Seven eighth-grade boys gathered in a circle in a Miller Middle School classroom on a recent afternoon. Classes were over for the day, but one by one, each named an adjective – “angry,” “embarrassed” – that describes the emotion he most struggles with.
After each boy spoke, his peers echoed a resounding “aho!” – a sound of acknowledgment.
For the past month, the school has offered a program for rising freshman students to prepare them for what’s in store next year, develop their leadership qualities and discuss something they’ll likely come to know well in future years: gender stereotypes.
The 10-week program, which kicked off in February and ends in early May, is overseen by volunteer mentors but conducted primarily by the students. With about a dozen students, each group is intimate, confidential and separates boys and girls.
When groups are in session Wednesday afternoons after school, it’s a safe space for students to talk about things they might not discuss in a larger or co-ed group.
The boys’ group is led by volunteers associated with the ManKind Project, a national nonprofit focused on mentoring programs to help men become “men of honor” or the men they want to be.
On the whiteboard behind the Miller boys, someone scrawled, “Man ‘box,’” and under it, listed descriptors that pigeonhole men: “pissed,” “egotistical,” “unemotional.”
Holden Blau, an eighth-grader at Miller, said he and his peers were selected for the group because of their leadership potential.
“We’ve talked about social boundaries and things a man ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ be,” Blau said. “It’s important to recognize stereotypes, where you do and don’t fit into them and then decide whether you want to respect or defy them. I want to prepare for whatever is down the road.”
Blau, an aspiring architect with plans to intern this summer in that field, said the exercises are significant because the problems the mentoring groups discuss are real and present at school.
“We talk about what it means to be a man,” said Gatsby Fisher, a volunteer. “We don’t tell the students what to think; we ask them. I was surprised to see them be so open to it.”
The program, Keys to High School Success, was piloted in Durango School District 9-R last year in partnership with the ManKind Project and the Women’s Resource Center, which oversees the girls’ group.
Teachers recommended students who demonstrated leadership potential for the program and were given the option to sign up.
Miller girls’ groups focus on positive body image, developing healthy relationships, dealing with peer pressure and setting goals.
Miller eighth-grader Mirah Tulley said before discussion begins, she and her peers take a moment to mentally prepare by clearing their minds of any thoughts or concerns beyond the group.
“It’s kind of like a group counseling session,” Tulley said.
Clarice Hise, also a Miller student, said she appreciates the separation of boys and girls for the groups.
“You feel more comfortable sharing things,” she said.
Women’s Resource Center Executive Director Christy Schaerer said the school groups come from a program her organization has offered locally for more than a decade. The goal is to instill leadership and positive role-modeling skills in young people.
“We thought it would be a good springboard for eighth-graders transitioning to ninth grade,” Schaerer said. “It’s about positive self-image, communication and learning what healthy relationships are about. We’re starting small and seeing if it’s something that we can work into the schools.”
Escalante Middle School participated for the pilot, but not enough students signed up this year because of scheduling conflicts. District spokeswoman Julie Popp said the school may partner with Boys & Girls Club of La Plata County to organize groups for Escalante students this summer.
“Our core belief is that this experience will make a difference in the students’ lives,” said Michael Cahn, a volunteer with the ManKind Project. “Maybe not right now, maybe years from now. But it’s an invaluable experience.”