Allies in education

Schools collaborate with Boys & Girls Clubs to boost academics in under-served neighborhoods.

About the author: John Straubel of Menlo Park has been a board member of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula for 20 years.

By John Straubel

Volunteer, Boys & Girls Clubs

The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula has expanded its reach to improve opportunities for young people in stressed communities. Based at clubhouses in East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Redwood City, the club is now deploying more staff and volunteers directly onto school campuses.

With as many staff members on campuses as at clubhouses, the club aims to reach a broader population of kids who need help building skills needed to graduate from high school and have a plan for the future.

Principals of K-12 schools with a lot of kids from low-income neighborhoods face a storm of funding challenges, so they're welcoming the Boys & Girls Clubs on their campuses. The partnership has become integral in the club's own academic strategies.

The club's need to engage more young people is pressing: In Silicon Valley's troubled neighborhoods, more than 70 percent of kids score below grade level in reading and math. Most parents work multiple jobs and many lack English. Family services are limited and cuts to school budgets are on the rise. The gap between African American and Latino youth opportunities and those in more affluent sectors of the Valley has become alarming.

The Peninsula club opened a school-campus experiment years ago when it took under its wing the Center for a New Generation, then based at James Flood Magnet School in Menlo Park. Today club school-campus programs operate at Flood (recently relocated to East Palo Alto), at Belle Haven in Menlo Park, and at Taft Community Schools and Hoover School in Redwood City. The club is also expanding its programs at Menlo-Atherton and Sequoia high schools.

Years of clubhouse experience demonstrated that when at-risk kids get mentoring and academic support during critical after-school hours, high-school graduation becomes expectable. The club formula works on campuses, too: during the past five years, 85 percent of the club's on-campus members have graduated from high school in areas where the average has been about 40 percent.

On campus

Maria Ibarra, principal at Belle Haven, and Matthew Zito, Menlo-Atherton principal, both arrived on their jobs three years ago, facing schools with problems in managing students from low-income neighborhoods. To make matters worse, their turnarounds had to be attempted in a state where the ratio of students-to-teachers ranks 49th in the U.S.

Ms. Ibarra and Mr. Zito reached out for help from local organizations. Their game plans -- arrived at separately -- invoked the adage, "it takes a community to raise a child." After reorganizing their respective school administrations and setting aggressive new goals, they assigned staff specialists to build strategic alliances in the community on a scale never tried before.

At Belle Haven, Ms. Ibarra's community school director, Alejandro Vilchez, manages collaboration with some 30 outside organizations. They help provide non-academic support services for students and for often-overwhelmed parents in neighborhoods where such services are lacking.

Says Mr. Vilchez, "Our community partners now know their commitments are in steady hands, because Principal Maria Ibarra brought strong new leadership to academics and administration."

Belle Haven used to have new principals virtually every year, with low teacher retention. "It led to students with no education paths," Mr. Vilchez recalls. "With no continuity here, Belle Haven as a community was stifled by low academic expectations. Who would want to buy a house and build a family here?"

Maria Ibarra's administrative consistency took root. Teachers stayed; parents flocked to the school's support programs. Academic ratings climbed out of the cellar, rising by double digits each year.

Club on site

A major player among community partners, the club has staff and volunteers at Belle Haven every day. Kids arrive after school, and stay all the way to 6 in the evening.

Liz Calderon, the club's school site director at Belle Haven, and her assistant, are on campus from 9:30 in the morning to 7:30 p.m., backed by part-time staff and volunteers.

The club's after-school academic and enrichment programs are laced with activities engaging enough to keep restless kids on campus until 6 o'clock. "We begin with a break from regular classes and a snack," Ms. Calderon says. "Then we do academics like Kid Lit, math games, Power Hour homework with help -- and on two days of the week, students can elect sports, the arts, or learn how to make PowerPoint presentations, which is very popular."

Important also are Junior College Bound classes, which get kids on track to futures in four-year universities, community colleges or vocational training. Youthful imaginations are stimulated in a community film class for eighth-graders, or getting ready for Winter Showcase, when parents and the community come in to see students perform and demonstrate their academic progress.

Membership in the club's after-school programs is a matter of choice for students and their parents. "But once they sign up," Ms. Calderon says, "they must fully engage. That's seldom a problem, and many even choose to hang out in this positive atmosphere until 7:30, particularly if their parents are both working late."

In addition to their after-school programs, club staff assists teachers in connecting with students and parents. They also run eighth-grade sessions to prep kids for high school, and often can be found helping with Belle Haven's parent and community events.

In fall, Mr. Vilchez and Ms. Calderon lead a five-week give-and-take Wednesday evening series with parents. The club staff also takes part in monthly meetings with schoolteachers, discussing issues such behavior, coming school events, and how the club can expand its relationship with the school. Out of a total of 630 students, Belle Haven currently has 204 club members, and Ms. Calderon is looking for more.

Partnering at Menlo-Atherton

Many of the Belle Haven eighth-graders move on to Menlo-Atherton High School. The Boys & Girls Club is at their side all the way.

Ruby Fong, director of teen activities at the Menlo Park clubhouse, splits her time between the clubhouse and the campus of Menlo-Atherton, working closely with Miki Cristerna, the school's student support coordinator. Ms. Fong runs lunch-period sports activities, "attracting 80 to 100 kids to healthful activity instead of using the spare time to think up trouble, as they often did before," she notes.

In late summer, she and club staff run Compass Program classes for incoming freshmen who can use extra help preparing for high-school life. Because of the positive relationships that develop, students often migrate to a clubhouse. There, they can participate in College Bound events and classes that equip high-schoolers for the next steps in education.

Ms. Fong and staff back up Menlo-Atherton teachers in daily AVID classes, a national program for students aiming for college, and they help with field trips and college visits. AVID students often migrate to clubhouses for College Bound and for an end-of-summer, four-day High School Prep Conference called "Jumpstart," where workshops and panels bolster skills needed in high school.

Miki Cristerna is enthusiastic about the school's alliance. "Menlo-Atherton was always a good place for well-resourced kids," she says. "But it was inadequate for those from low-income neighborhoods. Now we're a more focused team for students who need extra academic and social mentoring. It's about helping kids discover their potentials, and it's important for them to know that if they are struggling alone, they're missing a piece of the pie."

Noting that a goal of Principal Matthew Zito is "to have a targeted strategy for every student who needs one," Ms. Cristerna adds, "We have the population, and the Boys & Girls Club has the service providers. We have brought the two together."

Peter Fortenbaugh, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, says of his organization's venture onto school campuses: "Our support base endorses collaboration as an intelligent investment of community resources.

"A sure sign," he notes, "is that we've attracted more individuals and company volunteers to help us propel at-risk kids through high school. Volunteer hours have doubled in the past year."

Around the corner at Belle Haven, Principal Maria Ibarra says: "There are now strong elements of community collaboration in place that would be hard to dislodge or diminish. We have momentum."

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