Opening Doors in East Palo Alto

Guadalupe Martinez is a student at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. This summer she interned with Citizen Schools California.  I come from the streets of East Palo Alto, California, a community where I learned the power of opportunity. In East Palo Alto I attended elementary school at Cesar Chavez Academy, one of the schools that now partners with Citizen Schools California, the organization I interned with this summer. Citizen Schools provides public middle schools with an expanded learning day, rich with opportunities like hands-on learning projects in engineering, mural making, and mobile application development.

After elementary school, I attended Eastside College Preparatory School, also in East Palo Alto. Eastside College Prep is a small private middle school and high school committed to opening new doors for students historically underrepresented in higher education. In all honesty, I do not know where I would be without the tremendous help and the high expectations at Eastside College Prep that enabled me to perform to the best of my abilities. I now attend Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and I am the first in my family to ever go to college.

As an intern for Citizen Schools California I have had the chance to connect with other East Palo Alto natives who have beaten the odds and have the desire to help others do the same by creating access for families in communities like East Palo Alto, where not every student has the chance to learn about going to college.

It reminded me of the old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child." Citizen Schools California is connecting a village of dedicated citizens. I had the opportunity to sit down with a couple of villagers from the Citizen Schools East Palo Alto Community who all had incredible stories to tell.

Umeeka Khelawan

The first villager Umeeka Khelwan, a UC Merced graduate and a Citizen Schools National Teaching Fellow in East Palo Alto, is passionate about child development and wants to work with disabled children. Umeeka also attended Eastside College Preparatory School.“Opportunity was everything for me,” she says. “Eastside opened doors for me and now I wish to do the same. I want to work with disabled kids because I want to be a voice for them.”

Leaseth Ramirez

Leaseth Ramirez, an Occidental College graduate and a Teaching Fellow in San Jose, also grew up in East Palo Alto and she aspires to be a high school math teacher. Having had an amazing experience at Eastside and having built amazing relationships with the math instructors, she wishes to now share her love for numbers with students from similar backgrounds to her own. Leaseth states, “I went to school in East Palo Alto and attended a program like Citizen Schools. It made such a huge impact in my life.”

C. Monette

Curtis Monette, another East Palo Alto native and a Deputy Campus Director at Cesar Chavez Academy said, “Being from the areas I have worked in has provided me with a sense of responsibility to open doors to those who come after me, just as I was fortunate enough to have those doors opened.” He respects his obligation to the community and understands the disparity between the schools in the area.

A. Lawrence

A fourth villager, Ajayi Lawrence is a strong advocate for Citizen Schools. He believes, “Citizen Schools works on access before high school tracking begins.” Having lived through educational disparity himself, he wishes to create change and be part of the journey that closes the opportunity gap within communities. He hopes to create opportunities like the ones he had access to during his high school career.

Umeeka, Leaseth, Curtis, and Ajayi have all lived through or witnessed the consequences that a lack of access to opportunities can have on a child’s education. All are setting themselves as examples and are holding the door open for children in the Bay Area. I too, have the same intentions: I want to reach my American Dream and in the future, come back to East Palo Alto, and also hold the door open for the students of my community.

You can impact youth in East Palo Alto and across the country by signing up to volunteer or applying to be a National Teaching Fellow.