The Kearns model: Strengthening teens through coping skills and mentoring

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kearns High School students Evelin Tapia, left, and Maria Chacin, right, share a laugh after a tutoring session at Kearns Junior High School, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Kearns High School is empowering Latino youth to become leaders by serving the community and developing leadership skills through Latinos in Action, a class that teaches mentorship skills.

Editor’s noteThrough a grant from Solutions Journalism Network, The Salt Lake Tribune is examining how Kearns is trying to improve the lives of its children. In the final story of this three-part series, we learn how school and community resources are helping teens deal with stress. Part 1 described the Kearns communitywide effort to improve the lives of teens living there and Part 2 explored the community emphasis on coaching and supporting parents.

Kearns • This is not the high school ending that Holly Biesinger had envisioned.

She wanted to walk across a stage in front of family and friends. She planned to work as a lifeguard this summer to help pay for college in the fall. Will there be a graduation ceremony? Will pools be open? Will college start on time?

But the Kearns High School senior has her COVID-19 pandemic-related stress and anxiety under control because of the skills she learned in a group counseling program meant to help students ward off depression.

She makes sure she goes outside and calls her friends every day. She counters her negative thoughts with realistic positive ones: No, she can’t see her friends, but they’ve grown closer over FaceTime. She isn’t in class, but she is bonding with her family before she moves away to college.

Called ME (Mood Enhancement) Time, the six hours of group counseling sessions has been shown to teach teens coping skills for stress and reduce the onset of depression. Before the pandemic, it was set to expand throughout the Granite School District. For now, it’s being offered online.

“It feels like now my life is in my hands,” Biesinger says. “I might not be able to change my feelings, but I can change what I’ll do about them.”

Kids in crisis

The Kearns Evidence2Success Coalition and Salt Lake County Youth Services made it possible for 16 Granite District social workers and counselors to be trained on ME Time (also known as The Blues Program) to address a problem familiar to high schools around the state: A growing number of teens report feeling sad or hopeless. It’s part of the reason suicide was the leading cause of death for Utah children ages 10 to 17, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Survey data from 2015 in Kearns shows 30% of teens in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks in a row or more, enough that it stopped them from doing usual activities. That’s up from 17% in 2011. The numbers are similar across the state, with 62% last year showing moderate depressive symptoms — meaning they agreed with statements like “sometimes I think that life is not worth it.”

ME Time has been piloted in Kearns not because the community needs it more, but because it lacks the mental health resources available in other communities, says Andrea Miller, Granite District’s social work coordinator, who was trained on the program.

Some families don’t have the health insurance or money to cover therapy, and affordable mental health services through places such as Salt Lake County Youth Services or Valley Behavioral Health are located elsewhere in the valley.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The reasons teens feel sad and hopeless vary, but loneliness is often at the root. “It’s the lack of feeling connected with someone, whether it’s at school or home. It’s a lack of feeling like they belong,” says Tyson Harris, Kearns’ High’s social worker, who is trained on the program and ran three group sessions this school year, including one with Biesinger in the fall.

He says parents who minimize their students’ problems by suggesting their feelings are “just a phase,” are harming their teens. “The students realize maybe there’s no one to turn to. They bottle up their emotions and eventually they snap.”

While teens show high rates of moderate depression seemingly everywhere in Utah, Kearns Principal Maile Loo sees differences in what her students face, compared with more affluent parts of the county.

“Their kids have. My kids don’t,” she says, noting that her school offers a food bank and parenting classes. Before the pandemic, she says she tried to persuade at least one junior or senior a day not to drop out of school to get a job to help their family’s finances. With the pandemic, Loo says she and an assistant principal call seniors each week to make sure they stay engaged — a struggle for students across the state.

“The strength of the community is they want their kids to have a better life. But the challenge of that want is they don’t know how to assist them because they have struggled themselves," Loo says. "That’s why I’m asking teachers to build relationships” with students.

When school was in session, students were referred to ME Time through word of mouth, and by their teachers or counselors who would notice a student struggling emotionally. Once parents gave permission, students were screened to see if they qualify; the program is meant for students who could use support but aren’t necessarily diagnosed with depression, Miller says, because it is not treatment.

The sessions are confidential. In general, students in groups of six to eight share struggles like death of a loved one, divorce, bullying, violence, finances, and balancing school, jobs and home life, Harris says.

