Berkeley Scholars to Cal works to close the achievement gap

During spring break last year, tenth-grader Brandon Small toured colleges in Boston and Cambridge and set his sights on MIT. Sixth-grader Malyka Akron “thinks about college a lot” and fantasizes about studying dance at Juilliard.

Many of Small’s and Akron’s peers might not imagine an academic future beyond high school, but Stiles Hall’s Berkeley Scholars to Cal program has instilled in the two Berkeley public school kids the belief that they will attend a top-ranked university. Berkeley Scholars helps promising low-income African American and Latino students by providing them with critical academic and social support they need to get into college.

On Monday night, Stiles Hall held a celebration at Alumni House for Berkeley Scholars to Cal, as well as for 2020 Vision, a collaboration originated by UC Berkeley, the city of Berkeley, and the Berkeley Unified School District to foster academic success and close the achievement and health gaps for Berkeley’s children by 2020.

Mentor with sixth-graders

Lajunada Asemota, a senior majoring in African American studies and advertising, mentors sixth-graders Malyka Akron (center) and Stephanie Munoz (right). (Peg Skorpinski photos)

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, and Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent William Huyett were on hand, along with the program’s mentors and staff. But the real stars of the evening were 25 Berkeley High School tenth-graders and two dozen Longfellow Magnet Middle School sixth-graders, whose families had come to cheer their success.

For the first time in its 10-year history, Berkeley Scholars has been able to track a control group to measure its students’ progress. Last semester, the program’s African American tenth-graders had an average grade point average of 3.32. That compared to 2.36 for a control group of African American Berkeley High students, noted Stiles Hall director David Stark.

The program’s African American students also excelled in the PSAT, with 80 percent scoring over the 50th national percentile. Nationally, 5 percent of black students and 70 percent of white students score over 50 percent on the test.

Berkeley Scholars’ sixth-graders also are doing well: Last semester, the program’s mix of African American and Latino students from Longfellow averaged a 3.35 GPA (compared to 2.85 for a similar cohort at their school).

All 20 of Berkeley Scholars’ first cohort made it to college. The students are enrolled at five UC campuses (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Davis, Santa Cruz, and Riverside), Mills College, Cornish College of the Arts, University of Oregon, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and various California State University campuses. Two of the 20 attend community college.

“We’ve got to get more kids who are academically competent to get into UC Berkeley,” said Stark, who has been Stiles Hall’s director since 1997, before Monday’s event. He noted that most programs that work with African American and Latino youth pluck them out of their environment. Berkeley Scholars collaborates with the Berkeley schools and conducts some of its activities in students’ schools. “That’s been the qualitative piece that I think has made a huge difference,” Stark said.

Hurdles facing these youth include institutional racism, according to Stiles. “There are unconscious low expectations among a lot of teachers and counselors. I can’t tell you the number of black and Latino students who have come through Stiles who have been told they’re not Berkeley material,” he said. And “there’s a whole negative peer culture among their friends towards working that hard and putting that much into academics.”

An eight-year commitment

Berkeley Scholars to Cal begins working with students when they’re still young enough to be open to mentoring. Program coordinators seek out fourth-graders whose test scores show proficiency or advanced ability in math or English.

The program has been able to start three cohorts so far. The first are in college, and the second and third are the tenth- and sixth-graders celebrated Monday night.

Both kids and parents must make an eight-year commitment. “From that moment, parents induct us into their family,” said Leandrew Robinson, Berkeley Scholars’ project director.

Alexa Vasquez with her family

Sixth-grader Alexa Vasquez (center) has backing from her family to excel in the Berkeley Scholars to Cal program. Left to right: Chris, Tomas, and Rumy Vasquez.

The commitment is significant. Students dedicate two days a week after school and Saturday mornings during the academic year, plus four weeks to a summer academy.

Parents attend a monthly meeting with other parents whose children are in the program. Cal students act as mentors and role models for the young students, paving the way for them to apply to Berkeley or other top-tier higher-education institutions.

For the most part, families see the opportunity as “manna from heaven,” said Stark. “They know their kids are smart, but they don’t have the cultural capital or know what’s needed” to get their children into a competitive college.

Tomas Vasquez is glad his sixth-grade daughter, Alexa, has gotten help in math. Since Alexa joined Berkeley Scholars last summer, he said, she has become more confident, and now sets targeted goals. Alexa’s brother, Chris, a fifth-grader, called his sister “a role model.”

Alexa Vasquez said Berkeley Scholars “makes learning more exciting, creative, and unique.” She attended a sociology course at Cal last fall and now wants to go to Berkeley.

Vasquez and her mentor, Jessica Fuentes, spoke about their relationship at Monday’s event. “I see myself reflected in her,” said Fuentes, who has mentored Vasquez for six months. The pair talk about their families and what they did the past weekend as well as academic concerns.

“I always check on her, too,” said Vasquez. “It must be difficult to be a college student with all the material they give you.”

Benjamin Johnson, a tenth-grader from Berkeley High who earned a 4.0 GPA last semester, isn’t daunted by the prospect of future academic heavy lifting. His dream is to study architecture and green housing at MIT.

“Before Berkeley Scholars, I never imagined going to college,” he said. “When Leandrew showed me that Cal was just up the street, that was the biggest turning point in my life.”