Raised in East Palo Alto, Laura Martinez spent her childhood crossing the freeway each weekday to go to school.
As a student in the Palo Alto Unified School District through the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP), she understands better than most how to navigate the divergent worlds on either side of U.S. Highway 101.
The 2002 graduate of Palo Alto High School -- now Mayor of East Palo Alto -- talked about the Tinsley program in a recent interview in East Palo Alto City Hall.
"I felt welcomed and well-served," Martinez said, noting that she is speaking only for herself. "I was one of the students who had a support system."
But she knows other Tinsley students aren't always as successful.
"I don't remember seeing a lot of the VTP kids going to college, or at least four-year college," Martinez said.
Crafted by lawyers as part of the 1986 settlement of a desegregation lawsuit, the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program permits up to 1,000 students of color from East Palo Alto's Ravenswood school district to enroll in seven nearby districts: Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Las Lomitas, Woodside, San Carlos and Belmont-Redwood Shores.
Palo Alto -- the only K-12 district of the seven -- educates the lion's share of Tinsley students, with 560 currently enrolled in the district.
Under program rules, students may not enter after the second grade -- and if they leave the program are not permitted to return.
Martinez got in under the wire, entering Duveneck Elementary School in 1991 as a second-grader after completing kindergarten and first grade at St. Elizabeth Seton School, a private school in Palo Alto.
Martinez credits her parents, and an array of other support systems, for her success as a Tinsley student.
"I went through the Palo Alto school system. I was a pretty good student. I had family support -- two parents who made education and college a priority.
"I knew I was going to graduate from high school and go on to college, and that's exactly what I did."
As the first in her family to go to college, Martinez sought guidance from Paly's counseling department, particularly now-retired college counselor Nancy Elliott.
"Mrs. Elliott told me about Whittier College and she hooked me up with another Paly graduate (who) was going to school down there," said Martinez, who majored in sociology and minored in Spanish at the four-year, liberal-arts college in Los Angeles County.
All of Martinez's jobs since her Whittier graduation in 2006 have involved speaking Spanish, which she learned from her maternal grandparents who lived down the street from her while she was growing up. Her mother was born in California and raised in East Palo Alto. Her Mexican-born father immigrated to California at a young age and grew up in Redwood City.
After college, Martinez worked at the East Palo Alto Family YMCA, and currently is after-school program coordinator for the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, a charter high school operated by Aspire Public Schools.
Martinez says she supports as much educational choice as possible, particularly for low-income students.
"Any way we can provide more opportunities, with the Tinsley program or charter schools, I'm in support of providing families with those options," she said.
As for East Palo Alto's own public schools, Martinez said, "I don't know what the Ravenswood district experience is like because I didn't go through the Ravenswood schools."
"But my mother grew up here in East Palo Alto and she went through the Ravenswood district. I think she just thought, 'Let's try out the VTP program -- that sounds like a good opportunity for you.'"
Martinez's mother now works for the Ravenswood district as a parent coordinator. Her father continues his longtime job with a Newark engineering company.
Martinez's brother and sister followed her most of the way through the Tinsley program, completing Duveneck and Jordan Middle School. But when their parents felt they needed a smaller environment, they left Paly and transferred to East Palo Alto Academy, a charter high school operated by the Stanford University School of Education, from which they graduated.
"We're all grown now -- in our 20s -- and my mother is able to work full-time and not have to worry about us," Martinez said.
Unlike most Tinsley kids, who ride a school bus across the freeway each morning, Martinez typically was driven to and from school by her parents.
Her mother didn't work during after-school hours, allowing Martinez and her siblings to play AYSO soccer and participate in activities such as Girl Scouts and, for Laura Martinez, Paly badminton. She also worked as a volunteer at the East Palo Alto library.
She got extra support from nonprofit organizations that aim to boost opportunities for low-income kids: the East Palo Alto-based Foundation for a College Education, which took her on a college tour through southern California and EPATT (East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring), which taught her to play tennis.
EPATT -- which now runs after-school tennis and tutoring at Stanford University's Taube Tennis Center -- taught tennis at East Palo Alto's Cesar Chavez Academy at the time Martinez participated.
"It was just down the street from my house, and I played tennis every summer," she recalls.
After college, Martinez returned home, met former mayors Ruben Abrica and Pat Foster, and got involved in politics.
She worked to bring a grocery store to the city, has advocated for an improved parole re-entry program and a skate park for youth. She's currently on a committee seeking to establish a "friends" group for the East Palo Alto library.
In 2008, she was the second-highest vote-getter in a field of nine candidates vying for three seats on the City Council.
A decade after her Paly graduation, Martinez says she's stayed in touch with some friends from both inside and outside the Tinsley VTP program.
One is Rachel Knowles, a VTP student who started kindergarten at Walter Hays in 1989.
"I was fortunate enough to go to a very good school district, but at the time I didn't always see it that way," said Knowles, a Menlo College graduate now working as office coordinator at Stanford University's Humanities Center.
Acutely feeling the geographic and social divide, there were times she wanted to leave the Tinsley program but didn't even ask because she knew her mother wouldn't have it.
"A lot of my friends (from elementary school) weren't even allowed to come to East Palo Alto," she recalled.
"I'd want to go to their house and I'd want them to come to my house as well, but their families wouldn't allow them to, even if it was my mom driving to pick us up. So a lot of times I just stayed at their house."
More than anything, Knowles, the only child of a white mother and a black father, didn't want to get labeled.
That became more difficult in high school, where VTP students tended to congregate in a certain area for lunch.
"Freshman year, it was an issue -- where should I hang out? I didn't want to hang out with just friends from East Palo Alto or get the stereotype of just hanging out with Palo Alto kids," said Knowles, who had a mix of friends from both groups.
"Me being biracial, I was used to dealing with that anyway."
Aside from a season of Paly badminton with Martinez, dance and cheerleading were Knowles' major extracurricular activity throughout her K-12 years.
The freeway divide eased somewhat when Knowles got to high school and friends could drive.
"I'd be able to go to a friend's house or even have them drive me home, and that was better," she said.
But she recalls many times feeling unfairly pigeonholed because of her identity as a VTP student.
"I remember several incidents -- even in meetings with my mom -- where the teachers would bring up that I was from East Palo Alto," she said.
"I might have been misbehaving just because I was having a bad day, but the teachers would assume it was because I was from East Palo Alto.
"A lot of my friends that were VTP students were in special ed classes and, at the time I remember thinking, 'Oh really? They seem fine to me.'"
During one elementary school writing assignment about home life, she recalls a teacher commenting, "'This isn't a really good area you're growing up in.'"
Over time, Knowles' conflicted feelings about her hometown have eased, and now she feels pride about it.
"I guess I understand the world better, and myself better, and realize it's a privilege to come from where I come from and to be where I'm at," she said.
"I've grown over the years, and I love East Palo Alto now. I've always loved it, but I was not always proud of it."
As for her participation in the Tinsley program, she said: "My mother used to tell me, 'Someday you'll thank me for this.'
"I didn't understand it at the time, but now I definitely do."