The 23 students finding their way into Challyn Strong’s classroom look just like the other 2,200 or so Norco High School students.
But as they greet one another affectionately with wide grins and embraces, it’s clear something special is going on.
The class is called UNITY, which isn’t an acronym but a program offered at all Corona-Norco Unified School District high schools for the past 10 years. It aims to develop leaders on campus to improve race relations and deal with other social issues. And it has been successful enough to earn a statewide honor.
On Tuesday in San Francisco, the district will receive a Golden Bell Award – an actual gold-plated bell – from the California School Boards Association for its efforts “to unite students by celebrating their differences.”
The Norco class is a microcosm of those differences.
A football player, Ryan Phillips, 18, admitted he had been a bully but now wants to affect others in a positive way. Coincidentally, Vincent Acosta, 17, standing nearby, told of being bullied but since has gained confidence and self-esteem. There is a lesbian student who has overcome her shyness.
Mike Ilic, who oversees UNITY as the district’s director of instructional support, said, “There are lots of kids who bring a lot of problems.”
In UNITY, which is different from the Corona-Norco group known as United Neighbors Involving Today’s Youth that goes by UNITY, students represent several ethnic groups and religions.
“We have honor kids and shy ones, baseball players and cheerleaders,” Strong said.
Most satisfying, she said, “is the transformation I see.”
Students are invited to a weekend camp three times a year near Running Springs, where district staff members lead them in tackling issues related to human interaction. Strong recalled a student who couldn’t or wouldn’t cry but lost the fear of showing emotion during one of those weekends.
She was particularly proud of her class during the past week for working with other students as part of Kindness Week.
UNITY students wrote notes with positive messages, such as “I hope this brightens your day,” with pieces of candy attached.
Then off they went, three at a time, to classrooms across campus, handing the notes and candy to students with a friendly comment and asking each to share the candy with someone else. One student, Karla Hernandez, returned the smile and handed one of the peppermint canes to a friend.
Another project during the week was attaching quarters to vending machines for use by students.
“They get so excited doing this,” Strong said. “They come back here after getting compliments and they’re on such a high.”
What: An elective class offered in all Corona-Norco Unified School District high schools.
Why: The program aims to improve behavior and confront prejudice among students.
The message: “It’s hard to hate someone when you know their story,” said Mike Ilic, who oversees UNITY.
Notable: UNITY won a state Golden Bell Award from the California School Boards Association for its success in dealing with social issues.
SCHOOL CLIMATE CHANGE
The district created UNITY in response to rising expulsions and suspensions. For the first year or two, it was limited to a few schools.
The racially motivated stabbing death in 2005 of Dominic Redd, 15, an African American freshman at Centennial High School in Corona, prompted the program’s expansion to all eight district high schools. Redd was attacked by three Latino teens, prosecutors say, because he was walking in a Corona neighborhood that a Latino gang considered its territory. All three was convicted.
“There was a community outcry to change our school climate,” Ilic said.
Though the three were not district students, district spokeswoman Evita Tapia said the district felt it should emphasize the need for students of various backgrounds to get along.
Since the program started, Ilic said, district suspensions and expulsions have declined by 60 percent. He attributed part of the drop to UNITY.
A key part of the program is activities that illustrate the five levels of prejudice and how they can escalate from words to violence and even murder.
The program considers knowledge the most effective ammunition and operates on the assumption that “It’s hard to hate someone when you know their story,” Ilic said.
As they roamed the hallways of Norco High to deliver those notes of kindness, several explained their motivation for enrolling in UNITY, an elective class.
“I want to make a difference,” Tori Reyes said. “I want to help people,” Morgan Bennett said.
And Strong, their teacher, said, “They all want to take care of each other.”