A young woman looks down at her composition journal and, for the first time, quietly reads aloud a poem about a struggle in her life. Moved, Chris Robinson leads his class of nearly 20 to gather around her.
“She told us about something and she cried,” said the 15-year-old sophomore at Mira Loma High School in Sacramento. “We joined together. It was a very big group hug.”
The scene is a long way from the bold “spittin’” that commands audiences from school assemblies to major conferences and poetry slam competitions. But the same University of California, Davis, program that brings young people to the stage also works in classrooms, after-school programs, and a juvenile detention facility to help at-risk youth find their voices, meet some heavy life challenges and pursue education.
Now in its ninth year, Sacramento Area Youth Speaks, or SAYS, is expanding its individualized support for students and, for the first time, offering a for-credit course. Once based on the Davis campus, the program has also moved its headquarters to the disenfranchised Del Paso Heights neighborhood of Sacramento where it began.
Addressing critical needs
Vajra Watson, founder of SAYS and director of research and policy for equity at UC Davis, said the program addresses critical needs: In California, one in three students drop out of high school, and in Sacramento County, there is a 23 percent achievement gap between African Americans and Caucasians.
The SAYS program works with thousands of middle- and high-school students and their teachers in 20 high-need schools in Sacramento and Yolo counties. The program also offers professional development workshops for educators and administrators.
SAYS curriculum draws on students’ life circumstances and focuses on literacy and leadership development to empower them, in Watson’s words, “to become authors of their own lives and agents of change.”
Watson, who is author of Learning to Liberate: Community-Based Solutions to the Crisis in Urban Education, said research shows that a holistic approach to social justice and youth development is necessary to more fully prepare students to be leaders and successful in three domains of life: college, career and community.
Encouraging young voices
The program’s poet mentor-educators — based in the community and trained in social justice, literacy, hip hop and spoken-word performance — help participants read, write and speak about their lives.
At Mira Loma, students in a college and career readiness elective participate in SAYS once a week. A recent class started with a discussion on how students were feeling about current events. Later, using prompts to start sentences and then open-ended questions, they wrote poetry. Volunteers presented their poems aloud.
‘It’s very motivating’
Robinson, the sophomore, shared his poem about standing against racism as an African American. He said he appreciates the encouragement from Patrice Hill, SAYS coordinator and the poet mentor-educator for his class. “She tells us we have voices that need to be heard,” he said. “It’s very motivating.”
The program gets results. Empirical research demonstrates that SAYS boosts school attendance by 48 percent and increases high school completion by 17 percent.
Aaron Brown teaches the elective course and helped bring SAYS to Mira Loma last fall. “I’ve seen a lot of growth and maturity in students,” he said, “who might have been considered ‘problems’ in a traditional classroom setting.”
Just this month, SAYS started offering its first for-credit course at Luther Burbank and Grant Union high schools in Sacramento. Students are researching violence in Sacramento and then will explore ways to advocate for change and present their solutions to the city. The course is called “Project H.E.A.L.” for the four pillars of the new SAYS curriculum: health, education, activism and leadership. The course has support from a $45,000 grant from the city of Sacramento and a $100,000 contribution from AT&T Aspire, the company’s signature education initiative.
Expanding individual mentoring and support
With funding from the city, SAYS started Project H.E.A.L. in 2016 to provide comprehensive mentoring and advocacy for students at high risk of dropping out. Using part of the AT&T contribution, SAYS is hiring more case managers to expand the project’s capacity from 30 students to up to 80.
The case managers make home visits, meet with teachers and help students through other challenges — from finding stable housing to advocating for them in court hearings. The project also helps students set and achieve goals, provides tutoring, and takes students to career fairs and on college visits.
Summits and slams
The poetry gets louder when SAYS brings hundreds of its students and others together. The program’s youth poetry slam season concluded Saturday (Feb. 25) when finalists competed for spots to represent SAYS at an international poetry festival in San Francisco in July.
SAYS also brings a thousand middle- and high-school students to UC Davis for a daylong college summit — this year on May 19. Workshops and other activities aim to inspire them to graduate from high school and pursue higher education.
A new generation
About 91 percent of students who participate in SAYS for a year or more graduate from high school and pursue a college degree. UC Davis sophomore Takarra Johnson is among them. Majoring in African American and African studies, she is now helping a new generation of students find their voices.
Johnson is a poet mentor-educator for SAYS after-school programs at John Still Elementary and Sacramento Charter High School. “SAYS taught me the importance and significance of young people,” she said. “I believe young people can change the world.”