After returning to in-person learning in 2021, Berkeley High School saw a spike in conflicts, as students returned from isolation and re-learned how to interact with peers and balance their personal and academic lives. Seeing the community’s need, Juan Raygoza, principal at the time, received permission from Berkeley Unified School District to create a new administrative position for a Vice Principal of School Climate and Student Wellness. That position was filled by Doreen Bracamontes last year.
During her first few months, Bracamontes looked at the existing support systems at BHS. “What I discovered was that Berkeley High was really ready to coordinate some of the individual efforts that were going on and designate some staff members to do that work,” she said.
“I had to identify what funding could be available in order to launch a wellness center and what would it really take. And I ran the idea by Principal Raygoza, told him all of the things I had discovered and asked him if I could explore it with a team of people.”
With that, he set the stage for the development of a Wellness Center at BHS.
Bracamontes then put together a group of people representative of the greater BHS community. This included counselors, students, administrators, the special education department, someone from the district office, as well as a few classified individuals. The team spent a lot of time researching wellness centers at other schools and chose to include resources like consent education and services like mental health counseling, that best fit with BHS’s needs.
“I know the school community is well aware, there were just some outright tragedies. We’ve experienced the loss of students for a variety of reasons,” said Bracamontes.
A parent volunteer offered to visit wellness centers to give feedback on ways to help improve the plan using their own experience with losing a child.
“Without somebody designated to be able to take that work (grief counseling) up and then look at how we coordinate it and provide those supports with all of our wonderful staff like our counseling team, it’s work that wouldn’t have gotten done without our existing staff members really working nonstop,” said Bracamontes.
So, after a year of planning and coordinating, the Wellness Center at BHS, located in room H-104, is set to have a soft opening at the end of October. There will also be a grand opening that is currently scheduled for November, to celebrate the hard work and dedication of all those who have worked on making the Wellness Center a reality. “As … (the Wellness Center) opens, students are going to tell us more about what’s working or what they wish was there or what they wish was offered and we’ll build that.” said Bracamontes.
Melissa Virrueta will be the Mental Health and Wellbeing Coordinator, which includes managing the daily operations of the wellness center and expanding programming, while Rachel Krow-Boniske will be the lead Mental Health Counselor. Stacy Shoals and Yolanda Clark-Brown will be the Restorative Practices Coordinators, in charge of community building and addressing harm.
“I hope that students find a space in which they can take a break to recharge when they need to, learn about and connect with support, and connect with other students and staff members,” said Krow-Boniske.
Bracamontes adds that she hopes that the Wellness Center is a place that students can go to find new information. She also says that it’s important to note that students don’t have to interact or talk to other people. Students will also be given the option of taking a five to 15 minute break during class to recharge in any way that is helpful to them. This duration was decided upon using a Google Form survey where students stated how long their breaks typically lasted.
“What we know by the research we’ve done … is that more students access support services starting with their schools,” said Bracamontes.
Emma Claus, a senior in Academic Choice, echoed the idea. “As a young person, dealing with emotions and issues yourself is really draining,” said Claus, adding that, “it’s really important that there are resources at school … people at school who are willing to listen.”