A School Transformed: El Cerrito High

Located in the East Bay Area, El Cerrito High School is a public school in West Contra Costa County serving about 1400 students. The student body is diverse, including 28% African Americans, 27% Latino, 21% Caucasians, and 24% Asians. Approximately 20% of the students are Limited English Proficient and 13% are designated as Gifted and Talented. Roughly 11% of students qualify for Special Education services and 50% of students qualify for the free/reduced lunch program.

Ten years ago, Niroga worked with El Cerrito High to pilot in-class Transformative Life Skills/Dynamic Mindfulness; this was one of our first direct service programs.

“This pilot study suggests that a short but frequently applied Transformative Life Skills (TLS) protocol in the classroom—a multimodality intervention integrating Yoga, breathing techniques and mindfulness—can decrease perceived stress and increase self-control in high school students. Additionally, training school teachers and institutional staff in these same interventions should help with their stress management, resilience, and ability to function from a more optimal state.”

You can read the results of that pilot in an article published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.

In 2014, Niroga went back to El Cerrito High and facilitated a three part Dynamic Mindfulness (DMind) training for their core staff. Today, our programs there consist of in class Dynamic Mindfulness led by Niroga staff, a peer leadership program and DMind coaching for staff.

The peer leadership program is a special and unique offering that El Cerrito has really integrated into their school. The youth in the peer leadership program have participated in Niroga’s school programs and have been selected by a team of administrators and teachers as influential leaders in their school. These youth dive further into building self-mastery of DMind, build leadership capacity and serve in their own communities. El Cerrito currently has 17 students in this program and on campus they are known as the Culture Keepers (CK).

The Culture Keepers are a youth leadership project rooted in Dynamic Mindfulness and Restorative practices. CKs support their peers who are struggling at school to build capacity and learn new skills in the context of care and relationship. This includes facilitating DMind in classrooms, mediating peer conflicts, leading walk-and-talks with students who are disrupting classes and working as one-to-one mentors with 9th graders who are failing one or more of their classes. The CK’s have also coached the peer leaders of Renaissance Institute in New Jersey (another Niroga partner program) via video call, and they will be connecting with Oakland’s Street Academy peer leaders in January 2017.

One of the CK’s said, “A Culture Keeper is a peer mediator, we mediate students issues. Instead of the student running and telling teachers and staff their problems the students share their issues with other students, the Culture Keepers.”

From February through June of 2016, a Niroga instructor led Dynamic Mindfulness in the classroom one time per week. We surveyed 66 students (spread amongst three classes) and 87% reported that they benefited positively from mindfulness. Students reported positive benefit in one or more of the following ways:

  • managing stress, anger and/or anxiety better
  • better self-control
  • easier to focus

The students said:

  • “I think it’s a great way for students to learn how to relieve stress.”
  • “After the mindfulness sessions, I feel more relaxed.”
  • “Mindfulness helps me focus and calms my anxiety.”

We are honored to work with El Cerrito High School and are inspired every day by the students and staff there. Many of the staff have embraced the practices of DMind for their own personal sustainability and the school regularly utilizes DMind as restorative practices together.

Earlier this year interviewed the Culture Keepers and staff about Dynamic Mindfulness and restorative practices. The director of the Student Health Center, Jenn Rader has been a longstanding advocate of Niroga and mindfulness in general. Jenn has been instrumental in implementing DMind on campus and integrating restorative practices, she said,

“What we found is that the young people who arrive to school are trauma impacted and that the school is not setup to work effectively with young people who arrive in the building with those kinds of challenges; typically their behaviors are maladaptive in this setting. The response is to exclude them from the school experience and the result is the school to prison pipeline. The work of mindfulness allows us to be in a closer relationship with those kids who are up against these challenges in ways that invite them in and in ways that give them meaningful tools to work with the challenges in their lives.”

Hear more from the students and staff of El Cerrito.