Editor's note: New Times is following eight Grizzly Youth Academy students through their journey down a new path toward academic and personal success at the military-style school. This is the second installment—split in two parts, with the remaining four cadets this week. The first part of the second installment, "Personal growth," was published Oct. 10.
Music emanated soft and low from Paul Piette's desk on Sept. 19. The Grizzly Challenge Charter School principal's office is large enough to fit his work desk and a table with two chairs—it's welcoming. Piette got animated when he talked about what the school can do for every single cadet who walks through its doors.
- Photos By Jayson Mellom
- UNDERSTANDING THE PAST Grizzly Challenge Charter School Principal Paul Piette said part of helping the cadets move forward in their lives is working with them to understand and cope with their past.
Based on the number of credits a cadet is missing and what grade they're in (sophomore, junior, or senior) at the end of the program, some cadets will make up their missing credits and go back to high school, others will earn their high school diploma, some will earn their General Educational Development (GED) certification, and some will need to finish off the remainder of their missing credits at a continuation school.
For Piette, the program is about more than just getting these kids in a classroom and helping them make up for lost time.
"We try to make all of what we do beneficial for them, which includes tailoring curriculum around their social issues but also around what their future issues are," he said.
In science class, for example, the teacher is focusing on neuroscience, the ongoing findings in the field, and how they relate to addiction. Students might find the information relatable or directly useful, as some were addicted to or used drugs.
Other classes incorporate life skills into the curriculum, such as the career-planning course, which helps students identify what their long-term career goals are and map out a unique plan for them.
"We're trying to not just increase their academic skills, but we're also trying to improve their ability to participate as citizens and to see themselves as a meaningful participant," Piette said.
That starts with relationships.
The teachers at the school, he said, are exceptionally skilled and caring individuals who collaborate with the students day in and day out.
"We get a short five months. The teachers, cadres [an officer that trains the rest of the unit], and counselors, all of us, we get to know these kids pretty intimately in just five months. We care deeply about them," Piette said.
With the tools the school and the program provide, the students learn that their future is their choice.
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- REINVIGORATED Participating in the Grizzly Youth Academy helps create a newfound love for school, as many cadets had a negative attitude toward their respective educational institutions.
Each cadet in the Academy has voluntarily chosen to change their life and is taking the steps to do so. Part of that process—making better choices for their future—can be deciding on whether to speak with a counselor for their academic or personal needs. There are about nine counselors and one licensed marriage and family therapist on staff.
These specialists are on campus to help the students along their path to success by working through the trauma or negative circumstances that brought them to the program. The cadets might not necessarily unpack everything during the six-month program, but it's important for them to start the healing process and learn healthy coping skills for their life beyond Grizzly.
For this story, the cadets were called out of their classes one by one to speak with New Times, and many were excited to share their thoughts again. For some, their once-lost love of learning is reinvigorated. Others talked about their prospects for finishing up their education and getting out into the workforce.
This round of interviews took place just days after Family Day. It's an event where the cadets' families visited their child for the first time since dropping them off.
When New Times asked 16-year-old Evelyn Frausto how she's been doing, Frausto replied that she's very "tenacious." Frausto proudly stated that it's a new word that she recently learned in her English class, and she's been waiting for a good excuse to use it.
She described herself as tenacious because, on top of her schoolwork, Frausto is running for a spot on the student council. She's also throwing her name in the candidate race for school president or vice president.
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- OVERCOMING ADVERSITY In the first week of the Academy, Evelyn Frausto split open her knee. The injury made her feel left out, but she found support that kept her motivated.
In order to be considered, each candidate films his or her speech, and the speech is shown in every classroom. After watching all of the speeches, candidates go into the classrooms and answer any questions that their peers may have.
"I'm nervous ... but also I'm excited," Frausto said. "It would be nice to get [the president or vice president position], but if I don't get it, I wouldn't mind either."
