On Your Marks: How Running for Change Connects Tam Students

By Hannah Chorley and James Finn

As seventh period ends on a Wednesday afternoon, hordes of students crowd the halls, heading to their cars, sports practice, or to be picked up. Instead of rushing for an exit, junior Cece Haynesworth pushes against the crowd and hurries to change, put on her running shoes, and head to humanities teacher Isaias Franco’s classroom in Upper Keyser. “Most of the time [I] don’t want to [go for a run] when we walk up to the classroom,” Haynesworth said. “But then we start running and [I]  just feel amazing. Most of the days I don’t want to stop.”

Haynesworth, along with 12 other Tam students, is a member of Running for Change, a program established by Franco last year. The program also represents an opportunity to build friendships, and serves as a tool to motivate students to become active members of their community. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon, this group of Tam students gathers with Franco and other Tam teachers to run. They are currently preparing for a half-marathon and hope to complete the 13.1-mile distance at the London Half-Marathon in England next June.

Last year, when the program was first established, six students trained and completed the San Diego half marathon with the help of paraeducators Meredith Bransfield and Amber Hulsey, sponsors throughout the community, other members of Tam’s faculty and Franco himself. This year, the students have already started training for the London half marathon. In addition to running together, the students in the group have participated in a variety of team-building activities since the program started.

In the fall of last year, the idea for the program was sparked in Franco’s sixth period class, when he began thinking about a way to engage students who “weren’t really showing up to school or weren’t really interested in school.” According to Franco, many of these students lacked a sense of community and felt disconnected from Tam. Franco thought that because of running’s accessibility and essentially free cost, it would be the perfect way to build a community for such students.  “The whole idea for Running for Change started here in this classroom,” Franco said.

Franco and Bransfield devised the idea for the program together, after a discussion concerning an article about a student at another school who had used running as a way to change his life. “We both just kind of jumped into it right away last year,” Bransfield said. “The idea came up kind of organically in the class. We were talking about this article about this student who had changed his life through running, and I had mentioned that I wanted to train for a full marathon in San Diego. A light bulb kind of went off in Mr. Franco’s head and he was like, let’s all do it, let’s train for a [half] marathon.”

While Running for Change itself is open to all students, Franco’s class is geared towards “at-risk” students, meaning that they are at risk of dropping out, and who have experienced a variety of challenges in school and other areas. According to Franco, using “running [as] an outlet for that… anger or depression” and “being around a supportive community of people who believe in them” has helped students improve their physical fitness and emotional state, while also leading to concrete improvements with their academics.

In order to motivate his students to see these improvements, Franco has a strict set of academic requirements students must meet in order to be eligible to run. The requirements focus on self-motivation and communication. Once a week, each student has to check in with all their teachers about past assignments and upcoming quizzes and tests, as well as have the teacher sign a grade sheet, which certifies that each student maintains at least a 3.0. Then, each kid has to check in with Franco about their grades.

“[Last year], there was zero communication between [these students] and their teachers. So when they had a D on a report card they had no idea why they had a D,” Franco said. “A big part of what we do is self advocacy-communicating with people so you get what you need. So now [the kids] are doing that with their academics.” This policy is summarized in Running for Changes slogan: “a 3.0 to go” – referencing the policy that each student needs a to have a 3.0 in order to go to London. “Academically, we set a very high bar for these kids,” Franco said.

According to Franco, the students work is paying off. Franco saw a 24 percent increase in the average GPA of his students from the beginning of last year to the. “[This year], kids are coming into my tutorial to get help with their work and… are realizing that [tutorial] is a time [to] work on their grades.”

Haynsworth also has noticed that the program has helped her stay on top of her grades. “Basically, Running for Change keeps me more organized. I just have to keep on it and not slack. I have not missed one homework assignment [since I became involved in Running for Change],” she said.

Many of members of the program are new runners and require motivation to help them while working towards such a daunting task. Haynesworth said that one of her main motivators is Franco and his love and dedication for the program. “Whatever he does, he puts it all in. He could be changing his clothes and he would be like, ‘I am going to do this with a positive attitude,’” Haynesworth said. “Running for Change…means so much to him and that’s kind of why I do it and stick with it.”

Members of the Tam community have also motivated and supported Running for Change. Teachers have been buying Running for Change T-Shirts and wristbands to help fundraise and increase awareness of the program. “The kids see that their teachers are supporting them. It just motivated all of us,” Franco said.

In addition to improving their grades, the students in the program have experienced the impact of their involvement in the program in a variety of other ways. Freshman Kent Harrison, a member of the program, wasn’t interested in running when he first began Running for Change earlier this year but soon began to feel the benefits of the frequent exercise. “I wanted to quit the first time, because I didn’t like it,” Harrison said. “But then I started doing it more, and I started liking it. It’s just teamwork, and getting more strength. I actually feel myself having a little more strength [since I started].” Harrison appreciates the sense of support he feels from the other members of the program. “I enjoy that we can talk, that we can do stuff together. [The runs are] really quick. [They’re] only like 45 minutes, and the time goes by really fast. No pressure or anything at all,” he said.

Franco has seen a difference in the kids’ self-esteem, their emotional health, and their general attitude towards life. When asked by a parent at last June’s end-of-the-year awards night how running had improved students’ mental state, one answered by saying that “when I’m done running, my brain works faster. I feel happier now that I’ve gotten my run done.”

