What do many Berkeley African American and Latino students need in order to do well in school and get into the college of their choice? One answer to that question, an intense mentoring program that is now eight years old, was celebrated this past Monday evening at a reception on the UC campus.
The mentors of the “Berkeley Scholars to Cal” are UC students, and they work with 75 Berkeley public school students, providing each with 250 hours of guidance every year, from the 5th through the 12th grade. This guidance takes the form of social and personal as well as academic support for this select group of students.
Each student has signed a contract that commits him or her to dedicated participation in the program’s activities. Malyka Akom and Stephanie Munoz, for example, are 6th-graders at Longfellow School in Berkeley. They said that they meet after school with a mentor every Tuesday and Thursday, and that every Saturday morning they go to the UC campus for further instruction. There are summer activities as well, and year-round home visits by program staff. “After a while they [the mentors] become part of your family” added Akom.
The results of this quality of attention and care are remarkable. Students in the program achieve grades, on average, that are much higher than those of their peers who are not in the program. Currently, one-half of Berkeley Scholars students have a GPA higher than 3.5. 80% of African Americans in the program scored in the top 50% on the college admissions PSAT. This achievement is impressive, given that only 5% of African Americans scored this high nationally.
David Stark, Director of Stiles Hall, a non-profit center in Berkeley, is one of the program’s founders. The program was created, Stark told the Planet, in the wake of proposition 209. This California measure was passed by the voters in 1996 and prohibited colleges from including race, sex, or ethnicity among their admissions criteria. The direct effect on student body diversity at Cal was devastating. In the first year of the measure’s application, black student admissions to Boalt Hall Law School were reduced by 80% and admissions of Hispanic students by 50%.
College communities at Berkeley and up and down the state held demonstrations and walkouts to protest the dismantling of affirmative action. Here in Berkeley, according to Stark, “We felt that we had to address this situation.” Stiles Hall collaborated with other community and school organizations to create the “Berkeley Scholars to Cal” program.
Attending the reception were UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau and Berkeley city officials including mayor Tom Bates and school board members Karen Hemphill and Shirley Issel. According to Issel, “What you see here that’s working is the power of partnership: the YMCA, the University, parents, students and their school … This model can be generalized. The issue is will, not resources.” Jason Lustig, principal at MLK Middle School where a number of his students are in the Scholars program, concurred: “The program is scalable, and it could provide a tipping point to inspire the whole district. It has been transforming many your people’s lives and their families.”
Of course, there is a problem with making this mentoring program available to all Berkeley students who could benefit from it: lack of funding. “Berkeley Scholars to Cal” receives some support from public sources, but most of the $100,000 annual budget comes from the Charlie & Karen Couric Foundation and from AT&T, among other patrons. Given the limits on funding from these sources, it’s difficult to see how the program could be brought to large numbers of Berkeley students, especially given the current financial crisis in public education.
When this reporter asked Berkeley School Superintendent Huyett, who was also present at the reception on Monday, about this predicament, he commented that “Money is part of the solution, but it’s the passion and the relationships that inspire the students and the mentors.”
At the very least, the Scholars program has established a proof of concept: the notorious “achievement gap” between students who are doing well and those who are falling far behind can be closed, provided that resources are made available to make this happen.
Raymond Barglow is the founderof Berkeley Tutors Network.