In the time since the interview took place, New Times learned that while she was accepted onto the council, Frausto didn't make the cut for president or vice president.
Frausto said she's always been a positive person, but in certain situations, she didn't react very well. She said she's learning new coping techniques that have been helping her express herself.
"I used to bite my tongue, but I would always end up saying something where I would get mad and I just would walk out of the situation. Here, you can't do that," she said.
She learned to ask her cadre for a second to walk away from the situation, gather herself, possibly shed a tear or two, talk about what is bothering her, and then move on.
Frausto learned these techniques pretty early on as she was constantly frustrated with her injured knee. When she was first interviewed by New Times, Frausto had split her knee open after falling down during a hike with her platoon.
The injury didn't break her spirits until she felt that it was holding her back. When the platoon went on runs or had physical training periods, she wasn't able to participate with the rest of her peers.
"After a while, it actually was a lot harder for me. I always felt like I was slowing everybody down," she said.
During her knee checkups, Frausto would confide in the on-site medical specialist that she felt like a burden to the rest of her platoon and wanted to go home.
"She was actually the one that kept me motivated. She would tell me to stay positive and push through," Frausto said.
Pushing herself forward has also earned Frausto a "Student of the Month" award for September. With the title, she gets to wear a blue and white striped ribbon on her uniform.
"On Family Day, they actually called out each of our names. That meant a lot to me, I felt really special because my family was there watching," she said with a smile.
Cooper Brown, 16, isn't worried about falling back into his old habits of not caring about school and not having the motivation to do much.
"I'm just more focused on myself and what I need to do. I used to just focus on hanging out and my friends, but they're not here. So yeah, I'm more focused on school," Brown said.
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- ATTITUDE CHANGE Through Grizzly, Cooper Brown realized that he needed the discipline he's learned through the program in order to stay focused on his classwork.
He attributed his past attitude to the various distractions in his life: friends and ample alone time while his parents were at work.
While he's giving his classes all his attention, he wouldn't say he enjoys school. He just tolerates it.
"I kind of realized now that I need school. I need to be here, and I need to pay attention in order to get stuff done," he said.
Brown's learned pretty quickly that at Grizzly, there isn't time for procrastination.
The way he sees it, either he gets his act together here or he won't be successful in life.
"If I'm still failing here, there's not much I can do out there," Brown said.
In order to stay on the right track, after Brown completes the Grizzly Youth Academy, he'll be continuing school at the Academy through independent study.
"My mom wanted me to do it because she wants me to stay in the same environment. That way, I can stay on track and not fall back into my old habits, which I agree with," he said.
If he went back to Paso Robles High School, Brown said, he feels that he would stay on the right path for a while, but eventually there's the possibility of him losing sight of his goals.
What's helped him at Grizzly is the discipline he's had to learn to plan out his day and follow the program's routine.
Brown said he personally doesn't feel like he's changed; he's just getting a better understanding of how life works. However, during Family Day, he said, his mom told him that she saw a lot of positive change in him.
Eighteen-year-old Noah Landeros said he's feeling a little stressed out about his future; otherwise, he's feeling good about his time at Grizzly so far. He feels more secure in this environment than he did when he lived in multiple foster homes over a short period of time.
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- CREATING OPTIONS Noah Landeros is learning that he has the power to make positive choices that will lead him to a future he has a say in.
"I know, even if I do make a mistake, they're not going to kick me out, so that's the good part," Landeros said. "They really are ultimately going to help me with my life now and after the program."
He's currently seeing a school counselor to deal with the trauma of his childhood.
"I talk about my earliest memories all the way to present day. I feel like it's helping me comprehend it all in a healthy way instead of just shutting it down, like I was doing," Landeros said.
He and the school are working together to identify whether he has a learning disability. Landeros is currently in the process of getting tested to understand what learning disability he has and figure out a plan so he can have an equal opportunity of learning as well as knowing how to ask for assistance or resources in the future.
