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East Palo Alto youth program aims to build qualities for success

Summer lessons focus on the perils of second hand smoke, the meaning of friendship

Curiosity, persistence, resilience.

After decades of teaching and mentoring at-risk youth, Anna Waring knows that kids armed with those qualities have a better shot at succeeding against the odds.

Under her watchful eye, several dozen sixth- and seventh-graders from East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park this summer are practicing those skills with breathing exercises, public speaking, video production, lessons in computer coding and "design thinking," and community projects.

This fall they'll fan out to middle schools from East Palo Alto to Portola Valley and Palo Alto -- but in the afternoons they'll return for mentoring, tutoring and extra support from Waring's East Palo Alto program, Foundation for a College Education.

The foundation last year extended its reach to middle school students after 18 years of strictly focusing on high school and beyond.

Since 1999, 140 students have graduated from the foundation's high school support program, with all of them enrolling in college. Eighty-five percent of those either have graduated or are on track to graduate -- more than triple the national rate for students of color.

School transitions can be tough for any kid, and some get "lost" as early as middle school, Waring said. "We're hoping to broaden our base of students who have successfully navigated middle school and are (academically) able to participate in a college-access program," she said.

"We also wanted to do something in the summer that's a little more fun and creative. What sometimes happens to students is they forget that learning can actually be fun and interesting instead of drudgery. We want to instill that idea of learning as a fun activity."

The four-week summer STEAM camp (for "science, technology, engineering, art and math") began promptly at 9 a.m. with campers spending at least 10 minutes on yoga mats for guided meditation and breathing exercises.

When the silence is broken, seventh-graders jump up and head into a computer lab to learn simple programming, using the Scratch programming language that makes it easy for kids to create pictures and games.

Sixth-graders recently brainstormed ideas for their community project in a class using principles of "design thinking."

Suggestions ran the gamut and included gathering celebrity testimonials to warn against the perils of peer pressure; educating pregnant moms about the dangers of smoking; and inventing robots that would pick up cigarette butts.

The group finally settled on finding solutions to second-hand smoke. They went to interview people at the public library and at McDonald's about the problem. Former East Palo Alto Mayor Sharifa Wilson visited to help them think of things they could do about it. Finally, they used materials at hand to create a prototype of a vacuum that would suck up the bad air.

Every STEAM camper gets a turn at simple video production, with sixth-graders creating one-minute videos about their ideas on "culture" and seventh-graders making longer videos about things they love.

A seventh-grader named Ramie created a video about why he loves soccer. Another boy produced a cartoon video posing the question: "Can video games be addictive?"

Seventh-graders Jenny and Michelle teamed up to make a video about the meaning of "true friendship." True friendship means "they're always there for you. They've got your back no matter what, and they're like a sister," Jenny said. "Michelle always has been there for me no matter what, even though there was drama."

The four-week session has also included field trips to Bay Area places of interest: the Exploratorium, Kepler's, Google and Stanford University Hospital.

Before the camp's end this Friday, each student will give a presentation to the group, either on a poem they've written, a scene from a book they're reading, their community project or something about themselves.

"We're trying to introduce a comfort with speaking early on," Waring said.

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