A Family Away from Home

In honor of Latinx/e Heritage Month, the Berkeley Public Schools Fund is proud to support Berkeley’s Latinx/e community through a variety of staff-initiated, grant-funded projects. We are especially proud to contribute to creating safe spaces where Latinx/e students and families can come together, learn from each other, and thrive in Berkeley’s public schools.

Read on about one grant project that is creating a ‘family away from home’ for many of our Latinx/e high schoolers.

A Family Away from Home

It’s never easy to be a high school kid, but in the wake of a global pandemic, our young people have taken some big hits. One teacher-leader at Berkeley High, Stephanie Schaudel, has been pioneering a new model of emotional support and connection that has captured the attention of the Schools Fund.

The model is simple: pay high school teachers an annual stipend to lead a weekly affinity/support group for students. Give these adult facilitators tools and guidance, and then let them co-create these new spaces with their students. What ensues is a story after story of Berkeley High students discovering their people, sharing their stories, and ultimately, finding their voice.

“I didn’t think there were many Latinos in CAS,” said Chris Castro, a student in one of Berkeley High’s small schools, Communications Arts & Sciences (CAS). “But then I discovered all these Latinos in our support group, and I’m learning a lot about their cultures.” Commented another student, Angel Nautu, “I get to connect with other kids who have the same culture as me. But I’m learning more about my culture too…Now, most of my friends are in the support group.”

Ali Mendoza, Berkeley High counselor and facilitator of the Latinx/e support group, described how food has been a powerful connector between the different Latinx/e students in the group. “Students are from so many different Latin American cultures and each country does Latinx/e food a little differently. We talk about what our parents or grandparents made, and students bring in food for others to try. The arroz con leche was recently a big hit because the student ‘made it special, the way her family makes it.’”

Beyond cultural connection, there has been tremendous power in creating safe spaces where students can talk about their real lives. “We talk about the problems we have in our houses, and the things that happen to us. Sometimes we talk about heavy topics, and others in the group can relate,” described Castro. “But we always respect each other, and give advice to each other.”

And one of the keys to the success of this group appears to be the adults who facilitate. “Ms. Mendoza feels like one of us. She wasn’t controlling us. We could enjoy ourselves more with her there,” commented Castro. Nautu added, “A lot of the things we talk about I wouldn’t talk about with other teachers. Ms. Mendoza was the rock of the group. She held us down and made it a lot of fun, too!”

“It feels like a family, basically,” says Castro. Nautu added, “It’s a place where you feel happy that you’re Latino or Latinx/e. Other Latinos understand you and you can really express yourself.”

In addition to the Latinx/e support group, Schaudel’s Schools Fund grant funds a Black student group, a women’s group, a gender-expansive group, and a group for students committed to anti-racism. She is hoping to add a Young Men’s Group and an AAPI group soon.

*this article originally appeared in BERKELEY TIMES September 22, 2022 edition (Vol.12, No.18)