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April 26, 2005 > A team approach to at-risk students

A team approach to at-risk students

by Linda Stone

MSAP (Masonic Student Assistance Program) trains school teachers to identify and treat at-risk students. On April 20, Alameda Masonic Lodge No. 167 (Fremont) hosted a dinner presentation by Garo Mirigian, principal of Centerville Junior High School and START (Student Teacher Assistant Review Team) members Theresa Velazquez and Leigh Ann Chen at which they described the success of MSAP for local teachers.

MSAP, which began in the late 80s, is an innovative three-day workshop led by Thom Stecher and Gary Vermeier. It is designed to build educators' skills in identifying at-risk students and providing appropriate guidance. The program trains teachers to work as teams. This approach considers the child as a whole, identifying all factors that may contribute to poor behavior and barriers to learning. Behavior issues are often symptoms of a bigger problem. Students in distress may not ask for help, so it falls to their teachers to read the signs and intervene before it's too late.

According to Stecher, the Masonic Model program is constantly being refined to best meet the childrens' needs. Columbine, Jonesboro and similar events in American history over the past 20 years reinforce the necessity for this type of training.

"We came away convinced of the value that was given to us...I started telling my other teachers that they should do this," said Mirigian, who attended the training eight years ago.

The MSAP workshop is held at the Masonic Home in Covina. All participant expenses for training materials, lodging, meals, and transportation to and from Covina are paid by the California Masonic Foundation. School districts provide substitutes for participating teachers.

A school district sends six to eight workshop participants per school who then form a core MSAP team at their site. Team members can include administrators, counselors, teachers (regular and special education), school psychologists, etc.

"I can tell you as a principal; it has really made a significant difference in our school. I really think that our school would be far less successful without the training. That's how important it is to us," said Mirigian. "I am proud to say that 80 percent of the staff at Centerville has gone to this." The other 20 percent are either retiring or on the wait list.

"The training was just unbelievable. When I came back I had all this knowledge and information that I had learned in the training that I was so eager to get out there and put it to use for some of our at-risk students," said Velazquez.

Four areas targeted for change are academics, behavior, health and attendance. This comprehensive program helps guide teachers to identify problematic areas and create a step-by-step approach to aid students. The program is geared for all students- elementary, middle and high school.

"It was possibly the most wonderful experience I've ever had," said Chen who is the senior member of Centerville's START team. "My great hope is that once we get all the staff trained that we, as a team, wouldn't be necessary because this will be part of the phraseology that we have on campus; that we can just talk to a student or brainstorm during lunch hour or casually in the hallways."

Crediting MSAP training, Mirigian said school gang and graffiti problems have either diminished or are nonexistent.

Mirigian invited personnel from other schools to come to Centerville Junior High and see how the program works first hand. "If you know someone in Newark or Union City or Hayward, we would like to tell them about it," he said.

"It's like a wildfire. I went, somebody else went, we told others and they went...and so on. The first team kind of primes the pump, so other teams will go afterward, then all of a sudden- it's just wild," said Mirigian who received a certificate of appreciation from the lodge.

"We have the power to create safe schools and healthy children through MSAP," said Stecher in a Masonic newsletter.

For more information or to register for a workshop, call the California Masonic Foundation at (415) 292-9139, or visit

Alameda No. 167 Masonic Lodge can be reached at (510) 791-9884.

Centerville Junior High School (510) 797-2072

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