With the specific help that he's getting, Landeros feels that school is a lot easier than it once was. He's able to finish his classwork, understand the curriculum material, and overall enjoy his classes.
With the tools he now has to succeed, Landeros said he feels confident.
"It's giving me a subtle, not drastic, but a subtle positivity towards myself," he said. "Like when I accomplish something, even if it's small like turning in homework. Well that's a homework assignment that I wouldn't have turned in before."
The newfound outlook on himself has given Landeros the strength to make the choices he deems to be right for his future.
"I have a say in my future, from my college choices to my career," he said.
It's a choice that he felt he didn't have before. Going through the foster system and having to live with abusive family members at a young age didn't leave him with many options.
Now, he has a choice, and he's been working with his social worker to figure out a plan for a living situation after Grizzly. Since Landeros is 18, he's no longer eligible to be taken in by a foster family.
He wants to apply to programs in his area that can help a young adult and former foster recipient get an apartment or live with other former foster young adults in a shared home.
"For now, I don't have anywhere to go, and I'm really worried, but I can't really focus on that. I have to focus on my goals instead of my hardships," Landeros said. "I'm just trying to focus on that right now."
His other main focus is his education, because he does want to continue learning at a higher education institution. Landeros said he's learning a lot about himself and what he's capable of.
When asked what he believes he'll take with him when he leaves Grizzly, he paused for a moment before answering confidently that it's responsibility, the ability to pick his environment, and the courage to stand out.
Seventeen-year-old Ashton Tolliver said when his cadre toward the beginning of the program approached him, something the cadre said stuck with him.
"He told me he was going to push me a little more than everyone else because he sees a lot in me. That really made me want to go into this program with all I have. It gave me a lot of confidence," Tolliver said.
Having someone see potential in him is something Tolliver has never experienced before.
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- NEW EXPERIENCES Ashton Tolliver said being in a supportive environment where adults see potential in him is something he's not used to but appreciates.
"It's weird, you know. I've never had someone tell me that before. Honestly, it's always been me against everything else," he said.
Through the Academy, Tolliver said he's realized it's about personal growth, but it's also about being a team player and caring for his peers. It's that sense of teamwork and adult support that's new for him, but he's welcoming it.
At the end of the day, he sees everything he does as part of his platoon motivating each other forward.
That positive reinforcement has given him more confidence to talk to others and even given him the courage to share his thoughts in the classroom.
"It used to be that I'd just go in the classroom and stay in my corner, just do my own thing," he said.
He reminded New Times that at the first interview, he mentioned he was very introverted and didn't really like mingling with a lot of his peers. With a smile, Tolliver said it's easier to talk to his peers and interact with them.
Grizzly has shown Tolliver what he's capable of and how he's changed—all positive. But he has had some emotional setbacks.
During Family Day, he said he received a lot of negative news about his family back home. His oldest brother is on the verge of homelessness, and his biological mother's husband was diagnosed with cancer. The news was tough and a lot to take in on a day that was meant to be cheerful, but he said he didn't want to focus too much on that. Tolliver was happy to see his sister and her youngest child, the only family that came to visit.
As for his biological mother, Tolliver said he's still working on being open to continuing to repair their relationship. He reminded New Times he'd previously said he's trying to let go of his grudges.
Tolliver's school plans have changed slightly. He won't be able to make up all of his credits and earn his diploma from Grizzly like he planned.
He'll have to attend a continuation school, but he'll only need to take two classes, so he feels upbeat that he won't be there for too long.
His post-Grizzly plans were to work at Costco and with a cousin in construction. Tolliver's view on higher education has taken a positive turn, and he's working with school staff to learn more about applying to and attending college.
Tolliver is hoping to go to college to study architecture, construction engineering, or possibly construction management. There is still a lot for him to consider when it comes to narrowing down his area of study, but he's just happy he has options. Δ
Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.