Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tough Neighborhood Forges Future Community School Leader

By Rosa Martin, Coalition for Community Schools Intern

For the past two and half months I had the opportunity to work with the Coalition for Community Schools through a competitive academic internship program available through my college campus, the University of California, Riverside. The concept of providing students with additional resources to improve their outcomes is a central tenant of community schools and has led me to contemplate the role of such resources and education in my own life.

The opportunities that I have been blessed with including this internship have changed my perspective on life - that I can accomplish great things outside of my hometown city limits. I cannot put a price on the education that I have obtained at UC Riverside. It was here that I had the opportunity to travel across Europe while studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain, a feat that I never fathomed possible as the daughter of a poor immigrant couple. The satisfaction that I have in life comes from the irrevocable knowledge that I gained, learning who I am and what I believe despite the influences’ of mainstream society and my own neighborhood.

I strongly believe that every person should have an equal opportunity at receiving a four-year education because it offers more than higher salaries; it gives individuals the critical thinking skills to defend themselves. It is a higher education that gave me the control to choose what I want for myself. This control is what a lot of people from my neighborhood only wish they had in choosing careers.

I graduated from a high school in San Bernardino County in the June of 2008. San Bernardino consists of a predominantly Hispanic and African American population living in low-income households, I having been one of them. In the 2008-2009 school year, only 24% of San Bernardino County seniors graduated with the necessary coursework to be eligible to attend a UC or CSU campus. Throughout my high school career, I took Honors and AP classes where my group of friends was comprised of these bright individuals. Unfortunately, many of us did not directly continue onto a four-year university although most of us graduated in the top of our class and were well equipped to do so. One of the highest-ranking students unexpectedly became pregnant, causing her to drop her plans to attend UC Davis. Two other peers, one that attended Dartmouth and another that attended UC Santa Barbara, dropped out midyear because they were unhappy with the campus. Although these students excelled on the nation’s difficult Advanced Placement exams and have proven to be academically prepared, they were not mentally prepared for college.

As I pondered the factors that caused these students to stay in San Bernardino, I realized the answer did not lie in the factors that were present, but rather the factors that were not present. Although the everyday curriculum of these students included rigorous coursework, it failed to make a connection to life in college. As an Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) student throughout all four years of high school, I had a plethora of valuable resources that made this connection to college. AVID is a program that works to empower students in the academic middle that have a willingness to work toward college acceptance. AVID teachers frequently engaged families in parent nights where students play an active role in the actions of the event. During the AVID elective class, students learned about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and watched videos on college success. Students were provided with field trips to four-year universities and frequent guest speakers on higher education institutions and college programs.

The value of these relatively inexpensive resources in student lives is often taken for granted. In 2008-09, 89% of AVID graduating seniors were accepted to at least one four-year university, 65% higher than the County average. Of my AVID friends that went onto four-year universities, none have dropped out. I strongly believe that if my other peers had been exposed to the same resources, their college experiences would have been different.

Academics are not always enough and it is unfair to expect a student to succeed in a higher education institution when they have had minimal exposure to it. While learning more about the community school strategy at the Coalition, I was able to understand the connection between student success and the resources provided by AVID and community schools. The main difference between the two lies in that the community school strategy uses a diverse array of programs and resources to address the needs of all its students rather than a determined few. Community schools provide a variety of health, academic, and family resources whether in the form of afterschool programs, school-based health clinics, or college workshops. I hope to expand the community school work in California where there are many students that could benefit from the community schools strategy.

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