By Kate Daly
Special to the Almanac
As students head back to classes at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto this fall, so do close to 60 volunteers who come from all over the Peninsula every week to provide a vital layer of extra academic support.
The goal at Eastside is to take local students in grades 6 through 12, and without charging them tuition, prepare them to become the first in their families to go to college. So far, in the 12 years the school has been graduating seniors, all of them have gone on to attend four-year colleges or universities, including Stanford, UCLA, Harvard and Yale, school officials say.
There's a wait list to get into Eastside, and a boarding option, but most of the students come from the immediate area.
The student body is composed of Latinos, African Americans and Pacific Islanders. The school's website, eastside.org, states that 80 percent of Eastside alumni are either in a four-year college now or have already graduated in five years, whereas "nationally, only 11 percent of first-generation college students graduates within six years."
Many of the volunteers who help Eastside achieve its mission are retired, such as Susan Adams of Portola Valley.
"It's a wonderful place to spend time," she says. "They don't base (admission) on academic ability. They base it on desire."
Now in her 13th year working with seventh- and eighth-graders in the Middle School Reading Program, the former English major spends several mornings a week on campus. From 8 to 9:40 a.m., the students read books that track with what they read in social studies. "We help with higher order thinking skills and vocabulary," she says.
She finds the reading curriculum "well thought-out," and filled with projects that are writing-based, such as creating a newspaper, a cartoon or a play. The sessions are add-ons to the English classes taught by regular teachers.
Board member and volunteer Lynn Winkle of Palo Alto developed the curriculum. She's on campus most days training and overseeing the readers.
Ms. Winkle earned her MBA and started volunteering in the 1990s, tutoring high school students in her kids' local school district. That's when she realized that "high school is too late" to catch up.
She refocused her efforts on middle school after she met Stanford grad Chris Bischof, who was at that time involved in an after-school program that offered basketball and tutoring to young students in East Palo Altto. He founded Eastside with eight students in 1996. The students first met in a park, and then moved into a portable.
Now there are 280 students enrolled, with plans to grow that number to 320. The campus at 1041 Myrtle St. in East Palo Alto features a theater, music room, art and dance studios, gym, and student residences, in addition to classrooms, science labs and multi-media rooms.
"There's more interest and demand," says Mr. Bischof, who is Eastside's principal. "That's why we're so motivated to increase the student body. The big challenge is to raise scholarship support."
All students attend on full scholarships. Tuition is $17,000 a year per student. Foundations and corporations contribute to Eastside, but the school relies heavily on individual sponsors, who have the option to cover all or a portion of a tuition, and can choose how much they want to be involved with the students on a personal basis.
Some students are three to five grade levels behind in basic skills, Mr. Bischof says. Eastside offers an extended school day (until 5 p.m.), mandatory summer programs, and tutorial time. The aim is to not just educate the current crop of students, but to create "a profound ripple effect that influences siblings and the next generation," he says.
Volunteer Linda Winkle observes: "Many students live a life that isn't orderly. The kids grow up in random situations and don't learn in a linear fashion."
She's always on the lookout for new volunteers at Eastside, "someone who is deeply interested in learning and is highly literate."
Kimberly McMorrow of Woodside is the ultimate volunteer. For eight years, the attorney has been working with students in the Middle School Reading Program one morning a week. Additionally, this mother of three leads classes of up to 68 students on field trips to Yosemite, Tahoe, Point Reyes and Half Moon Bay.
"In 2006 I saw that there was a need for an outdoor environmental education program," she says. "These kids have a rigorous academic year. ... but a lot of the students don't have really positive associations with the outdoors, like sleeping outside. Most have never been to the beach or seen snow. These are such incredible things that everyone should be able to explore."
She organizes the food, logistics, teachers and community volunteers who help chaperone students on outings. She procured a grant from North Face, and has arranged to receive free camping and hiking gear as well as ski jackets, pants and gloves from Bay Area Wilderness Training, a nonprofit in Oakland.
It's a lot of work, she says, but worthwhile.
Teacher Darren Chan heads up the boys' dorm and recently started a Boy Scouts troop at Eastside. Ms. McMorrow, her husband, John, and neighbor, Brad Miller, are all acting as scout leaders.
Mr. Miller's wife, Helen, has been active in the Middle School Reading Program for seven years, and goes on many of the field trips. The two families also host Eastside students for sleepovers, movies and pool parties.
At the high school level, volunteers tutor students in small groups and one-on-one, mainly in math and science, according to Judy Wong-Chen, the student services coordinator. She is planning to add a writing center this fall.
"Because of volunteers we have extra mentorship opportunities," she says. "They know the students and want to do more, offering internships and networking," she says.
Eastside has an alumni coordinator who helps keep track of those contacts and give graduates support in writing resumes and preparing for job interviews.
Daisy Rodriguez and her younger brother, Michael, grew up in East Palo Alto, went to Woodside School, and then attended Eastside. She plans to graduate from Stanford in the spring and expresses gratitude that Eastside put in her touch with a mentor, a Stanford alum who lives in Palo Alto. Says Ms. Rodriguez: "She's making sure I'm taking advantage of all the resources here, and keeping me up to date with different internships and opportunities."