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A bridge to success

Local nonprofit aims to transform the lives of motivated, low-income kids

Bryan listens during a math lesson at a Bridge summer session held at Crystal Springs Uplands School. Photo by Tom Antal.

By Lauren Kelmar

Special to The Almanac

Consider the following statistics: Nationally, 89 percent of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree, and more than a quarter leave after their first year -- which is four times the dropout rate of higher-income, second-generation students, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.

The leaders and community supporters of the local nonprofit, Peninsula Bridge, say those statistics are unacceptable, and are determined to change them by providing low-income students with educational opportunities to succeed from middle school through college graduation.

Based in Palo Alto, Peninsula Bridge has provided programs up and down the Peninsula for highly motivated, low-income students and their families for over 25 years. The programs include the after-school Middle School Academy and the High School Academy, a summer program, and the recently established College Success program.

According to Bridge's development director, Maureen Garrett, the organization is determined to turn on its head the college-completion statistic for low-income students who are the first in their families to attend college, aiming for 90 percent of Bridge-supported students earning a college degree.

The organization hit a high mark this year: Each of the 18 students in the first cohort that progressed through the entire Bridge program -- Bridge students from the time they were rising fifth-graders until their June 2018 high school graduation -- was accepted by at least two colleges, Garrett said.

Bridge accomplished this by preparing its students years before the college application process began. The program requires its students to maintain a 3.0-plus GPA throughout high school, and offers individual tutoring if a student is having trouble in any given subject. It also introduces students attending its summer programs to material that will be part of the curriculum in the coming school year so they are familiar and ahead of their peers when school starts.

The summer program for middle-school kids includes instruction in English, math, computer science, hands-on science and art, and offers enrichment electives. The after-school program for fifth- through seventh-grade students also offers a range of subjects, and eighth-grade students are given help with time management, study, organizational, and public speaking skills; and design thinking and critical thinking.

Summer programs are offered on a number of school campus, including Menlo School, Sacred Heart Prep, and Woodside Priory.

The year-round High School Academy offers students academic counseling, mentoring, tutoring and workshops focused on high school success and college readiness, according to program administrators.

Onward to college

Bridge also helps its students acquire summer internships during their college years, according to co-Executive Director Randi Shafton. The reason is simple: Because the majority of young people find internships through their parents' connections, it makes sense for Peninsula Bridge to help its first-generation college students network, Shafton said.

"First generation college students are at a disadvantage in terms of getting internships because so much is based on parents' connections," Shafton explained.

Bridge creates relationships with various companies and individuals, eventually connecting them with a student, Shafton said. This commitment has led Bridge students into internships at places such as Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, Nordstrom and Stanford Health Care, to name a few.

Students in the College Success program get a personal adviser or mentor who stays with them throughout college and guides them through the college transition process, offers class advice, suggests clubs to get involved with, and checks in with them every week or so. The mentors also are the ones who network with students to find internships and jobs.

Students occasionally meet with their adviser in person over school breaks for help with internship and career networking.

Finding her passion

Alejandra Lopez of Menlo Park, a Bridge alumna and University of California-Santa Cruz graduate, found a perfect internship through her adviser, which led to a full-time job upon graduation, she said.

Lopez said she knew she was interested in the field of science, but was unsure if she wanted to attend medical school. Her adviser connected her with various people in the medical industry, and in the end, Lopez decided that the medical field was not for her, she recalled.

Her adviser then went to Arcus Biosciences, an East Bay biotech company, and introduced the firm's CEO to Lopez; she won an internship at Arcus and interned there the summer before her junior year of college.

"I found my passion, thanks to my adviser," Lopez said.

Through her internship, Lopez realized that she was seriously interested in research. She interned with Arcus again the following summer, and the company was so impressed with her dedication that she was offered a full time job.

Lopez said that without Peninsula Bridge's educational opportunities, and the College Success program, she wouldn't have achieved the level of success now enjoys.

"If it weren't for Peninsula Bridge, many of us first-generation college students, including myself, wouldn't be where we are today," she said.

Peninsula Bridge provides all the resources and opportunities to level the playing field for these low-income, first generation students, Shafton said.

"Talent is equally distributed; opportunity is not," Shafton said. "We provide opportunities."

Lopez said she feels Bridge has really looked out for her and other disadvantaged students.

"Peninsula Bridge genuinely cares about every one of the students participating in its programs, and the team puts in so much time and effort to make sure we have the tools to succeed," Lopez said.

Now, Lopez's younger brother is participating in Peninsula Bridge and receiving the same educational opportunities.

Peninsula Bridge leaders and supporters point to the program's successes -- such as Lopez and the entire 18-strong cohort of students who are now off on their first year of college -- as evidence that the Bridge model is working.

"We have served thousands of underserved students and their families over the past 29 years, with an average 95 percent reporting an improvement in academic preparedness and self-confidence, and an average 95 percent graduating from high school on time," according to a written statement.

"Peninsula Bridge students have a desire to use their education to build a better life, but they need long-term support to achieve their dreams of college graduation and a successful career."

Fundraiser

A fundraiser for the Peninsula Bridge program is set for Thursday, Nov. 1, at the Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club in Menlo Park, with a 6 p.m. cocktail reception, and dinner and a program beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $350, and table sponsorships are available.

For ticket information, email Maureen Garrett at maureen@peninsulabridge.org, or call 207-2845.

For more information about the Peninsula Bridge program, visit peninsulabridge.org.

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