East Palo Alto middle-schoolers get the Stanford treatment

The East Palo Alto Stanford Academy is a rigorous, two-year academic support program for seventh- and eighth-graders from the Ravenswood City School District. Funded by Stanford's Haas Center for Public Service and staffed largely by Stanford undergrads, the program offers participants valuable exposure to college life and role models who demonstrate that success is within their reach.

Photos by L.A. Cicero Devney Hamilton helping students at computers

Stanford undergraduate Devney Hamilton teaching computer science at East Palo Alto Stanford Summer Academy.

It's Thursday morning, 9:30. A small group of seventh-graders read newspapers in class and discuss the opinion section before getting to work writing their own movie reviews.

In another classroom, eighth-graders practice point-slope formulas on laptops using an animation program as their teacher circulates the room answering questions and giving directions.

It sounds like a typical day in the life of a middle school student, but there's something different. For one, it's a sweltering day in July. And the familiar middle school setting has been replaced by classrooms in Stanford's Main Quad, with Stanford undergraduates as the teachers.

This is the East Palo Alto Stanford Academy, or EPASA, as it's affectionately known. A program run by Stanford students and staff and funded by Stanford's Haas Center for Public Service since 1986, EPASA aims to provide academic support and resources to about 40 seventh- and eighth-grade students from East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District.

During the school year, EPASA meets on Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Students attend academic classes and workshops and each receives two hours of one-on-one tutoring from a Stanford undergraduate mentor.

During the summer, students attend a five-week program (9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday), which includes English, math and elective classes, community service projects, and field trips. Both programs are held on the Stanford campus.

Program Director Theresa Metz said EPASA's mission is to supplement the work of teachers and parents.

"We recognize parents are the primary teachers," Metz said. "We're not replacing the parent and teacher role. We recognize our place in supporting those systems already there. I tell the parents at parent orientation that EPASA is part of the team."

Simply spending time on the Stanford campus is a key feature of the program, as many of the students would be the first in their families to go to college. At Stanford, students can begin to imagine attending a prestigious university themselves.

"They get to be not just on the campus but in college classrooms," Metz said. "It's not a full college experience, granted, but they get to move around the classrooms and the dining space, and [realize], 'Oh, so this is what college kids do.'"

Raquel Goya in front of a class

Stanford senior Raquel Goya teaching a journalism class at the East Palo Alto Stanford Summer Academy.

Students must apply for EPASA, and competition can be fierce. This year, 46 sixth-graders competed for only 20 seventh-grade spots, and 12 seventh-graders applied for four eighth-grade openings. Acceptance is based on grades, teacher recommendations, and the student's written applications and motivation. Each accepted student is expected to commit to the program for two years, seventh and eighth grade.

Suzanne Abel, the Haas Center's Associate Director for External Relations, said EPASA staff also work to ensure that graduates of the program receive similar support in high school. She said more than 80 percent of EPASA graduates go on to participate in programs such as Stanford College Prep, Upward Bound, and other college preparatory programs in high school.

Stanford students who want to teach for EPASA volunteer as weekend tutors during the school year and are selected through the Haas Center's Education and Youth Development Fellowship to teach in the summer program. This summer, seven juniors and seniors were hired to teach classes and manage all areas of the program.

Though they represent a wide range of majors and career goals, the fellows are united by their commitment to their students and the desire to help them succeed, Metz said. In addition to the academic support they provide, fellows also become important role models for their students.

"They're another adult in a young person's life. You know there is someone else out there who cares about your education and the decisions you make," Metz said. "The idea that a stranger or someone who doesn't know me well wants to get to know me and encourage me, that's huge."

Brittany Ueno, human biology '12, is teaching seventh-grade English this summer. She said that while the middle school age group can be challenging, watching her students learn has been rewarding.

"It's inspiring to see them get excited about things they wouldn't think they would be excited about," Ueno said.

Asked what her favorite part of EPASA was, 12-year-old Jennifer Baltazar said she enjoyed her elective class about comics, taught by fellow Gustavo Gonzalez, comparative studies in race and ethnicity '13.

Her friend Selena Valencia, 13, added that in addition to the "really good food" at lunch and field trips to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the Exploratorium and Raging Waters, she also likes EPASA's academic side.

"My favorite class is English, because we're learning about Romeo and Juliet," Valencia said.

Though they enjoy spending free time with friends and participating in EPASA's non-academic activities, the students are also acutely aware of the effect EPASA has on their education.

"We learn things throughout the summer so we don't forget things," said Enrique Verduzco, 13.

"My favorite part is hanging out with my friend Enrique," said Verduzco's friend Brian Sandoval, 12, before quickly adding, "And phonetics and language arts."

Abel said some parents have sent multiple children to EPASA, and demonstrate great appreciation for the support their children receive, both academically and socially.

"The parents are incredibly grateful for the student role models – kids who have themselves succeeded and are now committed, willing and able to work with their kids," Abel said.

Diana Gonzalez, sociology '13, and Atziry Gutierrez, international relations '11, taught a seventh-grade math class together last year. Both remembered students who demonstrated how much EPASA meant to them.

"We had one student who was going into eighth grade, and he would always miss the bus [to Stanford]," Gonzalez said. "But we'd still find him at Stanford. He'd gotten there by running or riding his bike. That showed real dedication."

Gutierrez said one student's end-of-the-year piece for the EPASA yearbook about what the program meant to him was surprisingly heartfelt.

 "EPASA is one of those places where you learn the meaning of integrity, pride and building character," wrote Edwin Lombera. "EPASA helped me meet many people who have eventually become my best friends. People have come and gone [but] the memories are eternal."

"You think and hope they like the program and are happy, but it was like, wow, EPASA is really like family to these kids," Guteirrez said. "Moments like that definitely make it all worth it."

Robin Migdol is an intern for Stanford University Communications.