By Josh Earsley

In finishing my fourth year coordinating the Student Assistance Program (SAP) at Montclair High School, I’ve noticed a gradual change in the student population. More students are struggling with various, critical issues that must be addressed. As the school’s SAP Counselor, I receive referrals from counselors, teachers, school secretaries, administration deans and nurses for youth that are disrupting class instruction, repeatedly late or truant, disrespectful with staff and fighting. This is how the process begins and is followed up with an individual screening interview. During this first meeting, we discuss why I called them to my office, the benefits of SAP and the importance of confidentiality. However, the conversation usually gets a bit deeper. There are underlining concerns that lead to these behaviors.

The SAP service provides students the opportunity to participate in weekly student groups which include other students with related issues. The groups generally emphasize content associated with anger management, substance abuse and grieving. Occasionally there will be added elements such as students stressed over their parents’ divorce, moderate depression or self-motivation. Through annual statistical data that includes attendance improvement and increased developmental assets, I’ve found the program helps students develop a foundation of self they never really considered prior to group enrollment. They become more goal oriented. They imagine how their journey after high school can be a positive one. The general outcome of SAP participation results in a whole new outcome of their individual futures.

When regarding the underlying issues, I discuss with my students about their home life and observe a yearly increased lack of parent involvement. This isn’t necessarily an issue with neglect. Sometimes in single parent homes, it’s difficult for parents to be involved due to multiple jobs to account for everyday bills and responsibilities. Conversely, there are some with different family value systems and cultures that don’t put much value into their children’s education otherwise. Here is a statement of belief that one of my student’s mother expressed to me: “I didn’t finish high school and neither have many of my family members. We have gotten along fine without school. My child will be fine also.” When I talk with my students in group or individually, this response is becoming more commonplace. The educational support at home can be non-existent. Many of my students ask why they should care about school if their parents don’t. It’s a valid question.

If there isn’t educational support at home, it creates a higher need for it to be placed in schools. Where else will this support come from? There aren’t many options. The SAP representatives facilitate as many groups as possible on a yearly basis. But there is only one representative per school and that person is usually spread out in other schools as well. The following are testimonials of students currently participating in SAP:

My future seems brighter than before and I could use what I have learned to help myself and others. What I have learned will be something I take with me the rest of my life.
— Angel, 12th Grade

Being in group has made me a stronger better person knowing that I have a safe place to go and talk about my problems. Being here makes me feel good knowing someone is here.
–Camren, 9th Grade

I appreciate now that I’m healthy and I have a house, family, friends and support. I want to go to school and become either a pediatrician or a veterinarian.
-Jose, 10th Grade

I’m glad I have my grandparents in my life. When my mom died it felt like I was by myself but they supported me. I’m learning how to control myself better in the group. And I also want to set up a car wash fundraiser to raise money for breast cancer. I think my mom would like that.
-Destiny C., 10th Grade

The program has given me a nice confidential place where I can express my emotions and learn to control them. Being in the Student Assistance Program has made the thought of my future clearer.
–Luis, 11th Grade

Well I feel much more calmer, less angered at life. Before this program my future looked like it was going to plummet into the worse possible life I could have. Now having been with this program, I feel like my life is being rebuilt to its full extent.
-Michael, 10th Grade

My moods, the way I handle my anger is much better. The strategies we learned have helped me a lot. I appreciate every single thing in my life. I’ve been through a lot. I’ve become a better person since I started group. I’m doing better with my dancing and when I graduate, I want to go to school to be a psychologist or a counselor. I love working with the mind and always helping. I’m glad I’m finally letting go of the past.
-Amber, 10th Grade

The stress relieving exercises help me relax. This is a great place to be when you’re having problems. I think I will be going to college and have a part time job.
–Moises, 12th Grade

I’m glad I can talk about my feelings here and nobody will tell anyone. I’m glad I’m alive and that I have friends and family. After I’m done here, I want to get a job as a writer or a computer technician.
–Destiny G., 10th Grade

Participating in this group has helped control my anger. I like the square-breathing. I will probably being using this a lot more later in my life. Right now I’m still an angry child but I can cope. There is, however one thing I appreciate more, and that’s my mother. I spend more time with her now, and we actually talk more.
–Tyler, 11th Grade

There are students that can truly benefit from SAP that don’t get the opportunity. If there were more SAP counselors at each site coordinating and building groups, and seeing kids individually, there would be a higher rate of students with college aspirations, increased attendance and desirable classroom behaviors. I’ve seen this happen on a smaller scale. I’m convinced with more student support and options, schools as units will achieve higher test scores and substantial decreased rates of suspensions.