program started at the Merced County Office of Education when Holly Newman, who was in charge of Valley Community School in 2016, connected with Valley Crisis Center Executive Director Alison Tudor, and asked how they could together support the school’s at-risk kids.

Newman came up with the project, which involved working alongside the kids to create a safe space for them to talk about what they were going through and have a student advocate who would keep their confidentiality.

Lee told the Times, “The student advocate is trained by Valley Crisis Center to talk to the students about their issues. We immediately started seeing kids show up more at school because they felt they had a relationship with the student advocate and could freely express their issues which might be going on at home. Also, now there was a mediator between the teacher and the student. The student advocate could listen to the student and then go to the teacher and help resolve any conflicts.

“Taylor goes over and beyond to help students. She has even stepped out of her comfort zone to ask for food from businesses like Save Mart for kids who didn’t have a Thanksgiving dinner.”

Valley Community School, which is operated by the Merced County Office of Education (MCOE), has four school sites in Merced County including one at Juvenile Hall.

The Atwater campus has 120 students and an additional 100 on independent studies. So far this school year, the students are attending school through Distance Learning due to the pandemic.

Some of the students the school accepts are referred because of their involvement in gangs.  About one-third of the students are on probation. Other students have anxiety issues, and some didn’t fit into the regular school environment.

Alandzes just started her second year in her position at the Atwater campus, working with students to deal with their emotions in a healthy way so they can get the most from their education.

Previously, she was a Case Manager for homeless youth in Phoenix and was also a supervisor of visitation in a foster care and visitation center in Phoenix called Arizonans for Children. She feels these two positions afforded her a lot of training and experience.

Alandzes told the Times, “Our kids deal with a wide variety of issues. Some of them are surrounded by gang violence at home and entrenched in it themselves. Some are homeless, and their entire family is homeless.

“I also deal with teen parents and teen pregnancies where they need additional resources like connecting with State programs. We also have students going through sexual violence incidents, and I provide them with coping strategies and connect them with resources.

“If you went through every one of our students, you would find they are going through at least one of those things or have gone through at least one in the past. They need understanding, empathy and additional support.

“Our instructors can provide that, and my biggest thing to me is it takes a trauma informed approach. People just don’t know what can trigger one of our students. A hand on a shoulder could be a trigger back to a trauma they have experienced, such as a violent offense.

“I teach kids how to communicate and establish healthy boundaries, and how to cope when those boundaries are violated. I teach them to remove themselves from the situation before there are any negative consequences to their actions, such as before they do anything like cussing out the teacher.

“I teach them breathing techniques, or if they are about to start something with another student, they can draw or color or put their head down on their desk. The final step, if they cannot handle the situation, is to remove themselves from the situation that’s triggering them and then we can discuss it and figure out how we can build their tolerance to those situations, or avoid those situations.

“It takes a collaborative effort because I talk to the teachers and involve them in the solutions, like moving the student’s seating. If it was just me, I wouldn’t be able to have the success with the students that I do.

“I feel we’re doing pretty well with the kids, and I feel so supported by my principal and the staff here. They are very receptive to any feedback I give and to creating a very safe environment for our kids. Our kids won’t come to school if they don’t already feel safe attending the school.

“Success for me could be a kid that has never spoken to staff sitting down in my room and saying hi. Some of the big successes are the little successes.”

When asked how her job has changed due to the Distance Learning program, Alandzes said, “The best way I connect with students is in person, and with COVID it has been difficult to get a hold of them. But the kids respond to incentives. Through games they can earn rewards, so they can communicate with me and get rewards.

“There has been a lot of leg work through calling them consistently. After several calls, I will receive a call back from a student who has an issue for me to address.

“They contact me, and they’ll text me. It’s not about reaching them every single day, but it’s about the one day I do reach them.

“I do home visits by practicing social distancing and wearing a mask, and that really seems to mean a lot to them.

“This semester, we’re going to do video chats through Zoom. Now, they will be able to communicate with their peers. We are going to have a game club where we can play virtual games, and they can have community with school staff members and peers.

“I’m also running a Rocks Girls Group. I started it when school was in session on campus, and it will transition to a virtual environment. It teaches girls to have self-confidence and stand up for themselves and be empowered in today’s society.

“Another activity we will do is painting. I have a painting instructor, and I will drop off painting materials to the students. We’ll all get online and watch the painting instructor paint, and they will do the same painting at home.”

Describing the outstanding job Alandzes is doing, Crystal Sousa, principal of Atwater Valley Community School, said, “We’ve been contracted with Valley Crisis Center for four years.  The turnover rate in the job of student advocate has been very high, not necessarily because of the duties but just that people move on.

“When the position opened up again last year, Taylor was moving into the area and applied. When I interviewed her, I knew she’d be great.

“Taylor is working on her Master’s degree online, and her career goal is to become a mental health clinician. This is her day job while she attends school at night. She has an interest in working with at-risk youth.

“She’s amazing and an awesome young woman. She came on, and she jumped right in. I look at things as they’re just kids, and that’s exactly the viewpoint she has.

“It’s all about building relationships with the kids. We work on respectful two-way relationships, and we feel every day is a new opportunity to start fresh. We don’t hold the behaviors of the day before against them.

“The kids have responded to Taylor positively.

“A lot of our kids can’t handle the 40-student classrooms, and we’re able to offer smaller class sizes, but sometimes it’s still too much so she helps them think of calming techniques to ease whatever they are feeling, and she is able to help them with different coping strategies.

“Kids know that before they raise their voice to a teacher or start something with another kid, they can feel things building up and when they get to that point, they ask to go see Taylor. It has helped a lot.

“She has definitely become a key piece of our social/emotional aspect on campus.”

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