Ella Bradley, a member of Running for Change, is the only deaf student at Tam. With the help of Hulsey, her interpreter, she is able to participate in this program and engage with other students. “This is my first year [in Running for Change]. I am excited to make friends. [It helps] if you  If you want to change yourself [or] if you don’t want to be gloomy or sad or overwhelmed.”

Ella’s mother,  Maud Bradley, has noticed the positive impact the program has had on her daughter. “I feel like [the program] is helping facilitate her bonding with other kids, [as well as] making friends, and changing herself and personality, and having the goal of going to Europe.”

Junior James Bartunek sees the program as a reason to show up to school and go to class. “[Running for Change gives] me a reason to come to school, because we need to have a 3.0 to go to Europe,” Bartunek said. “And I really want to go to Europe.”

Franco has noticed students who were originally closed off towards each other reach out and become friends. According to Franco, many of the kids in the program didn’t know each other at the beginning of the year. Franco noticed a quick change after the program’s first few weeks.  “[I’ve] seen friendships form quickly,” Franco said. “Yesterday we went zip-lining, and on the ride back, we had a conversation about drugs and alcohol. You had two kids who normally would only joke around with each other, and all of a sudden here they are in the back seat sharing that one of their parents is an alcoholic, the other kid’s mom is addicted to drugs, and now they’re starting to see we’re not that different. We all are kind of in this together. So just to see all the kids’ guards coming down-they’re starting to trust each other, when four weeks ago they didn’t trust anyone. That interpersonal growth is awesome to see.”

Students often confide in Franco or Bransfield. Franco mentioned a conversation where one student discussed his own negative body image with Bransfield. “[It was] a way for him to release what he’s going through and confide in someone who’s going to  be there to support him and give him a way to work through that,” Franco said. “That conversation, for a kid to be able to open up and talk about that, those little things are way more important to me than running.”

The program has had a profound effect on members of Tam’s teaching staff as well as on the students involved. This year, many members of Tam’s faculty have joined Franco’s team. English teacher Abby Levine heard about the program during its first year of operation and had the chance to run with the group earlier this year.

“I heard about the program last year, and I was really impressed,” Levine said.  “I think it’s really ambitious to take on a project of this scale, and it requires a lot of commitment from teachers and students alike. I loved that it was the students motivating the other students, that it wasn’t all coming from the teachers, that the students were taking initiative to create change and to set goals for themselves and reach their goals.”

Levine was even more impressed after she got a chance to participate in one of the group’s training sessions. “I loved that no matter what your ability was, there was a chance to participate. We got to the halfway mark and everyone waited for us and cheered as we came,” Levine said. “I was in the slowest group, so that made me feel really good because running isn’t my strength. Then we all ran the last part of the run together. I loved that running, which is usually an individual sport, became a group sport.”

Math teacher Rebecca Henn, who has played a role in the program’s development and runs with the group twice a week, felt that the motivation goes both ways. “I first heard about it last year,” Henn said of the program. “I had a student who was in one of my classes that did it and I was just blown away that this kid went from not exercising at all to running a half marathon, and it really kind of seemed to motivate him, not only in the running, but in his studies as well.” Henn felt that many of the benefits that the students glean from the running impacted her as well. “I love it,” she said. “[Running with them] is what I look forward to on Mondays and Tuesday. [Those days] are really tough and long days for me, but when I finally get there, it’s just fun to hang out with them. They are an incredibly supportive group. They are not competitive. They are always trying to help each other. It’s just really a nice change.”

The training itself is “intense,” according to Haynesworth, and is designed to suit students of different abilities and to prepare even the most inexperienced runners with the necessary training to be able to complete the 13.1 mile race at the end of the year. Throughout the process the runners make an unceasing effort to encourage and support one another.

“We motivate each other, without really meaning to,” Haynesworth said. “We push ourselves. It’s weird because I’m not really friends with any of the kids in Running for Change, but after these past three weeks we’re all really close. I wouldn’t run by myself, but running with them…yeah.”

Franco hopes that his message and this knowledge will extend beyond the runners’ high school lives.  “[I want] the students who are in the program to really become productive members of society and part of the community,” Franco said.  “Whether that’s living here in the community and working at one of the businesses that has supported us, or going on to college and coming back here and becoming a role model for other kids who have been through some struggles.”

Leading Running for Change has also had a significant impact on Franco’s outlook on certain aspects of teaching. “It’s really shown me how important it is for every person to have a community where they feel supported,” Franco said. “Because now these kids are beginning to care about their grades,  they’re starting to care about being at school. It’s amazing to see what can happen when kids are given the support that they need. It’s really motivating for me.”

Franco’s dedication and commitment has not gone unnoticed among the rest of Tam’s teaching staff. “He’s possibly the most dedicated teacher I’ve ever experienced in my entire life,” Levine said of Franco. “I am continuously impressed by his vision. It would never have occurred to me to take on a project of such a large scale, not only because it’s a daunting task, but the vision that it takes to say ‘here’s what I want to do, and I believe that my students can do this’ I think is a great lesson for many teachers [as far as] thinking about what our students are capable of….He really believes in his students, and that’s maybe the quintessential element to being a teacher.”