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.
Alicia Malet Klein is president of San Rafael's districtwide HeadsUp program and is board president of the Making Waves Academy. The Making Waves Foundation, a nonprofit private operating foundation in Richmond, supports Making Waves Academy, a charter school, and the Making Waves College and Alumni Program. These programs aim to advance educational opportunities for college-bound, career-minded, historically underrepresented and underserved youth to ensure they become contributing members of society.