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Lehigh Senior first ‘Be The Voice’ school in Florida

By Staff | Aug 1, 2018

Lehigh Rotary Club President Bob Peterman, Critical Thinking and Research teachers Leo Navarro and Bobby Willover. PHOTO PROVIDED

A United States Marine veteran who is disabled changed his career path a handful of years ago when he found a new career passion after becoming a substitute teacher at Harns Marsh Middle School for four months. That zeal took on a new meaning after bringing “Be The Voice” to Lehigh Senior High School, the first in the state of Florida.

Leo Navarro is a critical thinking and research teacher at Lehigh High, now entering his third year.

Conversations held during Navarro’s critical thinking and research class two years ago pivoted around cyber bullying and physical bullying -where it comes from and the kind of physical, mental abuse and damage it can cause.

A project was created for the students regarding the topic.

“My colleagues and I wanted to do something that was peer-led, an anti-bullying campaign,” he said. “When I was doing my research I literally came across ‘Be The Voice’ on Google images. I visited the website and loved what these people stand for. I used an image and made that the project. I borrowed Debbie’s (Cwalina, co-founder of Be The Voice) program.”

The first year the project was done, Navarro said it was a phenomenal success.

“We had posters, things that lit up, anti-bullying all over the hallway,” he said.

Last year it was held again with bigger projects, and kids becoming more involved.

“There was big talk about it, spreading like wildfire,” Navarro said.

The ninth grade teacher also received praise from his principal and vice principal about the project.

With the success of the project, Navarro reached out to Cwalina to let her know that he borrowed the Be The Voice initiative. He also wanted to show her what his students did in her honor.

“I would say that our unique approach is really helping kids understand the ‘power of the bystander,'” Cwalina said. “All students yearn to help, but tend to stay in the background for fear of retaliation. Our approach is empowering students to make a difference every day through acts of kindness and inclusion to the victim, or target of the bully. Such a simple approach allows students to make a difference in a safe way. And today the need for our message goes beyond defusing bullying. So many students are excluded and aloneand resort to extreme measures to deal with their pain.”

She went on to say that the rise in both teenage suicide and school shootings in our country is alarming.

“There are so many students who are struggling with fitting in, or finding their way. If we can teach our students to be more inclusive of those who are a little different, I honestly believe not only will we reduce bullying, but we will make a safer school climate,” Cwalina said.

With the blessing from Cwalina, Navarro took the project to the next level, which resulted in the Lehigh Rotary Club and Lehigh Kiwanis Club sponsoring Be The Voice, which allows them to be the first school in Florida to bring the program’s curriculum into Lehigh Senior High School.

“Since I have been at Lehigh Senior High School I have personally seen bullying drop dramatically,” Navarro said. “Students are sticking up for each other. I have heard it and seen it. The environment overall has become safer and more aware.”

He said his students are really excited to be the first school in the state of Florida to be a Be The Voice school.

“They put their heart, sweat and tears into this class,” Navarro said.

The curriculum, which will be adopted into this school year, is a 12-week, video based peer led program. Students will watch a video and discuss its content, such as how to handle specific scenarios of bullying.

“It’s all peer led. We are there to facilitate and answer questions. This is for the students to think about. They are very visually based and hands-on, interacting is a big deal,” Navarro said.

He said he believes in the program because when teens have discussions at their intellect level they do not forget.

“We as teachers help to cement those morals and ethics into their heads to make sure (they know) what is right from wrong. We give alternative examples in case they miss something,” Navarro said.

Although Be The Voice will be open to the whole school to participate, Navarro said he and the other teacher who teaches Critical Thinking and Research will most likely be the first to implement the program.

“We have the co-founder, Debbie, to walk us through everything. I would like to sit down, tour the company (Be The Voice) and see everything first-hand. I want to be more than a teacher teaching. I want to be able to give it the justice it deserves as a teacher,” Navarro said.

The class Critical Thinking and Research, a reading and English class, is Principal Jackie Corey’s “brainchild.”

“I was brought in the second year of its inception,” Navarro said of the class. “I had wonderful teachers to help me. I have a new teacher coming on board this year. We have new things that we are going to be implementing into the curriculum. It is a class that evolves and it needs to. We will shift it year-to-year, keep it as up-to-date as possible, so these students are getting accurate situations.”

The class, he said teaches students to become better people and more empathetic. Last year some of the topics includes sexuality, bullying, ethics, stereotypes and racism.

“These are the things we speak about at an academic ninth grade level. What does this mean to you right now? We try to elevate their mentality and way of thinking to maybe a little bit of an adult level,” he explained, adding that they provide actual definitions, so when they hear the words they are better educated.

With the class being a reading and English class, there are many writing assignments. He said the class starts with a very simple one-paragraph essay and works itself up to five paragraphs. Some of the assignments are stemmed around the students writing an informative essay on an article and video topic.

“It’s somewhat of an honors elective. We are not the simple class,” Navarro said.

The “tough” teacher that does not put up with “garbage” has gained respect from his students.

“I stick to my guns, my rules, my syllabus. I don’t falter. I don’t let things slide because in the real world, things don’t slide. These kids need to understand what discipline is and what responsibility is. They respect me for it,” Navarro said.

The few years he has been a teacher at Lehigh Senior High School have been rewarding, to say the least.

“It’s a humbling experience knowing you have this great responsibility and these parents and students that are looking at you to help their child grow to become better students and better people,” Navarro said. “If you can make a student comfortable and safe they are going to want to perform more and be inspired. They are going to want to come out of their shell.”

The 39-year-old is a single father of three teenagers. As a United States Marine, he worked for the United States government most of his adult life. In addition to being a full-time teacher, Navarro is also a professional tournament poker player.

“I’ve played in the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker. I do not play cash tables, just tournaments. My kids root me on when I play in the big tournaments,” he said.