Eleven students accompanied health teacher Melissa Bratina to a week-long summer conference at Elizabethtown University to learn about the PRIDE advocacy program that begins this year at QCHS. Tom Stecher Associates ran the Life Skills program for students from all over the state. The company also ran a Professional Development workshop for teachers in June in the school cafeteria.PRIDE stands for Peers, Real Issues, Decisions and Experiences. Teachers, administrators and students lobbied for the program last year to help develop a culture of understanding and tolerance in the school. Small groups of about 15 students will meet with faculty mentors once a week in PRIDE sessions. The six goals of the program will help students develop their own voice and self-advocacy skills; help them manage different types of stress; help them with decision making; help them recognize the value of community and community service; help them understand diverse social groups; and introduce them to community resources.

The PRIDE program will add the last level in the district to offer an advocacy program. The elementary and middle schools have their own programs.

Students who went to the conference spoke to teachers at the Aug. 27 opening day. All expressed the feeling that the time spent meeting new people and listening to others helped them learn more about themselves. All of them agreed that when they arrived in Elizabethtown, they asked themselves, "What did I get myself intoft" They were encouraged to step outside their comfort zones, which they all eventually did, they said. Activities included hand-holding and hugging!

"Many of the people who attended the conference from other schools had been there previous years so that is why our kids saw a lot of kids hugging," Bratina explained. "It is very hard to express in words what the week was about and what we all went through. I was told it would be life changing but never in a million years did I expect it to impact me as much as it did. I am totally a different person and especially a different teacher as a result."

Bratina continued, "The kids who went through the training at Elizabethtown are at a point in their lives emotionally and socially where most adults will never reach. They have an amazing head start in life because of what they experienced at the conference. They CHOSE to step out of their comfort zones emotionally and physically in order to better themselves as people."

The students felt confident enough to tell teachers Aug. 27 how the program will work best. Here are some of the pieces of advice the students offered teachers to help them overcome their worries about tackling the new, much needed program.

Brittany Price (senior): "It takes a leader to listen. I realized that lots of kids go through the same things and if we open up to each other we can learn not to be so negative all the time. Teachers will need to put themselves on kids' level to win them over with honey instead of vinegar."

Jackie Miller (junior): "Teachers, you will have to step outside YOUR comfort zone."

Vanessa Rodriguez (senior): "We learned to respect each other. I'd like to see that happen in school. Everyone needs to approach this with an open mind."

Sean Basile (sophomore) "I tend to be negative. I thought we'd play kickball and talk about it. I gave my mom a world of grief about going and she said something good would come out of it. The conference made such a difference for me. I can tell teachers that those who share anything about themselves make such a difference, whether it's good, bad or pointless. It helps you make a bond with kids."

Rob Basile (junior): "I did not go to the conference. But I can tell teachers that if you are energetic about it, this program will work."

Sam Sanchez (eighth grade, Strayer MS): "I learned to become open minded and to open my heart, how to connect with people and cooperate. Teachers will need to relax and have fun with it."

T.J. Bartholomew (sophomore): "I went because I thought it would look good on a college resume! The first day I stereotyped everyone. By the second day I realized, 'These people are really nice.' By the last day I knew these people were not who I thought they were. Teachers need to start with trust."

Kevin Conti (senior): "I made stronger connections with kids at the conference than I did with kids I've known in Quakertown since kindergarten. We need to be each others' support system. We can make a stronger high school and community. Teachers, you can talk to me! I'll listen."

Alyssa Sanchez (eighth grade, Strayer MS): "The conference literally changed my life. I'm so much more open with people. I'm excited to bring the ideas back here. Try not to be judgmental. We have to convince the kids to do that, too."

Brad Vasallo (freshman): "The kids and counselors were so friendly. The counselor interaction made the difference in helping the kids build relationships. Kids will need teacher interaction."

Ryan Bimes (junior): "When I got there, it was kind of weird. There were people hugging and girls screaming. I think teachers will need to be more like a student than a teacher to make it all less weird. Other kids are not as excited as I am about the program, but hopefully that will change."

When school started for students after Labor Day, Thom Stecher came to QCHS "because he was so impressed with and wanted to meet up with the Quakertown group again," Bratina said. "He personally invited all of them to attend next year and those who are old enough, to become counselors in training. The greatest compliment to our kids is that he sees something very special in this group and expressed that he would love for any or all of them to become a part of his staff one day! If that doesn't say worlds about the students who represented Quakertown, I don't know what would. These kids are determined to make a difference here, to leave a legacy."

I'll keep you posted about the program's progress. I'm a mentor with a group of 15 students and I feel duly advised! I am ready to listen and trust.

Ricki Stein is the community relations coordinator with QCSD. Send comments to tfp@berksmontnews.com. "From the Inside Out" is a column dedicated to the views of the Quakertown Community School District

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