Kearns Junior High was also running ME Time sessions this year, and social worker Kristen Salakielu says some students needed to process past traumas, while others were struggling because they got a bad grade or felt disconnected to their parents. “It’s a range of super personal and sensitive subjects to everyday things they can’t really process … or feel hopeful about.”

The counseling groups were made up of a cross section of the school, says Chandler Parkinson, program manager of Substance Use Prevention at Salt Lake County Youth Services, who ran sessions at Kearns High with Harris. He likened them to the movie “The Breakfast Club,” or a Noah’s Ark of social groups. It was a powerful message to the rest of the group to see they weren’t alone, he says.

“It might have been a shock when I walked in and they’re like, ‘She does everything. She’s a swim captain and SBO [student body officer]. She doesn’t need this.’” Biesinger says. “But anyone could use it. It has been so beneficial for me.”

ME Time: An emotional toolbox

Research by the Blueprints for Healthy Youth Development shows the program has proved it can reduce risk factors like stress, poor social skills and depressive symptoms and boost protective factors, including emotional coping skills.

In six one-hour sessions, teens learn how to reduce negative thoughts and increase the amount of time they spend on activities with friends and through physical exercise.

Called the cognitive triangle, they learn the interconnections among thoughts, feelings and actions — and if they change what they think or do, they can change their feelings. They get a sort of toolbox to change their thinking by challenging their negative thoughts — through practices like finding positive counter thoughts — and change what they do by giving themselves rewards for accomplishing goals, doing something physical, volunteering and having fun. They also develop a plan of how they will deal with future life stressors. Through it all, they track their negative thoughts in a journal and are assigned to try new fun activities.

“The mood journal is to build self-awareness and understand what makes them feel the way they feel,” says Parkinson. “We ask them in class, who recognizes their mood was down and who went and did something fun, social or physical? We try to get them to recognize the things they can do to make themselves feel better.”

Immediately after the program ends, teens report more positive thinking patterns and say they participate in pleasant activities, according to Blueprints. Over several studies, the program has shown to reduce the rates of clinical depression by 40%, compared to control groups, up to two years after counseling, says Paul Rohde, senior research scientist at Oregon Research Institute, who developed the program and trained Utah social workers.

“The basic thing they’re going to get are coping skills to deal with stress,” Rohde says. “We’re not going for happy thoughts or affirmations. We want to help young people look at life more realistically.”

Another benefit is the connections the teens make with one another in the group. Students feel validated and safe sharing their struggles and feel like they belong, say the social workers.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Holly Biesinger, a Kearns High School senior, participated in the ME Time pilot program, April 29, 2020.

Biesinger agrees. She says it was hard to share at first, but “once we started opening up, it just happened and we were suddenly so comfortable with each other. … It’s always a good feeling to know somebody gets it and somebody understands.”

It’s too soon to tell if the program is delivering long-term solutions for Kearns. Some counseling sessions were cut short because of the pandemic and not enough time has gone by to see if the program has lasting effects. But teens are given pre- and post-screening tests for depression; anecdotally, the therapists report the scores show improvement.

The program has limitations: Outcomes depend on how willing students are to do the homework assignments and their availability to take the classes after school, which is why the district is exploring how to do it during the school day without taking away from academics. The biggest hurdle is getting returned parental permission slips, often because students forget or parents get busy. And data show the program isn’t effective among teens who are already depressed or experimenting with drugs or alcohol.

But Granite District believes the program has enough promise that it planned to train one team for each high school, and one of its feeder junior highs, in the district. “We want to make sure that whatever we do is sustainable and shows it has a positive effect,” Granite’s Miller says.

It has for Biesinger, who has been surprised at how the skills have become second nature. “Every high school student goes through things and they’re definitely not easy things. Going through them now, I’m able to understand what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling that way. I’m able to handle things better.”

The power of mentoring: Latinos in Action

The hard work of bringing hope to students at Kearns High extends beyond ME Time.

When Loo became principal in 2011, she recalls a school in disarray, with run-down facilities, students wandering in the halls when they should have been in class and teachers arriving late. Reflecting the climate, the graduation rate stood at 68%.

