COE Alternative Education student earns
state, local recognition
Robert Salas lay across a padded bench, gripped the barbell and took a deep breath. Slowly and steadily, the 16-year-old pushed the bar over his chest until his arms were fully extended and 225 pounds of disc weights hovered in the air.
The heavy lifting is an apt metaphor for Robert's recent hard work to transform his life from one of gangs and drugs into a world of healthy habits, perfect school attendance and academic success.
And the Snell Community School student's efforts have paid off in multiple ways – including recognition from both the Santa Clara County Board of Education and a state organization for school administrators.
Shy and soft-spoken, Robert is nonchalant about the attention: "It's kind of unexpected," he says.
Unexpected or not, recognition for Robert has been hard-earned. He began the 2011-12 school year determined to make a more productive use of his free time by focusing on physical fitness and healthy habits.
Every chance he got, Robert headed out to an area scattered with free weights, barbells, and other athletic equipment behind the South San Jose campus, and got to work. Other students quickly took notice, he says.
"At first it was just me back here," Robert says, "but more kids just started coming."
Soon enough, about 10 students and some staff members joined Robert in regular training, jogging, and climbing a steep set of stairs in a neighborhood near the school.
"This behavior gave our students a viable option for establishing new, positive social relationships," says Angela Haick, principal at Snell. "His motivation and positive support spread to others, making them motivated to try and do their personal best."
Robert's renewed focus on health has helped him drop about 70 pounds since the beginning of the school year, he says. Exercise is also a way for him to channel aggression and stress into something positive.
Robert's transformation has also led to a stronger relationship with teacher Roberto Palomo, who has served as a mentor for Robert.
But Robert says his teacher's support has extended beyond the weight bench.
"Mr. Palomo is my motivator," Robert says. "He's the one person I can really trust. I feel like I can tell him anything."
The exercise and healthy eating has paid off for Robert in tangible ways, but other students reap the benefits too, Palomo said.
"It gives students confidence," he said. "It's an important thing for students to experience success even if that means just making it up the stairs."
Robert's unofficial workout club has fostered a fitness program partnership between Snell and a salad bar restaurant chain that will provide support and education surrounding fitness, fresh food and healthy lifestyles.
Not only is Robert maintaining healthy habits this year, but he's also excelling academically and maintaining perfect attendance. New students hear Robert's story through Alternative Education Department's orientation and induction programs that help new students set personal goals and develop strategies to attain them.
"Robert's personal, life-altering decisions have influenced others and led to transformational change – not only to the Snell Community School, but throughout the Alternative Education Department," Haick says.
Robert's progress has also earned him statewide recognition. He is the recipient of the Association of California School Administrators' Every Student Succeeding Award for region eight. The award honors students who exceed expectations and overcome obstacles to succeed. Robert will be recognized in May at a regional awards dinner, and later this year at the organization's state conference.
Robert is still considering what he wants to do after graduation, but firefighting is a career choice that resonates strongly these days.
"You have to be fit to be a fireman," he says.
Robert will be recognized by the County Board of Education at 5:30 p.m. on April 18.
Date last updated: April 16, 2012