Annie Delgado's "Women in Society" class isn't your grandmother's high school history class.
It resembles a group therapy session as a room full of 42 Buhach Colony High School students, mostly girls, share painful pieces of their young lives.
Some students choked through tears, opening up about their relationships with absentee parents or sour relationships with boyfriends. Others talked about topics ranging from teen pregnancy and casual sexual relationships to family dynamics.
Class is only like this on Thursdays. As part of the curriculum, students watch a documentary series called "High School Confidential" that tracks the lives of a group of high school girls and the problems they encounter. Students then break into groups and discuss such questions as, "Is it possible to have a casual sexual relationship without getting emotionally attached?" After talking about a subject, students present their ideas to the class.
"We are discussing their own personal experiences so they can make better life decisions," Delgado said.
Amy Benomar, a Buhach Colony Spanish teacher and friend of Delgado's, described Delgado's class as the class all women wish they could have attended.
"With Facebook and texting, these girls have a 24-hour social life," she said. "They are always responsible for maintaining a certain image, and I think that's really stressful for them."
The class began in 2008 when then-Principal Ernie Sopp said he wanted a way to fight teen pregnancy in the county and the low self-esteem he saw in some high school-aged girls.
The teen birth rate in Merced County is 53.5 percent, according to a 2007 report prepared by KidsData.org, a data collection site operated by the Lucille Packard Foundation for Children's Health. Merced is one of the top 10 counties for teen birth rates in the state.
Delgado, a former lawyer, said that when she was in law school in Washington, D.C., she visited high schools and talked to students about healthy relationships and presented them with information about relationships and dating violence.
So Sopp asked her to teach the class.
Delgado, who also teaches economics and government, developed the curriculum. It consists of a mixture of building self-esteem, U.S. women's history and a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C.
In the first semester, students discuss social issues and watch "High School Confidential." Their final is to submit a personal version of the documentary -- a two- to three-page essay reflecting on their high school experience.
"They write about the challenges they face and how they overcame them," Delgado said. "The reason why women don't appear frequently in the history books is because we didn't record our history, or some would say we didn't have the time to."
Many of Delgado's students say the class wouldn't be the same if Delgado weren't the teacher.
Cynthia Ruiz, 17, said the class has changed her life. Ruiz has a 6-month-old daughter and said that when she was pregnant she felt as if she couldn't talk to anyone. But in this class, she said, she doesn't feel judged.
The petite 17-year old said Delgado basically told her at the beginning of the school year that she had to take this class.
Delgado refers to the class as her recruitment program.
"Cynthia, she has a daughter, and I told her it was important for her to become aware of the challenges other women have faced and overcame, so that she can see that anything is possible for her and her daughter," she recalled.
"Ruiz said to me, 'I always wanted to go to medical school and now I believe I can do it. Yes, I'm a teen mom, but that doesn't have to limit me or define me.' "
What makes Delgado an effective teacher is her experience, said Cristian McRae. "Her parents raised her to be a successful woman, and that's impacted all of our lives," she said.
Delgado graduated in 1998 from Catholic University of America, then worked as an employment and civil rights attorney for 10 years.
In 2000, she said, she needed a short break from practicing law, so she moved back to Merced, her hometown, and worked as a long-term substitute teacher.
That was 10 years ago, and she hasn't looked back.
"I love it. I can't put my finger on it," she said. "I love working with my students. It just feels right."
It could be that teaching is just in her blood -- nearly everyone in her immediate family is a teacher.
One of Delgado's goals is to encourage her students to see beyond their immediate surroundings.
"A lot of my students are dealing with financial challenges, and I understand, but I use my legal background every day and I use my education every day, so I never feel like it was a bad investment," she said.
"Sometimes there's such a push for our kids to go to a traditional college, but we should encourage our kids to go into things they are passionate about. That could mean the military or vocational school. We're going to benefit from that because they're employed. That's the economics teacher in me."
Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at email@example.com.
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