Justin Chang’s face was quickly overtaken by a look of true accomplishment, and for good reason. The 2017 graduate of San Marino High School was for the first time visiting a construction site for which he was mostly responsible: the demolition of a lightly used computer room atop the school library that is currently being reconfigured as the Titan Student Center, a place where students will soon be able to at least temporarily escape the rigors of the academic world.
“I have to say it’s sort of amazing to see that this is really happening,” said Chang, who recently finished his freshman year at USC, where he is studying Human Biology. Chang was wearing a sticker identifying him as a visitor to the campus on Tuesday, and after serving as a member of the ASB, including his groundbreaking stint as student representative to the school board where he pitched the idea now coming to fruition before his very eyes, that tag seemed quite odd. “A lot of ideas are put forth, but not all of them become reality. I am so happy this one is.”
Funded by gifts from the San Marino Schools Foundation and Partnership for Awareness, the Titan Student Center will be ready for use when students return in mid-August.
The project began innocently enough. At the February 27, 2017 school board meeting, Justin had a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” moment. This reporter’s notes from that meeting include the all-caps entry JUSTIN – A STRESS COMMITTEE. Chang commented that the school board has always claimed that the health of its students was a top priority. Then, he challenged its members to back it up.
“Especially as the second semester began, I noticed the stress level on campus increasing,” Justin told The Tribune. “I have always believed that stress on campus is too high, but I was appointed to represent the students. That supersedes anything I would like to do myself. Student happiness is my top priority.”
Justin enlisted the help of some of his fellow ASB members and Jose Cairé, who was at the time the group’s advisor. He began a dialogue with Dr. Eric Bergmann, San Marino High School’s former assistant principal of activities, athletics and discipline.
“I wanted to see what would be within the school’s boundaries,” Justin said. “I felt we needed some type of committee to deal with this problem.”
To make his point, Justin penned a 1,184-word treatise on the matter entitled ‘SMHS Wellness Committee,’ in which he explained his version of the challenge as well as possible solutions.
In his report, Justin claimed that many students show signs of what he calls “the three most dire implications of stress:” emotional instability, academic dishonesty and stunted social maturation. He cited an AP Statistics poll to which students responded that stress is not only the number one problem at San Marino High School, but also that a majority of students rated themselves 4s or 5s on a stress scale, with 5 being “most stressed.”
He also claims that SMHS produces outstanding academic scholars “who are egregiously deprived of an equally outstanding social education.”
“High school students, who should be relishing in their last four years of school, would ‘rather be studying’ than going out with friends or to ASB activities,” he said in the report.
Among the solutions Justin proposed are certain days or weekends that are designated as “no homework” periods, the staggering of tests so students aren’t overwhelmed, barring students from taking too many AP classes and working with students and their counselors on a case-by-case basis to help students balance their time.
“I don’t think we are doing enough to prevent students from becoming overly stressed,” Justin told The Tribune last year. “The vibe around campus is pretty unhealthy. I know students who are taking Adderall and caffeine so they can get in those extra minutes of study. It seems it is more important to have good grades than to be healthy. The competition is so intense that students will sacrifice anything and take any risk. We definitely need a campus-wide discussion on this.”
A committee that Justin proposed at the time was formed and several members of San Marino’s school family—including Justin—toured wellness centers on other campuses, including a visit to Palos Verdes High School.
“In the early days, I had my doubts as to whether our students would take it seriously or where we would find the money,” Chang said. “I am really glad that the school board and Dr. Cherniss took my concerns seriously.”
“And it’s not just a wellness center, it’s a wellness initiative,” Liz Hollingsworth said at the June 12 meeting of the school board. Hollingsworth, former principal of Carver Elementary School, is one of the members of the committee. “This will promote awareness skills throughout the campus and the entire district.”
The Student Center will include an on-site counselor and other resources.
Superintendent Dr. Alex Cherniss has been a steady proponent of the project.
“Student voice is very important to our District,” Cherniss said. “Justin Chang is a great example of how our student leaders can make a lasting impact on our schools. Justin’s efforts to raise awareness about the stress and pressure many of our students experience was a catalyst in the development of the Titan Student Center.”
Chang has been following the progress of the wellness initiative through his successor, Alyssa Escamilla, who recently announced will be undertaking a second year as student school board representative.
“I have been in pretty steady contact with Alyssa,” Chang said. “With all of the change in administration and with Bergmann and [Assistant Principal Doug] Berry leaving, I did not know how seriously they were going to take this. But hearing from Alyssa that they were having these discussions made me really happy. It just shows me that the people on the school board and the administration are taking wellness and student stress very seriously. Anything we can do to push mental wellness is good. It has to be a part of the curriculum. Anxiety and depression are prevalent in our schools and this is the best way to battle it, with kids getting the proper treatment, care and attention.”
As for the present, Chang said he greatly enjoys being a Trojan.
“I think everyone’s freshman year is a learning experience,” he said. “I got a lot stronger as the year went on and now understand the demands of college.”
We always knew he understood the demands of high school.