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 Saturday School is for Seekers at Breaking Cycles

When you think of school on a Saturday, does suffering through daylong detention "The Breakfast Club"-style come to mind? That's probably the case for many of us.

At San Diego County Office of Education's Breaking Cycles School, Saturday school is an educational opportunity — and far from boring or punitive.

For four hours every Saturday, teacher Valentina Mills opens the doors for her Seekers Club. The students adopted the name "seekers" for themselves a year ago, around the same time the Probation Department requested Saturday school. Mills said yes on her terms — that the students wouldn't be handed a pile of busy work. The four-hour sessions instead would be a student-centered experience.

"Coming to school on Saturdays, it makes me feel responsible," 16-year-old Javier said. "I've got something to look forward to. I'm thinking a lot about the future."

On Saturdays, Mills curates discussions about college, careers, and leadership skills, and invites guest speakers on any topic that interests the students. The students also create art — lots of it, and sell handmade note cards and prints to raise funds for the growing art program. Mills welcomes students from any North County Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS) school to join the Seekers Club on Saturdays.

"It's a great time to come together in a safe place, share food and music, work on art, and participate in a workshop," she said.

Students at the San Marcos school are participants in the Breaking Cycles program, a multi-agency treatment, prevention, and intervention project for students in grades 7 through 12 who have been referred by the court or Probation. Enrollment typically hovers around 30. The program is a minimum of 12 weeks, and students strive to return to their home school.

"Most of us, we've had a rough patch," Javier said. "We're here at this school for what we've done. We're team leaders now, to seek something, to have a better future."

The Saturday Seekers Club students have made an especially strong connection with artist Jason Woodworth, founder of a nonprofit called Art vs. War. Woodworth first visited the club in November and quickly became a Saturday staple, teaching the teens to create art using spray-paint techniques.

The Seekers clicked with Woodworth, and with art. They have just embarked on a documentary assignment that will explore how they express themselves through art, how they engage in their education through art, and how art is changing their lives. The documentary will get the students to look at education from a different perspective, Mills explained.

"You should see their faces when they complete the art. They're proud. Art is a great form to express yourself," Mills said. "Most students come here lacking credits and with poor grades. They never had a positive experience with school. They've never experienced academic success. I want them to experience that school is something for everyone. The point is to get kids excited about education. The trick is finding what gets them excited."

Seventeen-year-old Luis has found that he enjoys expressing his voice through art. "No two pieces will ever be the same," he explained.

The students were excited to share what they've studied and created at their Exhibition of Learning and art sale Feb. 20. The exhibition featured nearly 200 canvases painted by the students, who became teachers as they showed visitors how to create their own artwork using the techniques Woodworth taught them. More than two dozen students from three JCCS schools, as well as parents and community supporters, visited the exhibition, where they heard from Breaking Cycles student leaders and tried their hand at spray-paint art.

Mills, who along with teacher Martin Walker has worked at Breaking Cycles School since 2013, has no intention of taking back her Saturdays any time soon.

"As an educator, this is one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career," Mills said. "The students really see education as an opportunity to grow, connect to the community, and prepare for the future."