They’re only 5 and 6 years old, but already, the first-graders at Guadalupe’s Frank Elementary School are learning about peace, violence and how to resolve conflicts.
"We’ve talked about praising people. We’ve talked about righting wrongs," counselor Cecilia Vega-Henschen told a class of first-graders last week. "When we do something wrong, we have to . . .?"
"Apologize!" the class responded.
And then through roleplaying, the students acted out what it means to feel hurt and how to say, "I’m sorry."
The exercise is part of a new emphasis at four schools in the Tempe Elementary School District — Aguilar, Evans, Wood and Frank — to meet students’ social and emotional needs, as well as teaching academics. A $1.2 million federal grant has allowed the district to place two full-time counselors and one parttime counselor at each school this year.
But this is not school counseling as many adults recall from their own childhoods. These counselors are more likely to be found in the classroom than in an office.
Counselor Carolyn Roche said her profession has shifted from a reactive mode to a proactive one. "We’re helping them get the social skills they need before the crisis occurs," she said.
The grant money and ex tra counselors are intended to help all children at the four Tempe district schools, but especially the children of Guadalupe — a tiny town south of Tempe with a population that is 43 percent Hispanic, 27 percent white, 19 percent American Indian, 8 percent black and 3 percent Asian.
Frank school is in the heart of Guadalupe, but the district’s desegregation order spreads out the Guadalupe children among the four elementary schools.
Nearly 48 percent of Guadalupe children are poor, 83 percent live in substandard housing and 25 percent have no health insurance.
The school counselors are trying to teach these children and their classmates skills that can help them overcome the odds, skills such as empathy, getting along with others, resilience.
"It’s character education," Vega-Henschen said.
Using teachers as role models and community volunteers as mentors, the counselors are trying to create an environment in each school in which all boys and girls have someone who believes in them. For instance, Honeywell sends employees into Frank to mentor students.
"If kids have hope, they’re more likely to succeed," Vega-Henschen said.
Fifth-grader Theodora Hernandez is one of those children. At 10, she already knows what she wants to do as an adult: "I want to be a math teacher. I just love math."
Her counselors and teachers are showing her that success is possible, not only through multiplication and division — but also through character and community.
"They’re teaching us to be better in being peaceful and not to be fighting or cursing," she said. "They’re teaching us how it will be for us together in the future."
The Tempe Elementary School District wants to expand the number of mentors and business partners it has at Aguilar, Evans, Frank and Wood elementary schools. To volunteer, call 730-7425.