In the aftermath of recent fights at California High in San Ramon, students at Del Amigo High in Danville voiced frustration that their school and student body came under public scrutiny for an incident that did not involve them.
After the fights two weeks ago, which involved a recent Cal High student who had transferred last month to Del Amigo, students at the district's continuation high school felt their school was unfairly scapegoated by the community and singled out in news coverage—including Patch's—by being directly named in the stories.
Patch editors visited the school last Friday to meet Del Amigo students, parents and staff and hear their views about the school and the public's perception of it.
"I had a lot of pre-conceived notions about this school and those are gone now," said Suzie Emmel, whose daughter Katie, a junior, attended Cal High until her transfer to Del Amigo in December. "[Katie] really got lost in the big school system. She had a really negative attitude about school and it has completely flipped around now ... At first I was a little hesitant to let everybody know that I had a child here. But now I'll tell everyone because I want the attitude to change."
Providing an Alternative
About 70 students currently attend the small continuation school, designed for students in grades 10 through 12. Students stay at Del Amigo for about six months to a year before transferring. With a student-teacher ratio of 20:1 and full-time counselors, the school strives to address the needs of students who struggle in a larger high school setting.
Many Del Amigo students, for example, have Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or Attention-deficit disorder, making focusing in a large class for 90 minutes a challenge.
Some high schools, including California High, operate on a "block schedule" with up to three, 90-minute classes per day. Del Amigo, by contrast, has up to six, 45-minute classes and all school work, including homework, is done in class. Regular school hours at Del Amigo are 8:40 a.m. to 1:10 p.m. with optional classes meeting until 1:56 p.m.
Dave Barratt, a junior, who came to Del Amigo from Cal High three months ago, said the shorter classes help him focus because he has Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"At Cal High I found it impossible to sit through all those classes," said Barratt. "The shorter days here make it so much easier. The five 45-minute classes keep you focused because you can pay attention and still learn but it's not such an overload."
Turning Things Around
Parents and students credit principal Lucy Daggett, who came to Del Amigo about three years ago, and other new staff, with restructuring the school and improving the way the school interacts with the community.
"I think a lot of people in the community aren't aware of the changes," said Lisa Rainbolt, a Del Amigo teacher. "There's now relationships with two rotary clubs, with the neighbors right across the street, the police department, and that wasn't here a few years ago. And I don't think [that's being] recognized."
The changes also include how the school operates, say parents and teachers, including holding students more accountable for their actions and providing a controlled environment.
"With that structure comes better self esteem for the kids," said Emmel. "Human beings need structure."
Also, the campus is closed and monitored, helping reduce truancy problems.
Ashley Damiano, a junior, had a truancy problem at Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon. At Del Amigo, where she has been a student since the spring of 2009, she doesn't have that problem.
"There are days when I want to leave and the campus monitor will explain why I have to stay at school," said Damiano, who added that the small campus makes it easier for staff and students to be accountable for their actions.
Still, the school strives to use the carrot more than the stick to maintain a structured environment.
Students with perfect attendance are rewarded with a Friday "Attendance Breakfast" prepared by school staff. Students can also earn "Productive Day" credits by following rules like "Be on time," Be courteous," "Be honest," and "Choose your words carefully." Students who use racial slurs, profanity, insults or derogatory comments lose their "Productive Day" credit.
Daggett said Del Amigo must contend with problems such as substance abuse, learning disabilities, depression and truancy, that prevented students from succeeding at their previous schools.
"It's not about judging, but it's not about being in denial either," said Daggett. "We're not going to pretend drugs and alcohol problems and depression aren't a problem. Let's address those issues and give them some resources to help."
Recent statistics show 72 percent of students are from district high schools while 28 percent are from outside the district, becasue they were home schooled, live in group homes outside the area, recently moved to the area or otherwise were not in a district high school before coming to Del Amigo. The report also tracks the percentage of students who are cigarette smokers, use drugs or alcohol and are on probation.
"As a society, we can't ignore people that get in trouble because there's a reason why they're where they are," said Emmel. "I can't even imagine if there wasn't something like [Del Amigo] what would happen to these poor kids."
"We're a family."
Students come to Del Amigo for many reasons and struggle to overcome their own challenges that brought them here. What many share is pride and appreciation for the school, and how it helped them.
"This school is like family," said Dave Barratt, a junior who came from Cal High."It is a welcoming change. It is amazing what this place does for kids."
Before coming to Del Amigo, most students had a negative perception of the school and were skeptical about its value. Dario Montanelli was one of those students.
"When I got the news that I was going to Del Amigo, people would tell me, 'you're going to get stabbed, it's run by gangs and drug addicts and everyone is out of control,'" said Montanelli, a junior who came from Cal High. "But it's not like that at all. When I came here I felt right at home. I look forward to coming to school now. The teachers help me every step of the way to get the credits I need. All the people here are welcoming."
Students say the small campus makes for an environment where cliques are not formed as much and it's easier to make friends.
"Everyone knows everyone. There aren't any cliques," said Allison Smith a sophomore from Cal High. "I didn't know what a continuation high school was. I though it was just for all the kids who were expelled or who had drug problems. Then I came here and thought, "this is cool and lots of kids here are just low on credits.'"
When asked if they missed participating in activities like clubs or sports, some said they did miss those activities.
Del Amigo students can attend their previous high school's prom. The school has a leadership council, yearbook and school sponsored field trips, such as a recent visit to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco that several students and staff said was a success.
Del Amigo students are quick to point out their school's strengths, but also acknowledge its problems, like any high school helping teens navigate their way to adulthood.
"It's not like we're angels or anything," said Presley Rexford, a junior, who came from Cal High. "But I don't think this school is any better or any worse than other high schools. I think we should be treated equally to Cal High and San Ramon [Valley High]. We have the same problems and good qualities as them, too."