Closing the Opportunity Gap in East Palo Alto

If you walk a few miles down the road from Stanford and the wealthy suburb of Menlo Park, you'll notice the houses and shops change abruptly. You're in East Palo Alto, where nine out of ten people live below the poverty line. The kids here want success, and their parents want success for them. But since they don't usually experience the opportunities for learning and networking that kids across the highway get, the odds are they will drop out by high school and be underdogs for the rest of their lives.

Meet the people who are working hard to make sure that doesn't happen for the children who go to Cesar Chavez Academy. The motto here is "Dream big, work hard, give back." You'll want to do all three of those things when you see what's possible when people step up and get involved:

This film, directed by Aaron Shadwell (who also told the story of the Edwards Middle School) looks at some of the amazing people who are closing the opportunity gap between Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. By partnering with Citizen Schools, principal Amika Guillaume is giving her students at Cesar Chavez Academy the time and "human capital" they need to discover their own potential. Here's more of what she told us:

Why does this city even exist? Why is there a city of such poverty -- 90% below the line of poverty -- 90% free or reduced lunch in our school? And I could probably walk to an $8 million home from here. These kids go to Europe in the summer.  They have karate after school. They have SAT tutoring. The children on the west side -- they also don’t get home until six -- sometimes seven, sometimes eight -- because they have piano, they have violin, they have gymnastics, they have sports, they have whatever.


I’m a big fan of, when you have something that you’re complaining about, you need to figure out what the source of the problem is and then try to fix it. And so that’s why I said, okay, I want to become a school leader.


My uncle used to be a migrant farm worker. He marched with Cesar Chavez.  He worked with Cesar Chavez. The inspiration of Cesar Chavez is so compelling to so many of our students because they can relate to him and his family.


I want to be a part of the change that’s going to bring the school back where it was. If we reach what I hope we reach, there is a buzz in the community. “Did you know the kids at Chavez built a solar car?  Did you know the kids at Chavez have real lives going on?” And then I’m going to start getting phone calls. “Hey, can I transfer my kid to Chavez?  Oh, did you know the kids at Chavez are talking about college field trips?” And then I’m going to start getting a waiting list.


We are here in partnership for the children. Together we’re going to make this work.

Meanwhile, Ricardo Benavidez, Manager of Community Relations at Cisco in San Jose, CA, was helping provide funding to Citizen Schools when it struck him that he had benefited from apprenticeships when he was a kid:

I believe that I had my first informal apprenticeship around 5th or 6th grade. My neighbor was a mechanic. I would sit there, and one day, he invited me to jump off the fence and help him out. And that summer, I spent six days a week working for Paul Adkins. It developed to Paul asking me a little bit about myself, my interests, my grades. The first time in my life anyone had ever asked me about my grades or to see my report card. When your parents are from  a different country, they come with little education, they don't have the background to really know what a report card stands for. “Richie, how are you doing?” Looks at my grades and says, “Hey, there's definitely some room for improvement.”


I was inspired. I was motivated. I found why learning was important and what it could lead to. And just create new opportunities that hadn't existed in my family. And I think by middle school, I was getting straight As.


I didn't think of it as an apprenticeship until I learned about this program and what it does. I want to do the same for another 5th or 6th grader in my neighborhood or another student who perhaps doesn't know why going to school is important.

There is an East Palo Alto down the road from every university, every corporate headquarters, and every wealthy suburb in America. It's an overwhelming challenge. With Citizen Schools, each of us can reach over the barriers that prevent kids from achieving great things. And together, we can close the gap between dropping out and shining bright.

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