Parent volunteers form the backbone of many programs in Los Altos schools, but student volunteers also build school communities with the special power of peer-to-peer work. The Student Ambassador Program, which includes peer mediation, in which students help each other resolve social problems, operates at all levels of local schools, from elementary through high school.
Middle-school parents of prospective Los Altos High School students have likely interfaced with these student-life representatives at orientation events at the school. Donning navy blue Ambassador uniforms and khaki slacks, they expertly escort visitors around campus and answer questions.
But another aspect of their service, often overlooked, is the mediation program - founded four years ago by science teacher Suzanne Williams and then-principal George Perez.
Student mediators learn to settle disputes between peers or staff that would otherwise be deferred to overextended school counselors. By standing apart as a neutral third party and listening to both sides state their points, mediators are taught to rephrase each point and listen as the feuding pair brainstorm solutions.
"We help people think through their own problems. Once communication is open and clear, they can come up with their own solutions," said Student Ambassador co-president and junior Kristine Lee.
The Ambassadors receive 20 hours of training from Conflict Resolution Essentials for School Transformation (CREST) coordinators, a division of Santa Clara County's dispute resolution services.
Co-president and senior Cynthia Mendoza said the program helps solve problems in a proactive way rather than enforce a punishment model.
"If you only suspend students, the problem is still there. But if you solve the problem while offering a consequence, you're also getting rid of the problem on campus," Mendoza said.
Conflict management is a skill that all students can take into the world with them, said Meg Sanders, a program coordinator with CREST. Potential lawsuits at the county level are often mitigated and resolved quietly through a mediator, she added.
"Mediation helps both parties win. At the high school level, it creates a positive atmosphere, a desire to solve problems. The stress when you carry (a dispute) around is incredible," said Sanders, who has trained student mediators in elementary school and up.
Adviser Williams has been impressed with her students' dedication and believes the training will have long-term benefits.
"It's a life skill that is important to have," Williams said. "It's amazing the maturity level they come to after going through the program."
The success of any mediation program largely depends on administration support of the services, Sanders said. So far, the Los Altos PTSA and counselors have been invaluable in their help, said Adam Garcia, co-vice president of the Ambassadors.
Growing up, many children were told to "figure out" or work through their arguments themselves but were seldom given the tools to do so, Sanders said. Mediation training in a supportive school environment allows students to approach a problem peacefully.
"They learn healthy alternatives to solving problems, not by fighting, arguing or expulsion. I have heard one student say, 'I learned another way to talk to someone I never knew before, to see the problem from someone else's shoes,'" Sanders said.
The Student Ambassador Program is also active on the Mountain View High School campus.