Surviving and thriving: What works to make teens stronger, more resilient

It's third period at Castlemont Business and Information Technology School in East Oakland. A visitor begins a discussion about poverty, bad food and crime. Tough times? Tough streets? These high school students aren't stressing.

In this class, the vibe is to thrive: At a school where the dropout rate is one in two, most are ready to graduate. Gary Williams Jr., senior class president, has an athletic scholarship to the University of San Francisco.

"Trying to get good grades, play basketball and get ready for college can be really stressful," he says. "I handle my stress by working out or going to play basketball."

It's a big contrast to first period, where students are tired and worried.

"When I am expected to do things, I get stressed," admits senior Alejandra Munoz.

Moses Nervis, a self-described "budding cartoonist," has trouble handling multiple demands: "(S)chool, my cartoons and some program my Mom got me in -- it's too much."

Tevita Lanivia can't wait to move to Utah, where his sisters live.

"You would think that you would be safe around (Oakland) but death is around the side," he writes. "And when you turn left, you see violen(ce), and when you turn right, you see your future is running away from you."

Later, students file into Castlemont's auditorium for an assembly. Ninth-grader Kevnisha Harris recites a poem:

"Pop pop pop there go another young man shot ... Follow your heart because this world is falling apart ... Life in Oakland is a living hell."

A respectful silence descends; like many in the audience, the bashful 15-year-old has been to more funerals (five) than football games (zero).

Then another girl steps up; as the karaoke machine kicks in, she lifts her chin and begins to sing:

"I can almost see it/That dream I'm dreaming but/There's a voice inside my head sayin',/You'll never reach it"

The response to Miley Cyrus' "The Climb" is electric; students start waving and voices rise:

"Always gonna be an uphill battle/Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose/Ain't about how fast I get there/Ain't about what's waiting on the other side/It's the climb"

Why do some teens overcome stress while others stumble? Is life hell, or is it a climb? Researchers say resilience is the answer and that it can be taught. Key factors include role models and mentors, outside sources of support and control over problems.

Len Syme, professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, says disadvantaged teens need to learn a simple lesson: that everybody stumbles, and most of us get up.

"The middle-class kids have already learned that if you fail, the world is not at an end. You learn from the earliest days that you can solve problems from a variety of ways," says Syme. "Minority poor kids really have some catching up to do."

Third-period senior Enrique Ibarra credits B.U.I.L.D., a Redwood City-based nonprofit organization that teaches business skills, with showing him how to strive. Since freshman year, he's launched two businesses, one called The Boost, which sells foam-padded stadium seats, and another called Slum Kids Lifestyle, a clothing line.

"I have no time to stress," says Ibarra, who plans to study kinesthiology at UC Merced. "It's just not me."

Finding role models

Leadership English teacher Marsha Rhynes tugs desks into a circle as Ken Smith, a member of the Castlemont class of 1965, begins speaking to her students.

When he mentions taking French plus Spanish -- the only language besides English now offered at Castlemont -- a girl gasps: "You had that?"

Another asks, "How did you pay for college?"

Smith replies that he didn't; in his day, Merritt College was free.

Senior Lesley Grayson looks at Smith in disbelief: "You kidding?"

The years have stripped away most of the school Smith knew. Instead of dances, "once a year they put speakers up in the (hallway), and we can play what we want, as long as it's clean," says Antoinette Sims, a senior. "But that's just the hallway."

Yet far from being bitter, students are inspired. Smith's story "really give(s) me a push to do what I want to do," says Sims. Adds Grayson: "It means hope coming out of Castlemont."

It's a history lesson that Rhynes wants to repeat. Though her job description is English teacher, her real title is mentor -- finding guest speakers, scrounging up computers, pushing kids to apply for scholarships.

While role models inspire, mentors get results. Even one adult who cares consistently can significantly impact a teen's well-being.

In a long-running study, UC Davis researcher Emmy Werner spent 30 years following all 698 infants born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955. Many high-risk children became normal adults despite poverty and family breakup. How? They had a strong bond with a nonparent caretaker, such as a baby sitter or teacher.

Torrance Hampton, whose distress over a friend's funeral last November caused him to run out into a busy street and almost get hit by traffic, says role models and mentors are critical.

"I actually want to get into a trade, some type of training," said Howard, who since graduated and is looking for a job. "One thing I need is guidance from people who know what they are doing."

