The college students have come to town.
In late January, the lucky students of Pescadero Elementary got some cool new playmates: five students from UC Santa Cruz, who started a new program as classroom mentors.
They are affiliated with Classroom Connection, a UCSC program that has evolved into an exciting partnership between Puente, the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District and Merrill College, one of the ten colleges at UCSC.
The college students, who are all Latino and English-Spanish bilingual, will provide one-on-one support to students, two mornings per week.
Having college-going mentors on hand will be a huge step forward, explains Suzanne Abel, Puente’s Academic Director. Many Pescadero Elementary students are still learning at least some English, and most will be the first in their families to graduate High School and go to college. Adding bilingual, Latino mentors to the classroom benefits teachers, students and their families.
“Having bilingual mentors in the classroom will really be a godsend for the teachers there. They’re really, really excited about it.”
That’s not the only advantage to having college students in the classroom, says Erica Hays, Director of Pescadero Elementary.
Hays says the younger kids develop close relationships with their college mentors. They start to see themselves going to college like the big kids.
“Whenever we have the older students here, the kids always have a thousand questions about college. That’s already a huge impact,” she says.
The five elementary school mentors will join another six college mentors already hard at work volunteering with a new after-school program at Pescadero High School. All 11 student tutors are enrolled in Classroom Connection, a field study-based education course taught by Merrill College alumnus and elementary school Principal Mike Berman. Merrill College Provost Elizabeth Abrams oversees the course. The students earn course credits while volunteering in K-12 classrooms in Santa Cruz, Watsonville and Pescadero.
The high school portion started last quarter, and it was such a success that two Merrill students decided to return for another semester just because they loved volunteering at Pescadero High – earning credits was secondary. The college students work intensively with their high school counterparts, who may be struggling academically.
“Just the six students we had last time had a huge impact,” reports Abel. “The teachers saw almost immediate academic improvement from some of the students. It’s exciting to be able to expand resources for academic support."
The ultimate role models
Perhaps the best thing about Merrill students is just how similar they are to Pescadero kids. They are their families’ first generation to go to university. They understand the struggle, and they are living proof of overcoming it. That sends a message, loud and clear.
“A lot of Merrill students come from underserved school districts themselves and they know what it’s like,” says Elizabeth Abrams, Provost of Merrill College.
From Puente’s perspective, that might be the greatest asset of all.
So how did a progressive, culturally sophisticated college like UC Santa Cruz connect with Pescadero’s tiny, under-resourced school district? Serendipity, and a lot of hard work.
Years ago Dr. Velia Garcia, Professor of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University and local Pescadero resident started the Step to College Program to prepare and motivate Pescadero students to attend college. Larry Trujillo while a lecturer in Community Studies at UCSC began to collaborate with Dr. Garcia by bringing UCSC college students to the Pescadero schools as tutor/mentors and classroom aides. The program was such a success that at its peak, more than 60 college students were in Pescadero each week. When Trujillo retired, the Step to College Program discontinued.
Knowing the effectiveness of the Program, when Trujillo joined the Puente Board, he approached Suzanne Abel about starting a new partnership with UCSC. The two made several scouting trips out there last summer. On one trip, they heard that Merrill College had a preexisting education course, Classroom Connection, taught by Mike Berman. At the time, the class only paired college students with elementary schools: two schools in Santa Cruz and one in Watsonville, at Berman’s school.
Abel and Trujillo talked to Provost Abrams about bringing Merrill students to the La Honda-Pescadero School District. Abrams was thrilled.
“We’re able to send students up to Pescadero who are themselves bicultural and bilingual. Our students are going up there knowing right out of the box that they have a valuable skill,” Abrams says.
Abrams is so pleased, in fact, that she would like to see Merrill College students become a strongly-rooted part of the community. She envisions students undertaking field study projects or internships with Puente and other organizations in the Pescadero area.
“They’re community-focused kids who have big hearts,” she says. “I think it’s making a difference for our students and for Pescadero, and I’m committed to making it work.”