By Elisabeth Westermann
Special to The Almanac
Menlo School sophomores ended the school year in an unconventional setting: They sat in the church at San Quentin State Prison listening to four inmates, all convicted of violent crimes, with not a guard in sight.
The inmates shared stories of how they ended up in prison, their lives behind bars, and how the unique rehabilitation programs at San Quentin had helped them change.
In a striking anecdote, one of the inmates shared that he had been in the same middle school class and had shared friends with San Quentin's public information officer, who was leading the students' tour. The officer told the students that he may have found himself in prison had a teacher not intervened in middle school and convinced his parents to send him to a different high school.
Powerful testimonies like this illustrated for the students various aspects of criminal justice, such as how childhood circumstances play a significant role in a young person's likelihood of being involved in criminal activity. "Hearing individual stories and personal accounts of these inmates really brought to life the issue[s for me. ... I've learned to look at people in an equal light and to give everyone a chance," sophomore Leo Jergovic said afterwards.
The San Quentin visit was part of the private Atherton school's "M-Term," a two-week program Menlo has implemented during the last two years, designed to encourage its freshmen, sophomores, and juniors to be engaged in their local community and the problems it faces.
M-Term "lends itself to deep understanding of the way our society operates," Upper School Director John Schafer explained. "It's part of our job to make [students better citizens and [enable them to identify and solve some of the problems that are so vexing to society."
The program is Menlo's most recent approach to developing students in areas beyond academics. "It changes and broadens our definition of education," Schafer said. The program, he said, emerged from a vision of "the kinds of students we want to put out into the world: not just students who are great at solving math problems or writing essays, but change makers."
Each Menlo class focused on different areas of study for their M-Term. The freshmen were divided into four groups who explored: California's coast and waterways; the struggles of different groups in the Bay Area, including the homeless, LGBTQ+ and immigrant communities; California's agricultural and food industries; and California's land ecosystems.
A common goal was to "look at issues that are interrelated," such as "the interaction between environmental systems and human systems," according to English teacher Whitney Newton, who planned the freshman program.
Another goal of the program was "getting the students out in the world to experience things that they can't experience during the school year," Newton said. The groups learning about California's waterways, for example, did a beach cleanup in Half Moon Bay, visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and participated in discussions with United States Forest Service volunteers at waterways such as Tuolumne River.
"They told us about how to recycle more, and elect government officials that care about the environment," freshman Alexandra Viret said. "I learned about the effect we have on the waterways and environment around us."
Another aspect of freshman M-Term focused on community engagement. "We were interested in ... introducing freshmen to causes or issues that they may know about, but exposing them to organizations and people that are working on those issues," Newton explained. She hoped that the freshmen would get ideas for ways they could contribute to the community in the future, she added.
The sophomores' activities centered on the local housing crisis and the criminal justice system, and how both tie in to the cycle of poverty. "They're both very topical and relevant local issues," said sophomore class adviser Wilson Taylor, who planned the sophomores' program. "I think being an educated and engaged citizen as an adult requires exposure and proximity and engagement with these issues. ... It's good to have a full awareness of the world outside."
To gain that awareness about the housing crisis, students heard from experts such as Randy Tsuda, the current president of the nonprofit Palo Alto Housing, one of Silicon Valley's main providers of below-market-rate housing.
They also participated in building projects with Habitat for Humanity, an organization that helps to build affordable housing, and visited local food banks.
To learn more about criminal justice, students visited Delancey Street, an organization dedicated to reintegrating ex-convicts and drug-addicts into society, and listened to the stories of several of the residents. These trips were supplemented by class discussions and documentary films such as Ava DuVernay's "13th," about mass incarceration.
Sophomore Elizabeth Woodside said that from these experiences she "concluded that it's not one opinion that can solve the problems of incarceration and homelessness and inequality. It's the debate of different solutions and different ideas that actually leads to long-term solutions."
For many students, however, the visit to San Quentin had the most powerful impact. "I can't think of a more transformative experience for a 15- or 16-year-old than to go up there and meet these people who often made decisions when they were 15 or 16 that are still affecting them today," Taylor said.
Breaking from the freshman and sophomore models, juniors were each assigned to an elective course based on their interests. The courses ranged from electronic music, to archaeology, to forensics. Many of the courses were interdisciplinary, with teachers from different departments pairing up to teach them.
In addition to giving juniors the opportunity to learn about topics not included in the normal curriculum, teachers got to test classes that may eventually become semester-long courses in upcoming school years. Many juniors enjoyed having the ability to choose what they studied as well as the novelty of the courses. "I really liked the junior M-Term. I got to take a class that I was interested in. ... We got to code some really hard algorithms from scratch," said junior Ellen Cho, who chose a class in computer algorithms.
The junior elective classes, she added, "were fun and interesting and gave people new topics to explore, not just the usual topics we learn at Menlo."
Overall, many students felt that M-Term had accomplished its goals and that they had been able to pursue interesting topics while deepening their understanding of the issues their community faces through their field trips.
"I've liked that we've actually gotten to talk to people who are affected by the issues and the problems that we're talking about," sophomore Sadie Stinson said. "M-Term has inspired me to think more consciously about and learn to be more engaged in my community."