Sources of support

Call it "Black Swan" with a twist: Teens gather to re-enact a student-teacher conflict in a dance class.

"Why didn't you call on me? How come you always pick other people?" a girl wails. Students act the other roles, one pulling out a cellphone to tune out the drama. Others crack up, and eventually everyone laughs -- even the girl.

The class is a good example of what happens at Youth Uprising, a teen advocacy organization that opened in 2005 after racial tensions at Castlemont, the school next door. Today, classes from video production to holistic health offer a chance to build job skills and self-awareness.

Walking into YU, it's hard not to be struck by how unstressed it seems: smiling faces welcome visitors, and a cafe serves healthful salads.

Yet below the surface is the hard work of building hope. The unemployment rate for young people of color in the neighborhood is 55 percent, notes Olis Simmons, YU's executive director.

"The most severe impact of stress on young people in East Oakland is hopelessness and despair," Simmons says. "There are lots of other ways to talk about that -- to talk about people's anxiety, depression, inability to concentrate, (and) the impact that has on academic and economic achievement... But I think one of the most damning things for young people in a place like this is that you're robbed of your sense of hope and possibility for the future."

Another resource is the Castlemont health clinic. Located behind YU and run by Children's Hospital of Oakland, it is the most heavily used school-based health clinic in Oakland. Staff includes six mental health counselors, compared with one or two at other schools.

Mental health services are a mainstay for good reason: Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens in Alameda and Contra Costa, county reports show. According to 2007 data from the California Health Interview Survey, 14.4 percent of Alameda County teens received psychological counseling in the previous year, compared with 8.8 percent statewide.

A June 2010 Alameda County report notes that emergency room visits for mental disorders were highest among females ages 15-24.

Though clients are teens, their needs often are those of adults, says Su Park, the clinic's coordinator of mental health services. "There is more diabetes, more asthma, more health concerns, and that tends to weather on a young person," she says.

A dream school

Erick Zamudio, a soft-spoken freshman at East Oakland School of the Arts, holds up a Flip camera as Esmerelda Argueta, another freshman, begins narrating a campus tour. News that Castlemont's three small schools will combine in fall 2012 has journalism students producing a feature on their "dream" school.

Alihzey Black, a talented ninth-grader who was accepted by five private high schools but chose to stay in East Oakland, taps out her story in the tech lab, where half of the computers don't work and students don't have the software to see the video that Zamudio is making. Quickly, Black's screen fills with her wish list: trees, flowers, shrubs, a bigger school garden.

"You know those benches where you can sit and eat when it's good weather?" a friend suggests. "Put in those -- we should have that."

Black also adds Advanced Placement courses, laptops for every student and more security guards to keep campus safe.

Research shows that having control over problems, even if it's just writing for the school newspaper, promotes teen resilience. Involving youth in planning their own futures, and making education relevant, are key, says Martha Shirk, co-author of "On Their Own," a 2004 book about the foster care system.

"It's turning out from all the literature that (early life stress) is not the major issue," says Syme, who has studied hope among high-poverty middle-schoolers in Richmond. "What is the major issue is the latitude and discretion that people have in dealing with these issues."

Student input will be critical to redesigning Castlemont. Changes ahead include a new ninth-grade "house" next year for all incoming freshmen. A three-year, $1 million grant from the California Endowment will train Castlemont students next year on how to resolve conflicts.

Surprisingly, the grant includes funding for a peace center and garden, to be designed by San Francisco design firm Perkins + Will.

"It's going to be a space that will, hopefully, help to calm; a space that will remind students of their interrelatedness," says Fania Davis, executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth.

Finding beauty in a tough place is something Castlemont teens do well. And their writings show what researchers know -- that teens who are exposed to early life stress but overcome it are stronger than teens who have never been stressed at all. Psychologists call this "post-traumatic growth," including awareness of new possibilities and a renewed appreciation for life.

"My stomping ground reminds me of a man-made eco-system that plants many seeds but harvests (few)," observes John'ta Christmas, a Leadership junior who unexpectedly placed third in Oakland's Martin Luther King Jr., oratorical contest after Rhynes pushed him to enter.

Yet "my life has been placed in harm's way less than others would think. Though this place has forced me to eat meals I would later resent and think of things that I would later realized (are) ignorant or foolish, with some bad (has) come some good as well.

"I have been taught things that others from foreign lands would never know, and (I) mature faster than my peers."