High school can feel really lonely. Though you would think that more people would result in more potential friends, it can be challenging to find community and solidarity in the vast sea of students that is Berkeley High School (BHS). Sticking with people who are like you can be comforting, but it’s not always easy to find those who share your experiences.
The small learning community Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) is doing something to help students find a sense of community at BHS. Their innovative idea is to create identity-based support groups: recurring gatherings consisting of a small number of students that all share a specific identity, run by a staff member who also shares that identity.
“[The support groups were started] with the understanding that students typically are super stressed,” said Stephanie Schaudel, a CAS history teacher and wellness coordinator. “We want to provide an outlet where [students] can have support and … talk about whatever issues are going on or whatever is up for them,” she continued.
The first support groups were started by Phil Halpern, a video production teacher in CAS. “I’ve realized over the years that there are a lot of things that don’t get addressed in any of the kids’ classes — issues of identity and relationships, for example,” he said. “I wanted to create opportunities for kids to delve into those kinds of subjects that might otherwise not get talk time,” Halpern explained.
Halpern initially started five of these groups: one for boys in CAS, three for girls in CAS, and one for gender expansive students from all of BHS. Since then, several other support groups have been created for CAS students, including ones for Latinx students, Asian students, and students seeking to become actively anti-racist.
The fact that many of these groups are geared towards underrepresented populations is not a coincidence. Schaudel described the identity-based support groups as places “where students can more readily share those struggles that they may experience because of societal oppression that targets aspects of their identities”. She added, “I think in particular for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] students in CAS, it’s important [that] those who want it have spaces separate from white peers and teachers to get and give support.”
Alietti Ortega-Mendoza, a counselor for CAS and Academic Choice (AC) as well as the head of Latinx support group, concurred. “One of my observations of CAS was that there [were] a lot of white spaces within the classroom,” Mendoza said. “All the teachers in CAS identify as white, and so students were feeling a little disconnected,” she added. “I decided like maybe [a Latinx support group] was needed … as a way to better support the Latinx community.”
The group enjoys a variety of activities, including games of Loteria (also known as bingo), potlucks, and discussing current events at BHS. “There was never really an agenda, it was more like just providing students with what they needed,” Mendoza explained.
As to whether these groups actually benefit students, Mendoza certainly thinks so. She reflected, “It felt like we built a system where [students] felt comfortable in expressing issues that maybe they didn’t feel comfortable talking with their teachers or talking with their family members about.”
This identity-based style of support was exactly what Ximena Mandujano, a CAS senior and member of the Latinx support group, was looking for. “I joined [the group] because … I wasn’t currently in a space where I felt comfortable enough to talk about my own experiences with people who didn’t understand what I was going through,” she recalled.
Even though CAS is a very community-oriented Small Learning Community (SLC), Mandujano said the support it provided wasn’t meeting all of her needs. “Small schools are very much focused on the academic part of community … whereas groups [provide the] feeling that you have people in your corner when you’re at such a large high school,” she expressed.
When asked about the current status of the Latinx support group, Mendoza reported, “[We’re] still in the recruitment process, but we will be launching very soon.” She expressed hope that the group would retain its fun and supportive atmosphere even over Zoom. “We can still watch movies, share stories, listen to music and maybe even have virtual potlucks,” she said.
Identity-based support groups may only exist in CAS at the moment, but if adopted in other SLCs, they could help build tight-knit communities throughout the school. “We think it’s a worthy model for the rest of the school to consider,” Halpern said. Mandujano stressed the benefits of these groups, stating, “Not only was I able to meet new people, I also felt comfortable with just being around them and not just seeing them as my classmates. I saw them as people who could support me and vice versa, that I could support them.”