Moving the Needle for the Underserved Students
There is a lot of talk about income inequality these days, and it has long seemed to me that a portion of its cause relates to the lack of equity in our public schools: Students in middle class and affluent communities have rich educational opportunities and are prepared to matriculate to college, while most students in underserved communities do not and are not.
My commitment to equity in education is rooted in this issue of social justice, but it's also tied to the story of my own family. My grandparents, first-generation Americans, were propelled to the middle class by public schools. My parents were first-generation college graduates who created an avenue of enhanced possibilities for me. This is a pathway that is critical to our health as a nation, yet it is one that hasn't always been open to all, especially students of color trapped in under-resourced, often substandard schools.
Twenty years ago, I met a man who was 10 years into a project to transform the lives of underserved students in Richmond, and in doing so perhaps broadly impact education in this country. Spurred by the memory of his tutoring a young African American student while at Princeton in the 1960s and by the lack of educational equity he witnessed in the Bay Area, John Scully founded Making Waves to create high quality educational opportunities for a small group of fifth graders.
At the time, Richmond was plagued by poverty and violence, and its students, predominantly black and Latino, were trapped in poorly maintained, failing schools. When I encountered him in 1999, his program had grown to provide about 300 students after-school tutoring, private school tuition, and support through college. In the early stages of engagement as a parent leader in the diverse district of San Rafael, I joined John in pursuit of his mission. The journey since has been transformative for thousands of students and for me.
For 30 years, Making Waves has worked to address unconscionable disparities. There continues to be a need in places like Richmond, and the extent of the problem nationwide is enormous, especially in California, where one in eight American public school students is educated – the state ranks 42nd in K-12 student performance.
But we are undaunted. Why? Because our experience has shown us that what is often referred to as the achievement gap is actually an opportunity gap. Many children and families struggle with obstacles poverty erects, but the obstacles don't become barriers if vibrant opportunities are available.
A holistic approach that includes a strong culture, social-emotional development, data-based decision-making, innovative teaching, key support services, and adherence to the growth mindset among children and adults alike has shown us that low-income students can do just as well as their wealthier counterparts if they have access to a quality education.
In response to a real demand for better options, Making Waves transitioned to a charter school model in 2007, allowing it to serve a greater population of students of need, currently 950 annually in grades 5-12, over 85 percent of them low income. Future plans include three K-12 schools across multiple cities that will enroll about 6,000. Over 95 percent of Making Waves Academy graduates go on to college, 70 percent directly to four-year programs. This is truly remarkable, given that only about 40 percent of graduates in the surrounding district's high schools completed the required courses for admission to the University of California and California State University systems in recent years.
It isn't just college access that's important; college persistence through completion of a degree is imperative. The maze of higher education is a challenge for young people, especially for those who are the first in their family to navigate it. A successful college experience requires coaching, financial literacy training, and need-based scholarships.
Making Waves' college success program, CAP, helps MWA graduates and other students from communities of need in the Bay Area, currently 600 in all, graduate from college with limited debt within six years. Nationwide, merely 11 percent of students from low-income households obtain a bachelor's degree within that timeframe, yet more than 250 Wave-Makers have already done so, and 86 percent of our current college students are on track to do the same.
I've spent years committed to expanding educational opportunities. Although my own children are now adults, I continue to be active in San Rafael in myriad ways, including as leader of a foundation that provides equitable enrichment and support programs to all students in the district.
In 2003, I began teaching a GATE program at the local elementary school to serve the needs of a different kind of student. But it is the work at Making Waves that affords the greatest chance to make significant impact because we address what many believe is an intractable problem, knowing it is solvable. Every year, we demonstrate that underserved children from the lowest socio-economic levels can absolutely excel in college, achieve their life dreams, and become engaged contributors to society. As a model for how this can be done, Making Waves is helping to move a needle that has been stuck for far too long.
This opinion column has been updated. The writer's name is Alicia Malet Klein. Also, the nonprofit foundation is the Making Waves Foundation which supports the Making Waves Academy and the Making Waves College and Alumni Program.