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Students Helping Students: PIT Class Continues Work
Shown in the classroom on the Escalon High School campus are members of this year’s PIT, Peer Interaction Team. From left, first year member Carsyn Hood, second year member Christine T. Cruz and first year member Cassie Sanchez. Photo Contributed

Perhaps now, more than ever, the Peer Interaction Team, PIT, is needed.

A longstanding program at Escalon High School, PIT develops leadership skills among class members, who also work with younger students in a type of mentoring-buddy relationship. It marks its 35th anniversary this year.

And while current PIT teacher/advisor Sue Gentry said the pandemic has added another layer of difficulty to the program, it is one that continues to be a valuable part of the EHS curriculum.

“PIT began in the spring of 1986 in the wake of an on campus suicide involving a Vista student,” Gentry explained of the group’s history. “After counseling hundreds of high school kids in the aftermath of this tragedy, district officials concluded that a high school support group or class would be beneficial. Among the leaders pushing for this project were district counselor Michael Simone, district psychologist Pat Rogers, and teacher Rusty Fachner.”

Initially, the program saw the selection of 20 high school students, who began training that spring 35 years ago, with counselor Simone leading the group.

“Teacher Steve French was brought in to observe the training and was offered the chance to teach a class that would begin the next fall,” Gentry said. “Mr. French was enrolled in the counseling program at CSUS (California State University Stanislaus) at the time.”

Now, more than three decades later, the PIT program continues to thrive and has provided countless students in the class with new skills while they offer a listening ear and support to younger students, referred to as ‘buddies’, at both the middle and elementary school levels.

“I have been teaching the class since the 2013-2014 school year. For me, I get as much, or more, than the students that are enrolled in the class,” Gentry said of her experiences with the PIT kids. “I am always amazed at the openness of the students. The students take their roles as peer counselors seriously, and are completely invested in their buddies. The rapport I develop with the students is what I love most about teaching.”

Students must apply to be in the PIT class and there are a certain number of spots available each year. The class is open to sophomores, juniors and seniors. Some that join as sophomores stay with the class for the full three years – the three-year members who graduated in 2020 were Kara Kennedy, Sage Davis and Damien Tom.

This year’s three-year members are Addison Stewart and Logan Webster.

“For the students, I have seen remarkable growth in so many over the years. The skills the students learn from class are transferable to life: active listening, trust, and empathy,” Gentry added.

This year’s group of applicants is undergoing the interview process right now, with selections to be made for next year’s class soon.

“Many of the PIT students have had PIT buddies and can’t say enough about the impact it made on them,” Gentry explained. “Buddies often have no one in their lives and no one they can depend on ... they learn to depend on the regular visits and look forward to talking to the EHS students.”

In the beginning of the last school year, the PIT class was able to meet in person with their buddies but those visits to other campuses were put on hold when schools transitioned to distance learning last March. With modified class schedules and some distance learning days still in place, they are having to continue working primarily with an online arrangement so far this school year.

“Last year, to recruit new class members, I created a Google Classroom with information and applications for students to access. We did all interviews through Zoom. It was different, but we ended up with some amazing new additions to the class,” Gentry explained. “I am repeating that process for students interested in PIT for the 2021-22 school year. The current PIT students also made a short video for Cougar TV. Luckily, since we are on a hybrid schedule, we can do interviews in person as well as on Zoom.”

Part of the class also involves trust activities and peer bonding early in the school year, which could not be done in person, but Gentry said they did try some hybrid Zoom breakout rooms-outdoor activities and are doing everything possible to keep the spirit of PIT intact while they work through the ongoing pandemic.

Hopefully, Gentry said, students in this year’s class will have the opportunity to get back to the other campuses for in-person meetings with their buddies once again.

Also, they will be continuing interviews this week to help select the new members of the class for next year.

Gentry said that, despite all the challenges, the PIT kids remain resilient and determined.

“This is an amazing class,” she said.

Practicing social distancing, members of this year’s PIT team at Escalon High school include, among others, those shown here: Alex Guevara, Soleil Gouzenne, Amanda Murphy, Cassie Sanchez, Madison Biedermann, Carsyn Hood, Brooke Davis, Demetrius Teixeira and Christine T. Cruz. Photo Contributed