South County Community School based in Gilroy recognized by YMCA

From left, students Joseph Longoria and Rory Collier, along with Rebekah Children’s Services Culinary Arts program instructor Carlos Pineda, prepare a delicious school lunch. Photo by Abel Melisse

By Abel Melisse and Jordan Rey

The South County Community School creates a supportive and inclusive campus that fosters a positive environment for secondary students. For caring about young people, it received recognition last month at the YMCA Silicon Valley’s Project Cornerstone Asset Champions Awards

The Gilroy-based alternative education program offers students experiences such as culinary arts, group counseling, opportunities for physical fitness, community service, and the California Seal of Civic Engagement.

“At the end of the day, it takes a village to do what’s best for each individual student,” said Mark Camilleri, the principal of South County Community School. “When you think about why we’re a caring school, it’s the staff we have here as well who do what’s best for students.”

The site is a former elementary school campus on Wren Avenue, with 38 enrolled students in grades 6-12. The school’s focus is to shift mindsets from “at-risk” youth to “at-promise” youth. Students come to South County Community upon expulsion from their district school.

“Our initial mindset is to do what’s best for students as a whole,” Camilleri said. “It’s not just education, but the whole aspect of making sure when they go back to their school districts, they’re better than when they left.”

Project Cornerstone is a nonprofit organization and community initiative of the YMCA of Silicon Valley. Its mission is “to ensure all youth feel valued, respected, and known so they grow into healthy, caring, and responsible adults.”

It engages youth, parents/caring adults, and staff from schools and community organizations to strengthen healthy social and emotional skills and behaviors, build positive relationships, and create safe and supportive environments.

“For the first time in 23 years in this field, I think our school’s alternative education was recognized for the work we’ve been doing, not just here and not this specific year, but for something that’s been going on for many years,” said South County Community School’s civics and history teacher, Obed Muzquiz.

The Project Cornerstone recognition gives the community a better idea of what’s going on in the alternative education schools, he said.

“The effects are we become known as a school that’s doing good in many different arenas and helping students be successful in returning to their school districts and graduating,” he said.

Caldwell-Holden, alternative education program director, said the county’s community schools work diligently to serve students and ensure they feel safe and supported on campus.

“We work very hard to make sure they have the strength and skills they need to go back to their regular high school,” he said.

Many resources are used in the northern part of the county, but the award can help advocacy organizations recognize the South County Community School to help bring recognition and more local support.

Among the support it gets from local organizations is the Rebekah Children’s Services Culinary Arts program, where instructors, including Carlos Pineda and Andrew Briggs, teach students how to prepare delicious meals.

For the future, Caldwell-Holden hopes the school will help students not only after they have been expelled but also before they have to be expelled so they can stay in regular middle and high schools.

When Dr. Mary Ann Dewan, the Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools, heard the news the South County annex would receive the award, she was thrilled.

“I was especially pleased because I know the students, the staff, and the principal are all a part of why you got the award,” she said.

The school succeeds in building a caring community because its staff and teachers spend time with students in the various programs to inspire them and encourage them along their education and career journey, she said.

“I think it’s really important to me because we don’t serve that many students (in the county),” she said. “We have a small number who we’re fortunate to work with and serve, so we want the best for each and every one.”

Dewan also would like the county to look at building more Career Technical Education opportunities to get students thinking about going to community college. These CTE programs will motivate them to attend college and explore career interests and talents.

Dewan would also like to see the school develop more environmental activities to show a caring attitude for the Earth. These might include a garden program on campus to give students an opportunity to gain an outdoor environmental education experience. These can include finding grants to enhance the campus with a composting program to reduce food waste.

Principal Camilleri felt “great” about receiving the award.

“There’s a lot of schools in the county that are very caring just like us, and I’m glad we’re getting acknowledged,” he said. “To be recognized feels really good because it’s showing new students we have this type of environment where you come to this school, and you feel a positive vibe that’s supporting students.”

Ninth-grader Abel Melisse and eighth-grader Jordan Rey are students at South County Community School. They had assistance writing this story from Kelly Wylie, director of the public affairs department with Santa Clara County Office of Education, and Gilroy Life publisher Marty Cheek.