“You can keep your pencils.”

In a way, the origin of Styles For Students can be traced back to that comment made by local barber J.D. Mares.

The Yakima School District’s incentive program for high schoolers began last year as a way to reward students for good attendance, grades and citizenship.

But until Mares and his staff started talking about incentive program ideas with Omar Santoy, there was no Styles For Students.

“I was getting my hair cut at Behind The Chair and started throwing out some ideas about how to reward students who were doing well,” said Santoy, the YSD’s social and emotional specialist.

“J.D. kind of scoffed at the idea of giving them school supplies and said, ‘You can keep your pencils.’ So we started talking about what we could do instead; something that kids might get excited about. That’s when we thought about offering haircuts as an incentive.”

Santoy, Mares and others racked their brains to figure out what kinds of experiences might give students more of a reason to excel in school.

The challenge was finding something that teenagers value — an actual experience instead of a T-shirt or bumper sticker.

Why not give them a cool hairstyle?

Santoy took the idea to the district and then convinced the administrators at Davis, Eisenhower and Stanton Academy to get on board.

Just three semesters into the program, Styles For Students has provided at least 300 students with a new ‘do. About 45 students at Stanton Academy were the most recent beneficiaries, taking advantage of an in-school event Dec. 13.

The number of participating shops has increased from three back in September 2016 to 18 this school year.

To call the program a success would be a serious understatement.

“We just kind of came up with it and had no idea where it would go,” Santoy said. “Now, we are seeing kids who are working even harder so they can have a chance to do this. We’re seeing more and more businesses get involved, too, because they believe in the value of education. They are willing to donate their time and their skills to help kids in their community.”

‘Building Them Up’

Styles For Students events are held every couple of months at the district’s three high schools. Once school officials establish a date for an event, the participating barbers sign up for times. The barbers meet with Santoy and school representatives about once a month to talk about the program and highlight their successes.

“The goal of this program is the betterment of kids, and when you get involved in something like this, you are building them up,” Santoy told a packed meeting at Davis High School in early December. “This is all about the kids, not about business.”

At last week’s Stanton Academy event, Mares was joined by stylists from Rock UR Beauty, Gentlemen’s Barber Shop and Ambitious Barber Shop.

Other shops involved in the program include A Barber’s Craft, Barber’s HQ, Beauty Secrets, Belu Salon, Elite Academy, Fadeaholics, Faded Times, Chill Cuts, Good Hair, Off the Top, Saints Barber Shop and Treal Cuts.

The word is starting to travel around the barber community, with Gentlemen’s Barber Shop and Alexandra’s On Second joining the program this fall.

“We need to celebrate all of the good things we are doing,” Santoy said. “We want to see more kids turn the tassel, and we’re helping them get there. But every kid’s story is different. Some of them require a different approach. It’s not always about showing them ‘tough love.’ In the end, it should be about helping them.”

The program has been equally beneficial to the students.

Some like that they are being rewarded for their hard work; some appreciate seeing local professionals give back. Everyone seems to like the finished product.

“This is definitely a motivator for me,” said Stanton Academy senior Angelia Wingenbach, 17. “It makes you want to get good grades and come to school every day when you get to do something like this. I think the program is good for all kids because it gives us a chance to work toward something.”

Classmate Alex Ward, 18, also believes Styles For Students has had a positive influence on teens from all walks of life.

“It feels good to be acknowledged,” Ward said. “These people are giving their time and talents to be here, and we really appreciate it.”

Experiences, Not Stuff

The way in which students are selected to participate in the program depends on the school.

At Davis, the incentive is good attendance. Students who meet a certain standard earn a raffle ticket that they can place in a variety of reward canisters, one featuring a Styles For Students haircut.

At Stanton and Eisenhower, the incentive program focuses on academic achievement and reaching out to homeless youths, Santoy said.

“The program is built around offering services and experiences, not stuff,” Santoy said. “It gives them more of a reason to keep working hard, and we’re seeing that this approach can make a difference.”

Hundreds of local students have reaped the rewards from Styles For Students, but the business owners are also gaining a lot from the experience.

Aside from supporting education and giving back to local youths, they are getting their names out in the community.

“Some kids may not come to our shop for whatever reason, but when they meet us at their school and see what we can do, they come back and see us again,” Mares said. “And they usually tell their friends.”

While the extra word of mouth is nice, Mares and the other barbershops have gotten involved in the program as a way to help improve their community.

What started out as barbershop banter has quickly become a vital educational tool in the Yakima School District.

“It’s been exciting to see so many people get involved,” Santoy said. “We’re serving so many kids and we’re making a real difference in their lives. What we do matters, and that’s probably my biggest takeaway from this whole thing.”

Originally published in December 2017