Some 2,600 returned to the Mira Costa High School campus Wednesday morning for the start of the 2019-20 school year.
But it was not your ordinary first day of class.
For the first time, the school hosted a series of four assemblies to kick off the school year.
The assemblies were dedicated to enlightening students on everything from school rules to diversity acceptance.
“We’re leading out with (social and emotional wellness) on day one,” explained Principal Ben Dale. “The staff who worked tirelessly on this hope it accomplishes what it’s set out to do: set the tone, send a message. This is how we’re going to treat each other and this is how we’re going to be good students and a good school.”
Each hour-long assembly, Dale said, focused on a different topic: inclusion; healthy relationships and consent; school spirit; and how to be a Mustang, which was about school rules.
Each grade level attended the assemblies as a whole, rotating through all four throughout the day, he added.
“I think the conversation will vary from grade level to grade level,” Dale said.
The inclusion assembly focused on raising awareness of issues regarding race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, speech and students with disabilities.
It consisted of a staff and student panel, comprised of members of the Heart Club, which focuses on bullying issues, as well as the Gender Sexuality Alliance. The panel shared experiences with the student body in an effort to raise understanding.
“If students understand each other’s life experiences, they are more likely to be understanding, sympathetic, empathetic and kinder to each other,” Dale said.
Manhattan Beach Unified School District Superintendent Mike Matthews said there is a district-wide focus on inclusion this year.
“We cannot be complacent in that push,” Matthews said, noting there are posters in every classroom in the district that urge students to STAND UP against hate, prejudice, violence and bullying. “We want to make sure everyone’s being reached.”
Dale said the assembly on healthy relationships and consent was also an important discussion for students, particularly those preparing to enter college next year.
“For seniors, they’re only 180 school days from going to across the country somewhere for college and if we can equip them with the tools to understand what healthy relationships and consent are, then we’ve done a better job as educators,” he added.
For that assembly, guest speaker Jennifer Elledge, a certified health education specialist with nonprofit South Bay Families Connected was brought in to speak to students about friendships, romantic relationships and sexuality.
“It’s a difficult conversation so we wanted to make sure we brought in somebody who had a background and training in that area and make sure the discussion was grade-level appropriate,” Dale explained.
For 17-year-old senior Collette Tibbetts, it was refreshing to see the school addressing the topics so openly.
"It was addressing the elephant in the room," she said. "There are kids out there who have never had that conversation before. It's more useful than people give it credit for."
Her younger sister, 15-year-old sophomore Bailey, said her grade level's assembly focused more on unhealthy friendships.
"They talked about how friendships can go downhill and you don't always notice the signs," Bailey said, noting she found the assembly on inclusiveness to be the most enjoyable after a friend of hers was part of the panel and told a moving personal story. "I felt like it showed a lot of perspective."
The other assemblies—school spirit and how to be a Mustang—focused on introducing classes to their introducing class officers, talking about school activities and clubs, as well as campus rules, including revamped attendance policies and anti-vaping regulations.
Matthews said there will be a community-wide focus on deterring vaping this year as electronic cigarettes have become a growing concern nationwide.
“The cities will be looking at it in terms of city regulations and we’ll be looking at it,” Matthews explained, noting the schools will be working with the Beach Cities Health District throughout the year on the issue. “A lot of parent education will be involved with that and police will be involved with that.”
“We have good kids here. They want to come here, they want to go to school,” Dale added. “But they respond better when they know we’re not messing around. In terms of vaping and other substances on campus, every student here knows we’re not messing around. Don’t bring it here, don't do it here. And the city, the community and MBPD all support us in that.”
Dale said the first-time assemblies went well adding the school will likely look into continuing them.
"Our students were great today. So attentive and respectful. This was a wonderful way to set a positive tone for the year."