ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — At La Academia de Esperanza, a charter school on Old Coors SW, an after-school program called Circles helps empower students to see beyond their experience of poverty. The program helps them see beyond themselves and band together to address their circumstances as individuals and as a community.
The student club helps fulfill some of the mission of the charter school, established for students at risk, to help open students’ hearts and minds to life’s possibilities, while supporting their self-determination.
Psychologist Miquela Rivera of Samaritan Counseling Center says these kinds of clubs deal with issues students are facing and can give them a safe place to work on becoming adults.
Just like toddlers look back to make sure their parents are watching, clubs like this with supportive adults, give teens the sense that the world can be a safe place because someone is still watching out for them. “It’s hard for them to separate and pull away when there isn’t a super-strong sense of family. They need for there to be a safe place somewhere.”
The kids in the group have reason for stress.
They shared at a recent meeting that they move often because housing isn’t secure. They don’t know if their families will have enough money for rent, utilities or food. They live in homes that often don’t have locking doors and say they don’t feel safe because their parents often work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
“It’s not easy to stay in school,” says Dolores Sanchez, a junior. “But our parents tell us not to worry, just to do good in school. I’m doing my best to get good grades and finish school.”
Teacher sponsors for the group, Kate Smith and Wynell Henson, say students who come to the weekly group meeting and the larger community meetings make huge strides to adulthood, because they learn their opinions matter and they begin to have confidence to speak up for themselves.
“They begin to make the connection that we are all in this together and through our partnerships, we can grow together, learn together and support one another,” Smith says. “That is probably one of the most important life skills and lessons out there for our youth, who are growing up in a technological world that paradoxically grows more private and more public at the same time.”
Smith says the students get a better sense of themselves as part of the group because they are invited to join, based on their personality, academics, persistence and resilience.
“I’ve seen students feel proud; they love to be invited to our community,” Henson says. “We make it a big deal. We have kids in Circles who are struggling academically, have terrible attendance, but they always make it to the Circles meetings.”
Sophomore Kayla Gallegos says she has learned about budgeting through a financial literacy class. “It’s a struggle, but it helps to be more efficient at home.”
Gallegos says she’s researching scholarships but hasn’t decided what she will study. “That’s the next step.”
Henson says she sees hope building in her students. “There have also been these few, but incredible moments of empowerment, where our students feel like they are important and can make a difference. When I see our students call their state representative or go to city council meetings, I see young people who feel like they can make a change in our world.”