Since March 2020, we have worried about the health, grief, finances and social isolation of low-income students and families. There has been heartbreaking loss, financial strain and unemployment, and a clear, disproportionate impact on low-income communities. East Palo Alto has seen four times more COVID-19 cases than Menlo Park and seven times more than Atherton.
And yet, there also have been incredible stories of joy, strength and celebration from these hard-hit communities.
Against all odds, low-income students and families have continued to prevail. East Palo Alto Academy High School saw their college persistence rate improve from 26% to 80%. At Peninsula Bridge, 100% of 12th grade students are matriculating to college this fall, with 95% being the first in their family to do so.
It is resilience — rather than heartbreak — that we want to illuminate and celebrate. As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us, there is danger in the single story. While we acknowledge the tragedy the last year brought, it is imperative to also shed light on the incredible complexity and triumph of low-income students during this pandemic.
Like many students this past year, Daniel began his first year at UC Riverside at home, struggling to find a proper learning environment where he could focus on his physics classes. Countless low-income students have found themselves taking classes from their families' studio apartment, with no quiet space to work. After finding an old tent in storage, Daniel began to use it as his own "backyard dorm." With a space to call his own, Daniel is now at the top of his class, attending office hours religiously and on track to join the physics department's honors program.
Max, a high school senior, had to work double-duty after his family lost their home last year; he attended school full time and picked up shifts at the family restaurant to help keep it afloat. Determined to not lose the restaurant as well, he raised enough money to build outdoor dining, allowing the restaurant to continue serving customers. Through the many lockdowns and changes in regulations, the business survived. Max is now a freshman at UC Berkeley, and the family is "thriving — because we are still together, strong and healthy."
Jessica* was just a sophomore in high school when she was forced to step up as the head of her household last year. After the death of a family member to COVID-19, Jessica was left to pick up the pieces, planning the funeral and figuring out finances. At the age of 15, she had to find $2,700 for funeral services. What do you do if that money is your rent money? With the help of East Palo Alto Academy's social services team, Jessica was able to successfully fundraise, negotiate with the mortuary, and ultimately found a way to honor her family member.
These stories are not exceptions. There are countless more examples of the hardships our students and their families faced and the innumerable institutional barriers that we must continue to dismantle.
It is not OK that a student is using a tent in his front yard to get space for his college studies. It is not OK that a 15-year-old is responsible for planning a funeral. And it is certainly not okay that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) continue to bear the brunt of this pandemic.
And yet, each story also continues to prove that the impact of COVID-19 on poor communities is complex and nuanced.
We must celebrate the triumphs. We must recognize the strength and resilience that has emerged from this painful year.
Psychological resilience is defined as the process of adapting in the face of challenges, crises and threats. Dr. Ryan Matlow, a child clinical psychologist and director of community programs for Stanford's Early Life Stress and Resilience Program, found that having a mission, objective and valued activity in times of crisis is a protective factor and indicator of adaptive adjustment. It is this psychological resilience that allows our students to adapt and achieve despite adversity.
For this reason, programs like Peninsula Bridge and East Palo Alto Academy emphasize perseverance. Strength already exists inside of our students — they just need our support as they access it.
Peninsula Bridge teaches risk-taking, agency and self-advocacy from fourth grade through college. Our Middle School Academy uses literature and a focus on global education to demonstrate that children around the world navigate adversity and challenges — and that we can collectively identify personal and community resources to overcome those challenges. Through education and discussion, students can examine human qualities like courage, bravery and resilience, and discuss key strategies to overcome adversity.
East Palo Alto Academy helps to shed light on our first-generation, BIPOC students' incredible wealth of experiences and inner strength. Students learn the "The Bulldog Way" beginning the summer before ninth grade, which comprises five attributes of success: love, attitude, mindset, power and grit. Students harness their grit forged by life experiences and are able to use this to develop an increased sense of belonging and preserve in challenging circumstances.
We firmly believe that it is this tenacity and resilience that will give our students the power, access and opportunity to dismantle the immeasurable and unacceptable barriers that lay ahead.
Young people who have not yet faced adversity can develop perseverance through experiencing productive struggle and delayed gratification. There are countless avenues to help understand the joys of working hard and earning success, including playing sports, learning a musical instrument and participating in community service. Yet, it is still crucial that our community continue to ask questions about inclusivity, communal responsibility and sense of belonging in the hopes of building a more just, equitable and caring community. When we listen to and support diverse perspectives, we all flourish.
*Name has been changed to protect underage students.
Randi Shafton is the executive director of Peninsula Bridge and can be reached at [email protected] Amika Guillaume is the principal of East Palo Alto Academy and can be reached at [email protected]