TOPICS > Education

California School Program Helps Students Fight Gangs

April 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JOHN MERROW: Two gang members have been shot in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles. Four blocks away from the crime scene, Breed Street Elementary School is forced to lock all its doors. Teachers and students cannot go out until police say it’s safe. Street violence is a part of these students’ lives.

JOHN MERROW: If you’ve ever heard a gunshot, would you raise your hand. If you’ve heard a gun; how about if you’ve ever seen or talked to a gang member –

MARIA CASILLAS: We have a great waste of human lives in this community. We have about 36 organized gangs in the Boyle Heights area. And Boyle Heights is a 2.2-square mile area.

JOHN MERROW: Maria Casillas is president of Families in Schools, a civic reform organization that works with Breed Street School.

MARIA CASILLAS: If you look at this environment here, you’ve got about a 65 percent dropout rate by the time these kids go to high school, to the high school. It means that more than half of the kids you see here will probably drop out.

JOHN MERROW: And those students who remain in school face a culture where learning is not respected.

ROBERT CENDEJAS: Kids in middle school just think that it’s not cool to be smart so they just constantly make fun of you until I guess you just drop out.

JOHN MERROW: Did you get teased, “Hey, school girl? Hey, school girl?”

STUDENT: It was like that every day especially in middle school. It just gets like so intense and you just like want to cry every day. And you don’t want to go to school.

JOHN MERROW: But Breed Street Elementary School in the heart of Boyle Heights is fighting back. How? With its own gang, SOS — the leader and founder of the SOS gang is former teacher Janis Hiura.

JANIS HIURA: Say I am the best SOS in the world.

CHILDREN: I am the best SOS in the world.

JANIS HIURA: Thank you.

JOHN MERROW: Officially SOS stands for Society of Students.

JANIS HIURA: And who’s going to open that meeting for me?

JOHN MERROW: It began as a small group in her fifth grade classroom. Her objective was to change her students’ attitudes toward learning by instilling confidence, teaching problem solving skills and developing social skills.

JANIS HIURA: First it starts with save our….


JANIS HIURA: And then what?

STUDENTS: Save the students.

JANIS HIURA: Students. And then save our school. And where are we going for it?

STUDENTS: Save our society.

JOHN MERROW: Four years ago Breed Street Elementary received a grant from the Annenberg Foundation, which also helps fund NewsHour education stories. With these funds the principal created a new position. She asked Hiura to leave her role as teacher and make SOS her full-time job.

JANIS HIURA: Our target is the kid that’s struggling. The kid that’s struggling and believes they’re dumb; the kid that is so shy they don’t understand and they won’t ask for help.

JOHN MERROW: Whether they’re members or not, all first through fifth grade students learn the SOS principles, starting with its code of behavior known as being AP.

JANIS HIURA: Okay. I need five people to show me an AP lunch line.

JOHN MERROW: AP means advanced placement, a term generally used in high schools referring to the most challenging classes. But to Hiura, AP is a larger concept, one that includes behavior as well as academic performance. She believes that starting in first grade, students should be encouraged to strive for their best.

JANIS HIURA: You know what I like, are they pushing each other?


JOHN MERROW: Students also learn how to pop up in class instead of raising their hands. This is called popcorn.

STUDENT: Popcorn means like we don’t raise our hands up. We get up and other people get up. We let them go.

JOHN MERROW: The idea behind popcorn is to teach students how to speak with confidence and listen to others.

JANIS HIURA: She’s grabbing me with her what?


JOHN MERROW: Making eye contact is an important part of what Hiura calls power greetings in which students learn to present themselves with self-assurance. Any student who wants to join SOS can. The only requirements are good effort and behavior in the classroom. Grades are not a factor.

STUDENT: I would like to present you this badge because you’ve been working so hard this year. I would like to present you this badge.

JOHN MERROW: Active SOS members meet whenever time permits. They talk about upcoming projects such as developing a mentoring program as well as how to improve SOS and spread it elsewhere.

JANIS HIURA: We’re going to talk about buddies, how to get the buddies that aren’t SOS in SOS.

JOHN MERROW: Fifth grader Dennis Ojogo gives SOS credit for making him a more active participant in school.

JOHN MERROW: So SOS has changed you.

DENNIS OJOGO: I had quiet power. I was a bright student but I really wasn’t motivated to participate. And, now, well, look at me.

STEPHANIE SANCHEZ: I felt I scared and lost when I was in an SOS, but thankfully I joined.

JOHN MERROW: Fourth Grader Stephanie Sanchez used to be afraid to speak in class. Today she’s comfortable in front of large audiences.

STEPHANIE SANCHEZ: Joining SOS, I’ve changed a lot. Each and every day I get powerful and stronger. It changed my whole life.

JOHN MERROW: SOS members sometimes lose their way and may be asked to turn in their badges. Hiura and SOS members decide on a case-by-case basis when and how a member can get back in. She relies on the buddy system to keep behavior in check.

JANIS HIURA: What have you two buddies been doing? Bringing each other.


JANIS HIURA: Is that what SOS is all about?


JANIS HIURA: You knew how to bring yourself down. Now I want to see if you know how to what?

STUDENT: Bring yourself up.

JANIS HIURA: Okay. I want you to write me up a plan.

JOHN MERROW: In just four years SOS has grown from 30 Breed Street students to 400, more than half the school. In addition, four other elementary schools in the Boyle Heights neighborhood have adopted SOS in some capacity, but SOS faces significant challenges. Researchers are just starting to track whether SOS helps students academically.

JOHN MERROW: There’s no real evidence that SOS improves academic performance.

JANIS HIURA: No it’s all soft data.

JOHN MERROW: If in the end there’s no difference, would you then get rid of S.O.S.?

JANIS HIURA: No, because I know the difference it has made. They’re doing better in life. I had a student encourage their parent to go get a restraining order when their dad was victimizing them. And that’s worth everything.

JOHN MERROW: While some students have remained active in SOS long after Breed Street there’s no official SOS program past fifth grade. Breed Street students go on to a huge middle school. After that comes the nation’s fourth largest high school with about 5,000 students and a graduation rate of only 58 percent.

JOHN MERROW: Are any of you nervous about leaving this wonderful school and all of a sudden you’re then going to go off to this huge middle school?

STUDENT: Actually I’m not because no matter what middle school I go to I’m going to try to start it over there. I already joined a gang and it’s SOS; this is our positive gang.

JOHN MERROW: Gangs I thought had like secret words or secret handshakes.

STUDENT: Well, this gang, we do have secret handshakes, which is a really powerful handshake. But we do not have tattoos. We do not have guns, any kind of weapons. We do not have head bands, anything. But we have our uniform, our badge and our respect.

JOHN MERROW: Currently, some SOS members including a few older kids who have remained active, are working with local civic leaders, figuring out how SOS can become an effective force in a new high school due to open in 2006.