PLUS in the News – Stockton, California

STOCKTON — One year ago, John Vandenburgh, founder of the Peer Leaders Uniting Students program, was humbled by the 800 faces that had arrived at Spanos Center for an inaugural summit based around student leadership.

Arriving at University of the Pacific on Tuesday morning to a swarm of students filing in — more than 1,100 this time — Vandenburgh was thrilled.

Stockton PLUS Team Building Connections
Stockton PLUS Team Building Connections

“I look forward to seeing the kids assuring the community that we are not going to let this go,” he said before the summit began. “This is what we want. The kids get a taste as to what PLUS is about; talk to and support one another. We’ve got some awesome things going on campus.”

Tuesday marked Stockton Unified’s second PLUS Summit, where middle and high school leaders gathered for a daylong seminar of forums and breakout sessions to offer strategies and the tools students need for topics that include bullying, drugs, college and community service.

“Stockton has been such a great place to come in and work and develop a program like PLUS, and (the kids) take it over,” Vandenburgh said. “They take ownership of it.”

The peer-to-peer program empowers students with their own voice to their classmates that also identify critical issues on campus, such as bullying, gangs and school safety. A recent study from Princeton University found that students with influence over peers reduce school bullying by 30 percent.

Forums are facilitated by PLUS peer leaders and help students take ownership of their campus as well as develop a sense of belonging to their school culture and student engagement.

Monroe Elementary eighth graders Anthony Ness and Jennifer Cortes said they enjoy being a part of the program and will continue to do so once they enter high school. They said while they build leadership roles, they also benefit from helping others.

“It’s about helping people; keep them motivated to reach their goal,” Ness, 15, said. “Anything is possible as long as you believe in yourself.”

The program also allows them to mentor younger pupils who soon will be in high school and give them a feel on how their campus community is like.

“I like how the kids look up at us because we were in PLUS. They looked at us and thought of us as leaders,” Cortes, 15, said.

First implemented at Stockton Unified’s four high schools in 2012, it quickly grew to include all 47 schools district wide. In October, the district hired a full time PLUS Administrator, and school officials are already seeing major improvements, including a drop in the numbers of bullying cases.

Stockton Unified surveys thousands of students every month to monitor efficacy of this program. District spokeswoman Dianne Barth said they are finding that in the past three years, student climate has improved, often significantly, and especially in the areas that PLUS students tackle.

"When PLUS teams came together last year, bullying was one of the key issues they were looking to fix," Barth wrote in an email. "The district surveyed (more than) 4,000 sixth- through eighth- graders last year on the issue and saw the bullying rate among those grade levels drop from 20 percent three years ago to 14 percent."

Among fourth- and fifth-graders she said, bullying dropped from 19 percent to 15 percent in one year when PLUS was implemented to lower grades.

PLUS has also focused on drug and tobacco use, and in the past three years, usage has dropped from seven percent to three percent among high school students.

Barth said the numbers are lower than national figures. For instance, Stockton Unified students reported 10 percent being bullied in the high schools last year where nationwide one in three students reported being bullied.

"Not only do you better yourself but you better the other students on campus and help them make sure they are the the best students they can be," interim superintendent Julie Penn said during a keynote address. "All of the leaders at SUSD are so proud for all that you do for every one of your schools. You are all going to be outstanding adults and contributors to our society."

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