Rancho San Justo students are pictured at the new wellness center at Hollister High School, in which the middle school students have become actively involved. Photo: Courtesy of Hollister School District

Rancho San Justo Principal Deborah Armstrong and Vice Principal Samantha Rivas saw first-hand benefits of opening a wellness center at Hollister High School, where they worked together before coming to the middle school in 2023-24.

They saw a need for such a central location for wellness resources at Rancho San Justo Middle School and developed the new Bronco Well. On Jan. 11, the school and Hollister School District held a grand opening for the new wellness center after months of planning. 

The event was open to the community, and Rancho San Justo welcomed officials with the San Benito County Office of Education, Hollister School District administrators and representatives from Hollister High. 

Pictured are Rancho San Justo Principal Deborah Armstrong and Assistant Principal Samantha Rivas. Photo: Courtesy of Hollister School District

“Our students were the ones who did the tours,” Vice Principal Samantha Rivas said. “It was also an opportunity to recognize the wellness staff members who work here. We couldn’t do this without them.” 

The new center is a central place where the school provides confidential mental wellness resources such as access to providers like counselors, case managers, a social worker, and a migrant and community liaison working more with families. 

Additionally, there is a thrift closet where students can pick out clothes and other items. Armstrong and Rivas marveled how 47 students visited the thrift store on a recent day, while noting that some kids come for economic reasons and others simply like to thrift. Either way, it’s open to all students. Next year, they hope to incorporate the school’s pantry into the wellness center as well. 

The location used to be the Student Services Center, largely serving as a discipline office. This school year, there had been 1,820 check-ins as of Jan. 22, with 60% being for wellness matters. In the past, the vast majority of visits to Student Services would have been for discipline. 

Upon their arrival in the fall, Armstrong and Rivas realized Rancho had been designated within the Community Schools program, meaning it would have access to additional grant funding resources for wellness. The Student Services Center jumped out when considering where to focus the efforts. 

“We immediately thought this would be a great wellness resource center,” Rivas said. 

The concept mostly mirrors the program they developed at Hollister High School and provides an opportunity for a more seamless transition from middle school with regard to wellness. Armstrong and Rivas also noted how other Hollister School District sites are planning to develop similar wellness center concepts. 

The Rancho principal and vice principal underscored how confidentiality was the biggest challenge in identifying a location. They are pleased with the outcome at Rancho and enthusiastic about the benefits. 

“It’s more intentional and much more organized,” Armstrong said of having a central wellness location. “We can more efficiently deliver services to our Broncos this way.” 

“In the teenage brain,” added Rivas, “it helps to know this is where they can go for help.” 

The program has come a long way in just a few months. Planning occurred in October, and they pitched the idea to district leaders who were supportive. From there, they trained staff members and student teaching assistants on an array of essentials such as confidentiality matters and how to greet students. Providers had training as well on procedures for the center so that all parties were on the same page. Before the holiday break, the school conducted a pilot for a week to examine possible challenges and then kicked off the center Jan. 11. 

“Students know how to access this space electronically through their Google Classroom,” Armstrong said, adding they can communicate if they’re having a particularly hard day. “Students can self-identify when they’re having a problem as well. We’re working on helping them identify those feelings more and more.” 

Aside from acting as a place where individual students can get assistance, the school also is hosting group activities there for students such as mindful coloring on Wednesdays that attracts about 25 students. 

Consistency is a major theme with wellness at Rancho. The school provides a wellness lesson every three weeks during advisory periods when students are reminded about the Bronco Well resources. 

Armstrong noted how the next step for the school, or Phase 2, is to incorporate the community more into the program. She mentioned the hope is to hire a social worker to be there in the evenings when families could have access to the resources to get advice on addressing issues with their children. 

They also expect it will provide a blueprint for other middle schools in the district to follow, and it’s expected those schools will add wellness centers of their own. 

As for the grand opening itself, Armstrong noted how longtime shop teacher John Agan made the Bronco Well sign and spoke, as did Superintendent Erika Sanchez. 

“They’ve been very supportive,” she said of district administrators. 

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