Students’ Peer Support Program a 2-Way Street

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CARLSBAD, Calif -- For Brianna Caballero, 14, finding the motivation to get up in the morning to go to school was, for years, a daily internal battle. “I’d be like, ‘Mom! I don’t want to go to school,’” she recalls.

But these days, her mother needs only to reply, “Think of Danny and Nick!” for Caballero to find it within herself to “get up out of bed and have a good day.”

Danny and Nick are just two of the many students with autism who go to school with Brianna at Calavera Hills Middle School in Carlsbad, Calif. Brianna is more than just a classmate to Danny and Nick - she is an indispensable part of their education, taking on the responsibilities of a tutor, a helper and a friend, through the school’s trailblazing Coyote Crossroads program, which pairs up academically struggling students with autistic students in a peer support role.

Though the program was launched three years ago, it wasn’t until this year that the school district was able to properly brand it with the title Coyote Crossroads.

Although the program has students working with fellow students with autism in a capacity of a sort of teacher, but in a peer position, it is hardly a one-sided benefit.

In fact, educators at Calavera Hills are seeing huge results not only for the autistic students, but also for their once motivationally challenged partners.

According to the California Department of Education, during the school year of 2009-10, the truancy rate in Carlsbad Unified District stood at 38.44 percent, higher than the state’s average of 28.15 percent.

At the district’s Calavera Hills Middle School the truancy rate has dropped from 55.76 percent in 2007-2008 to 37.54 percent in the 2009-10 school year.

“We have students who had attendance issues, who are not necessarily excited to come to school but know that they have a responsibility, so it’s easy for them to get out of bed and come to school,” says Jesse Gonzales, counselor at Calavera Hills.

In the classroom dedicated to the Coyote Crossroads participants, one-third of a wall holds words cut out from green construction paper that read “Nick’s Star Trek,” accompanied with small cutout images of spaceships.

Adjacent to that stands a wall of dollar amounts written with black markers, illustrating the kinds of work youth peers like Brianna do on a regular basis with Nick and Danny.

Teacher Kelly Lupu, head of the Crossroads program, believes that being in a supportive peer position is a key factor in shaping students into responsible young adults.

“They develop a sense of community responsibility, compassion, empathy, something they wouldn’t typically experience in their other classes,” says Lupu.

Brianna would be the first to testify to that. She says that she was initially a rather impatient person. But working with autistic children has taught her patience, which, over time, influenced her personal life, including in her interactions with her younger brother.

Participating in Coyote Crossroads has improved students’ grades.

“If I have zeros and I’m not doing good in class then I have to sit here and do homework,” says Boston Anderson, 12. “So, it kind of pushed me forward to do my work so I could work with them.”

On a day-to-day basis, the students’ peers work with their assigned buddies on a variety of projects that include working on their language, arts, math or integration skills.

Aside from improving their attendance, in many cases some students have showed as much as a 30 percent rise in their grades, according to Gonzales.

Israel Lopez, 14, is a case in point. Prior to starting at the Coyote Crossroads program, he says, his average grade bounced back and forth between D’s and F’s. Now his grades are in the B’s and C’s.

Kelly Lupu and her staff act as the intermediate support system between the two groups of students.

“They’re here to help the kids (with autism) work on goals and objectives, help them socialize and most importantly, have constant access to them being their friends,” says Lupu. “Because a lot of the times (the autistic children) aren’t always in the mainstream environment.”

Gonzales works closely with Lupu, structuring the program. She says students are shown movies and videos about autism to help them understand the population they’re working with.

Despite the difference between the groups of students, the one thing that remains the same is that middle school is still middle school, and kids are still mean.

Brianna admits she has been bullied while at school, but the program has given her a different outlook on dealing with it. She figures that if the autistic kids she works with can handle some amount of teasing from other kids, there is no reason why she can’t.

The Crossroads experience, she believes, has made her a “better person” and given her a goal.

“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do until recently,” she says. “But now I want to go to Cal State San Marcos because they have a good education program there, and from there I want to try to become a teacher like Ms. Lupu.”