Success of student support groups touted at Ojo Amarillo Elementary School in Fruitland

Ojo Elementary School officials pleased with results of program that was launched in October

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Principal Kati Vasquez said the groups are separated by gender and meet for approximately 30 minutes a week.
  • Ryan Rivas, a fifth-grade teacher at the school who is one of the leaders of the program, said participation in the groups has been better than he expected.
  • The sessions are open to students in third through sixth grade.

FARMINGTON — Officials at a Central Consolidated School District elementary school are so pleased with the results they have seen from a new student support group program they initiated this school year that they plan to bring it back in the fall — and they hope other schools follow their lead.

The administration, faculty and staff at Ojo Amarillo Elementary School in Fruitland began offering weekly meetings of the student support groups in October, and the sessions proved so popular with students that they wound up being continued throughout the rest of the school year.

The sessions are open to students in third through sixth grade and are designed to offer participants the chance to talk about difficulties they may be experiencing with making friends, issues at home, bullying or other problems.

Principal Kati Vasquez said the groups are separated by gender and meet for approximately 30 minutes a week. There are four groups — third- and fourth-grade girls, third- and fourth-grade boys, fifth- and sixth-grade girls, and fifth- and sixth-grade boys — of 10 to 20 students each, and each session begins and ends with a short reading or affirmation. In between, students are afforded the opportunity to share how they are feeling or simply listen as their classmates discuss issues that are bothering them.

Members of a student support group at Ojo Elementary School in Fruitland gather in a circle during a recent meeting.

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Ryan Rivas, a fifth-grade teacher at the school who is one of the leaders of the program, said participation in the groups has been better than he expected, with some participants requiring very little prodding to open up about what they are experiencing.

"My experience in the boys group is they seemed pretty eager to talk," he said. "There are some young people who are hesitant to share what they are feeling, but for others, I don't think there's a lot of opportunity built into their lives for sharing their feelings."

Vasquez credited Rivas for being able to draw the boys in his group out without making them feel pressured to do so. She said the groups have generated a momentum of their own the longer they have gone on, with the nervousness and shyness that typified many of the early sessions melting away as the students come to trust the group leaders — and their fellow students — more and more.

Vasquez was hesitant to go into too much detail about some of the issues that come up during the meetings out of a fear of violating confidentiality. But she did say that if a student raises an issue that is considered serious enough, perhaps having to do with domestic violence, the counselors and social workers who also sit in on the meetings will take the student aside afterward for a debriefing and follow-up support.

She said she was not aware of any group participants raising the issue of the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 that left 21 people dead, explaining that she wasn't sure how much national news reaches the eyes and ears of her students. She also said many of them are understandably so consumed with their own issues that they can only confront so many concerns at a time.

And while there also was very little direct discussion of the COVID-19 virus during the sessions throughout the year, she said, the pandemic clearly has had an impact on the thinking of students, as many of them have talked about the losses their families have experienced.

In fact, Vasquez said, the conditions caused by the pandemic had a lot to do with the launch of the support groups. She said CCSD officials delivered a presentation on mental health issues early last fall as students were returning to in-person learning at the school. Almost immediately, it became clear to Vasquez and other leaders at the school that the students needed a mechanism for processing the isolation they had experienced during remote learning.

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"Our students needed more than just academics, they needed a place to talk," she said.

The student support groups were started as an experiment to address that need, she said.

"I decided, 'Let's just try this because doing something is better than doing nothing,'" she said.

While Vasquez and Rivas acknowledged they haven't compiled any empirical data to support the value of the support groups, both said they have become believers in the project and maintain it has made a substantial positive impact on the school.

"I noticed my time spent in disciplinary action went down dramatically when the support groups started," Vasquez said. "I don't think the groups can take all the credit for that, but I know we haven't been tied up with discipline in the way we were tied up earlier in the year."

In some cases, she said, the groups have directly assisted the resolution of some disciplinary matters, as students have been able to hash out their issues with each other.

"They've been able to relate back to what we talked about there as a way to solve problems and create restorative justice because of the topics we've covered in the support groups," she said. "They've learned about ways to get their anger out without doing something unkind."

Rivas noted that an important component of the groups is the idea that students should not just be talking about their problems, but building healthy relationships with each other. The meetings offer activities that are intended to help make that possible, he said.

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As the program heads into its second year next fall, Vasquez and Rivas said they have several ideas for compiling data they can use to analyze the success of the program. They plan on keeping attendance records to chart the number of participants, and Rivas would like to conduct "mood checks" on participants — quick surveys about how students are feeling before the meetings and how they feel afterward.

"I did some similar surveys this year, and a lot of students reported feeling a lot better afterward," he said. "I think a lot of them have come to the support groups and found a lot of value in it."

Vasquez said there are no plans at this point to export the program to other schools in the district, but she hopes the success of the groups at Ojo Amarillo will lead others to give it a try. In any event, she's already sold on the worth of the groups.

"I've shared it a little bit here and there," she said. " … Nobody's grabbed onto it so far, but that's OK."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.