by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Beth Borer, Chip Fraser
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I ended up where I needed to be.” —Douglas Adams
Students at Ventura’s Pacific High School are asked to relate this quote written on the board to their own lives. Many ended up at this continuation high school because poor choices, like fighting or truancy, got them kicked out of other schools. Some arrive with anger, resentment and little motivation. And while they may have never intended to be sitting in this class, titled “It’s My Life,” teachers Beth Borer and James “Chip” Fraser want them to understand they are here for a good reason: They can learn how to take control of their destiny.
Cassie Koffler, a senior, says the quote by Adams hits home. Her journey before arriving in this class included a stint in juvenile hall, drugs, and other experiences that hindered success.
“This class has given me a lot of insight,” says Koffler, proud to be 10 months sober. “Whatever life throws at you can be a bump in the road, but you can make it into something positive and change your life for the better. My goal is to go to college and work with at-risk kids, because I can relate to them. If I can change my life, I can help others change their lives.”
Fraser and former teacher Brian Jaramillo started the program in 2007 with the help of an NEA grant, and CTA’s Institute for Teaching (IFT) has provided grant money for the past three years. Fraser describes it as a “blueprint for adulthood,” and says it was necessary because he saw students on a daily basis who were lacking important information to succeed in life.
“They weren’t getting it at home, and they weren’t getting it at school. Someone needed to provide it, and it might as well be me. I graduated from high school in 1965, and I would have liked it if somebody had given me some of the answers.”
The class asks students to rethink how they want to live and to open their minds to new possibilities. Students are asked to be honest, listen, think before reacting, follow their intuition, and be conscious of their thoughts and motivations. Topics include knowing your own potential, asking the right questions, understanding the problem and exploring potential solutions, creating a life plan, and overcoming obstacles.
Teachers say the class benefits all students, so much so that it’s recently became a requirement for everyone at Pacific High School, and it will soon expand to other Ventura high schools and nearby Santa Barbara, where co-founder Jaramillo now works as an assistant principal.
Fraser taught at Pacific High until last year, when the demands of being Ventura Unified Education Association (VUEA) president required his full attention. But he still enjoys visiting classes taught by colleagues like Borer, who invite him to co-teach some times.
“To me, this class is a place where I can focus on what I think — and not what someone else thinks about me,” says Michael Del Toro. “It taught me that I can’t change what’s happened, but I can change my attitude and achieve what I want to achieve. It really is my life.”
The class wasn’t an easy sell for administrators. There were doubters who thought self-reflection didn’t fit in with high-stakes testing and preparing for the High School Exit Exam. That didn’t stop Fraser.
“I became addicted to fighting for this class against seemingly insurmountable foes,” says the determined teacher, who made headlines in 2005 for walking 500 miles from Ventura to Sacramento to talk with Gov. Schwarzenegger about the importance of public schools. “This is something real that helps students. It’s about solutions and critical thinking. It ties in perfectly with the Common Core. Every kid who takes this course comes out of it a better human being.”
Borer’s room has photos on the wall of former students who have died from gang violence. She knows firsthand this class can mean the difference between life and death. Over the years, the VUEA member has seen positive results in students.
“A ninth-grader came to us. She was very out of control verbally and behaviorally in the classroom. By the time she graduated, she had a plan for her life, had matured, and participated in class discussions. I credit the It’s My Life program. It allowed her to see she was headed in the wrong direction — and allowed her to redirect her life.”
Jonathan Puu, 24, took the class in 2006 at Pacific High School and comes back to tell students that they too can move in a more positive direction.
“I took control of my life, set goals, and developed the know-how to get there,” says Puu, now a martial arts instructor. “You might say I did a 180, which definitely put me on the path to success.”
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