In a classroom at Vista del Lago High School, junior Lucy Brancoli balanced her long frame on a stool in front of a digital camera and delivered a dose of moral support to Folsom Middle School students.
Her theme: Stand up for others. “An upstander is someone who, when they see something that isn’t right or see someone who needs help, they’re always there,” Brancoli said for the camera. “They are going to step out of their comfort zone to help that person.”
Brancoli, 16, is part of a growing campaign to lend social support and perspective to middle school students who, as adolescents, are navigating tough terrain. It’s the shift from elementary to higher grades. From playground to social ground. From childhood to adulthood.
The catalyst for the effort came Dec. 3 when Folsom resident Ronin Shimizu, 12, committed suicide. Ronin had enrolled in sixth grade at Folsom Middle School in August 2013, but months later he began a district-supported home-schooling program after his parents complained about bullying.
After Ronin’s death, media teacher Janice Johnson met with student leaders and her own mass communications class at Vista del Lago to propose that they reach out to middle school students to address the onrush of challenges younger students face.
“I didn’t want it to be just anti-bullying. That’s symptomatic of a lot of things. There are so many issues,” Johnson said. The Vista del Lago students “jumped on board. It was a million miles an hour from that point forward.”
More than 90 volunteered, with close to half that number taking an ongoing role.
In January, the high school students with Johnson’s guidance launched the Schools’ Unity Project, brainstorming key messages that high school “ambassadors” could deliver to middle school students in weekly videos and complementary posters.
The videos, each just minutes long, are aired Wednesdays in middle school homerooms. The posters, featuring the students on camera, are displayed first outside homerooms and ultimately on an “ambassador wall” in Folsom’s multipurpose room.
The program is so well regarded that it is being cloned elsewhere in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District. Cordova High is next on tap for students at its two feeder campuses, Mills and Mitchell middle schools.
“The program has been contagious,” said Scott Meyer, the district’s child welfare coordinator, who said it will grow districtwide during the next academic year.
At Vista del Lago, senior Connor Kelly, program volunteer, said his memories of starting Folsom Middle School remain clear.
“I know everything in middle school is strange and awkward and new,” said Kelly, 17. “Everybody is going through changes. Some people are 5 foot 10. Others are 4 foot 9. Everyone feels a need to establish their own cliques. It’s hard. A lot of kids don’t know how to deal with that.
“The perception of a lot of kids is that they have to be rough and tough to fit in here. It’s just the opposite. We’re trying to show what Vista is really like and reach out with helping hands. That’s our main goal.”
The weekly themes for videos and posters center on basic concepts such as self-respect, appreciating individual differences and making good choices. Volunteers crowdsource Vista del Lago’s student body to find the best person to present a particular message.
At the middle school, students said the campaign has influenced how they view the world.
“At lunch, we had a new person at the school who didn’t have many friends,” said eighth-grader Gabriella Castlio, 14. “She’s now been sitting with us at our table and we’ve welcomed her in.
“It feels good to have made someone else feel more comfortable in a new school. I know when you’ve had to move to a new school, it can be really hard.”
Folsom Middle School Principal John Bliss said it helps that many students have older siblings at the high school.
“We’re talking about brothers and sisters, kids that know our students. They know the experience of being a Jaguar here,” Bliss said. “That piece alone has been such a strong motivator for our students to sit and listen and soak in that stuff.”
Johnson said the program represents an opportunity to shape character and influence culture at a feeder campus using students who have recently gone through the middle school experience.
The students “aren’t acting,” she said. “They stand in front of the (black) backdrop talking about their message. Their truth.”
The program also gives Vista students experience in developing a communications strategy and then implementing it, including video and art production, distribution and getting feedback.
Each week, another student perches on the stool to deliver a message. The crews behind the cameras rotate too, but less often, Johnson said.
Student Brancoli, in recorded message, said she had attended Folsom Middle School for three years.
“My brother will be there next year. He’s going to be in eighth grade. He’s transferring (in). So be nice to him.”
Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.