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A Second Chance in Salinas

8th grader Alex Arzeta sits with his dog Fifi after a training session.
8th grader Alex Arzeta sits with his dog Fifi after a training session.

By Krista Almanzan

Salinas, CA – At Washington Middle School in Salinas all the students wear black and white. This informal uniform was established to keep gang colors off campus. Principal Judith Roney-Peterson says all not all her students are involved in gangs, but many back-up a gang, which means they support it. "They're so easily influenced at this age. And they're easily influenced by what looks cool. And right now gangs look cool. So we have to make something else really satisfy their soul," said Roney-Peterson.

Her goal is to give all her students a way to feel connected to the school. Some find their place in the classroom; others find it in sports, art or band. And this year the school added a new program called Take the Lead.

The Take the Lead class pairs at-risk kids with dogs surrendered to the SPCA for Monterey County. SPCA Dog Trainer Amanda Mouisset leads the twice weekly class. She teaches the kids how to train the dogs to sit, stay and walk on a leash. These skills make the dogs more adoptable. "People got these dogs thinking you know it's a great dog as a puppy. It's now an adolescent. It's now out of control, whether they didn't have the time or the need to train or felt bothered by it. The kid's are their second chance," said Mouisset.

The dogs are also the kids' second chance. The students in the Take the Lead class have a history of either getting bad grades, skipping school or both. Many haven't felt a connection to school, until now. 14-year-old Alex Arzeta says he no longer ditches class. "Once you start doing good in school you open opportunities for everything. And your parents start trusting you and you have more fun out of school. So now I just do what I have to do at school and out of school, I do whatever I want. Well, not everything I want. What my Mom lets me do," said Arzeta. Alex has gone through the five week program twice.

Of the 20 kids who've taken the class, only one didn't finish. "As far as I'm concerned it completely turned out three or four kids, completely. As far as the other kids, the jury is not out yet," said Principal Roney-Peterson.

So far the successes are purely anecdotal, but the SPCA for Monterey County is looking to do a study to turn the anecdotes into hard numbers. Roney-Peterson doesn't a need a study to know its working. "As a teacher, you don't know what you said, did or talked about that's going to inspire them in ten years. But with this program, I know that what we did, said and talked about here will definitely inspire them for the rest of their lives" she said. She plans to bring the program back next year.

The SPCA for Monterey County is also looking into expanding the Take the Lead program into local juvenile justice facilities.