Since then, Loo, the teachers and district have implemented a number of changes, from physical face-lifts to raising expectations of teachers and students. When school was in session, students started late on Mondays so teachers could work together to improve student learning. They also benefited from an instructional coach hired by the school to make lessons more interactive. The school has been working with families who struggle to pay student fees and offered a family center with English and computer classes.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Maria Chacin, a Kearns High School senior, left, tutors Mylee Thammavong, right, at Kearns Junior High School, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Kearns High School is empowering Latino youth to become leaders by serving the community and developing leadership skills through Latinos in Action, a class that teaches mentorship skills.

“I say to my students, ‘You walk into this building and every one of the educators will be here to serve your needs, whatever that might be.' All I can do is raise the bar inside my building and show my students other ways to be successful moving forward after high school," Loo says. “I can’t control what goes on out there, but I certainly will inside.”

While the school’s test scores show that many students continue to struggle (just 25% of students last year were considered proficient in English Language Arts), Kearns’ 2017-2018 graduation rate (the most recent year available through the Utah School Report Card), was 83.2%, higher than Granite District’s. More students are applying for student aid for college, taking advanced placement exams and career and technical readiness classes.

A program called Latinos in Action (LIA) has a lot to do with that. It’s a yearlong elective class available to any student. It prepares them for college through instruction on post-secondary options, readiness and professionalism, along with giving them leadership experience and requiring that they tutor in neighborhood elementary and junior high schools. Created in Utah, the program is in 10 other states.

Kearns High’s LIA started in 2011 and LIA teacher Andrew Busath, who participates in the Evidence2Success coalition, estimates 98% of his students graduate high school. A spreadsheet he uses to track his seniors since 2011 shows that nearly all of them planned to attend college and were the first generation in their family to do so. They’ve logged more than 85,000 service hours since 2011.

On a day in early March, 10 of his students arrived at Kearns Junior High to tutor seventh and eighth graders who read on a first to third grade level. Teacher Debbie DuPaix says the one-on-one attention helps her junior high students gain reading comprehension and fluency more quickly. But the class also helps the high school students learn soft skills like self-reliance, self-reflection, follow-through and empathy, says Busath.

“When you help someone, you help yourself. It happens when they say, ‘Oh man, I don’t want to go to school today but I’ve got to tutor,’” says Busath. “They know that kids are relying on them so they show up. It teaches them commitment and follow-through, all those kinds of things that aren’t in the curriculum that they need to be successful after high school, no matter what they decide to do,” he says, adding that several students who have been tutored in junior high and elementary school end up taking LIA in high school.

Tutor Maria Chacin, a senior, didn’t plan to go to college until the LIA class; now she has a scholarship to Utah Valley University. Tutoring made her realize she likes to help people and she plans to major in criminal justice. “I realized how important it is to keep learning and get a college degree,” she says.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kearns High School junior Marylinda Gonzalez, right, tutors Carlos Jimenez at Kearns Junior High School, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Kearns High School is empowering Latino youth to become leaders by serving the community and developing leadership skills through Latinos in Action, a class that teaches mentorship skills.

Junior Marylinda Gonzalez says tutoring makes her feel good to help someone else. “When I was in elementary school I used to get tutored. Now I don’t really struggle in school so I know that it does help and it does change.”

LIA has helped her, too: “I plan to be the first person in my family to go [to college]. My family is supportive, but they don’t have a lot of information. Mr. Busath supports us with that and even helps us get our transcripts and even writes letters of recommendation.”

Kearns Principal Loo says the transition to high school has been hard for a lot of her ninth graders, which is why she hired a dedicated ninth grade counselor and offered an elective freshman academy to teach them the skills needed to be better students.

Loo says improving school facilities has been important, too. And she used the school’s Gates Field as a model: The major league quality baseball stadium was built by Kearns alumni Kevin Gates and hosts the high school baseball team, along with national and international competitions. Loo says she found funds to upgrade the auditorium, add a turf football field, tennis courts and a “Home of the Cougars” sign on the exterior. The media center was also updated with extensive technology.

“For them to see potential, sometimes I need to create it, so they’re not feeling like nobody cares about us because we’re west side,” she says. “No. I wanted to get that out of their heads. The only way to do it is to change the looks, the physicality of the building.”

Heather May is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City. She can be reached at heathermayslc@gmail.com.

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems. Read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.