Monday, April 21, 2008

Leaders name youth specialist for summer


Alejandra Gutierrez knows how to help teenagers struggling in school.
Not because she’s been through countless training sessions or has years of experience as a youth mentor and advisor. She’s been there herself.
As a career advisor at Santa Barbara High School, the 24-year-old Santa Barbara native sees plenty of kids with the same problems she had at their age — parents who are too busy working to be involved in their child’s academic life, friends who are getting involved in gangs, and little understanding of how to plan for their educational future.
So when community leaders approached her to be the point person for a summer pilot program aimed at combating youth violence, it seemed the perfect match.

“I don’t really see it as a challenge,” Gutierrez said. “I see it as a chance to say, watch, it’s really not that hard to do.”
As a neighborhood intervention specialist, as her position has been tagged, Gutierrez will meet with 45 at-risk youth and their parents to link them with youth services and programs. She is also tasked with explaining their academic standing and setting up an educational path to get them back on track.
“It’s just exposure,” she said. “The more I can get these parents and kids exposed to services and programs, the better.”
It took that exposure to the realities of higher education to bring her own life into focus.
Growing up with her parents working nonstop, her father as a mechanic and her mother as a housekeeper in Montecito, Gutierrez never got much attention from them in terms of her schoolwork.
They just expected her to get good grades, she said, but rarely showed up to important events, such as her junior high graduation or an awards ceremony where she received an honor. So her interest in school waned by the time she became a teenager.
“I wasn’t your straight-A student,” she said.
And while she never got involved in gangs, she had friends who were definitely gravitating toward that lifestyle.
But when she hit high school and was told she would have to attend a community college after high school because she wasn’t academically ready for the challenges of a four-year university, something clicked.
“I realized I had more potential,” she said. “I was going to be able to bring down that barrier. Nobody was going to tell me that I couldn’t.”
After pushing for harder classes with her counselor and bringing her parents to school to discuss her academic track, she watched her grades climb steadily. By the time she graduated, she had acceptance letters from UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz, UC San Diego, CSU Northridge, San Jose State, and a private college in Northern California.
But since she didn’t get accepted to UC Santa Barbara and attending any other school would mean moving away from home, her father told her to enroll at Santa Barbara City College.
“I had to overcome that too,” she said. “I went there with the mindset that I would be out in two years, that I wouldn’t get stuck there.”
After transferring to UCSB two years later, she finished up her degree in sociology and started working with local elementary students part-time — first with a spring break program, then as a teaching assistant — slowly working her way up the ladder.
When a career technician position opened up at Santa Barbara High School two years ago, she didn’t think she had a shot. But with the encouragement of a friend, she applied and got the job.
Since then, she helped launch a mentoring program last year, then started up the Tia program this year — bringing in UCSB students to mentor a group of at-risk girls.
“For these girls, school wasn’t a priority,” Gutierrez said.
Now they are more aware of their academic status, more involved in school, and more responsible when it comes to attending class or doing homework, she said. Many are involved in the DWF Dance Club, an afterschool dance team.
One of those girls, sophomore Audrey Echeverria, 16, said she signed up for the mentoring program after Gutierrez gave a presentation to her class.
“She helps us out a lot with everything,” Echeverria said, “from big things to something as small as like a math problem.”
Another Tia participant, freshman Rosa Hernandez, 14, said Gutierrez brought her out of a bad lifestyle and got her more involved in school.
“I was hanging out with the wrong crowd,” she said. “…I just got tired of it.”
With mentors helping out with their schoolwork and Gutierrez as a constant source of support, they’ve become far better students. Hernandez saw her grades jump from Fs to As and Bs and has plans to be a doctor, while Echeverria has her sights set on going to fashion school.
Both said Gutierrez has a unique ability to get them to open up.
“We connect with her like that,” Hernandez said, snapping her fingers.
Gutierrez said she doesn’t work magic, but simply talks to teens the same way she would’ve wanted.
“I talk to the students in a way that I would talk to my sister,” she said, describing her approach as half “softie” and half authoritarian.
And with several years of experience under her belt, Gutierrez said she’s already picked up some valuable lessons.
“I learned that I can’t save them all,” she said. “Some don’t want to be saved right at this time. I don’t push students. I give them options and if they want to take them, they can.
“You can give someone everything — a house, money a job — but they aren’t going to be successful if they don’t want it.”
Police Chief Cam Sanchez, who has worked with Gutierrez for several months through her mentoring program, said he has little doubt about her ability to connect with youth.
“She’s already working with the families of some of the young people we are talking about,” he said. “It was just a pretty clean fit.”
Sanchez and a group of community leaders working on the youth violence issue, an effort spearheaded by the City of Santa Barbara and encompassing youth service agencies, nonprofits, mentors and city officials, named Gutierrez as the facilitator of their short-term strategy for the summer at a meeting yesterday morning.
The school districts put up the cash to continue her salary through the summer, approximately $9,000.
“I know she’s going to be successful,” Sanchez said. “She’s not going to be doing this by herself. … And since she knows these families, it’s just going to be that much easier.”
Gutierrez said she plans to simply be herself and try to make the transition for those involved into a more academically focused mindset as pain-free as possible.
“Now I feel the pressure. I feel like the whole community’s eyes are on me and the kids I am working with,” she said. “…It’s worth it. I’m getting paid to hang out with teens and help them succeed.”

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