The power of teachers and coaches and of early, clear communications about college requirements emerged in "exit interviews" with African-American and Latino graduates of Gunn and Palo Alto high schools that were recently released by the Palo Alto school district.
About 15 minority graduates from the Class of 2011 reflected on their school experiences in interviews conducted by educational consultant Milton Reynolds in December 2011. The district provided redacted quotations from the interviews in response to a Public Records Act request by the Weekly.
Though most students rated the quality of education they received in Palo Alto as very high, many indicated they had struggled with feeling stereotyped and held to low expectations by some staff members.
One graduate referred to having felt "pressure to dispel myths of low expectations," saying there was "at least one teacher each year who didn't really believe or know why I was in AP courses or the goals I had."
Many expressed sensitivity to the "vibe" they got from different teachers, positive or negative.
"There was a teacher that never gave up on me at Paly," one wrote. "She pushed me to graduate and helped me get back into school, talked to other teachers for me, had my back and pushed me."
Said another: "Teachers helped me out even when I got kicked out and helped me even though I kept wanting to give up."
But another said: "At times I felt that some of the faculty belittled me. This gave me inward motivation to prove them wrong. It can be negative, but it depends on how you take it."
Another graduate said: "I like teachers who know me and can relate to me. I just don't like when teachers give you a vibe and judge you."
Another said: "They underestimated me, and they should have put the word out about college earlier."
One graduate referred to the wide variety in teaching styles. "Every teacher has a different style," the person said. "It was difficult to be in many classes with so many teaching styles.
"I had to retake a few classes. Second semester senior year was really hard, and I ended up with two Ds. These two Ds were with teachers that knew how hard I was working. Those teachers wrote letters of recommendations for me to continue to go to the four-year class. I had the class, and they continued to motivate me."
Asked how it felt to be an African-American or Latino student in a high-achieving and primarily white and Asian district, graduates indicated it was not easy.
"It's a welcoming environment. You feel like a fish out of water. But everyone is super nice and no one puts it in your face."
Said another, "I always felt I was behind everyone else ... that I had to work a lot harder to keep up with everyone else. Even since kindergarten. Through all of elementary school. I had to take special classes to learn how to speak English, and in middle school I still felt behind and in high school I still felt behind.
"In high school I really had to work hard to become a competitive student and to have any chance to go to college ... to have a competitive application. But I always had the feeling I was behind everyone else."
Many said they wished they'd been coached earlier and more clearly about what it takes to get into a four-year college, particularly about the University of California prerequisites known as the "a-g requirements."
"Not all students get counseled about the a-g requirements," said one.
Said another: "I never had an idea of college until I hit my senior year. Nobody even mentioned college to me. When these people are talking about a-g requirements, I don't even know what they were talking about."
Many credited special programs aimed at helping minority students get to college with helping them reach their goals. The specific program names were unavailable because of redactions by the school district but appeared to be both in-school programs such as Gunn's College Pathways project as well as extracurricular programs like Foundation for a College Education in East Palo Alto.
"Majority of the class were minorities, and we supported each other," wrote one, describing the program as "a mixture of structure and resources" that provided a "sense of community.
"It felt like a family because we were with each other most of the week," the student wrote, mentioning a free trip to Southern California to look at colleges and "lots of scholarship opportunities."
Despite sometimes contradictory experiences, minority graduates said they felt well-prepared for college.
"I've talked to other people from other districts, and I think we are more prepared," said one. "Palo Alto did a good job getting people ready for college."
Several expressed conflicted feelings about Palo Alto Unified.
"I felt the teachers didn't give a damn about me. They didn't put college in my face," one student said, but then went on to say: "I thank Paly, though. This is better than any other district in California. I've been here since kindergarten, and I've had a better education than other districts."
Palo Alto principals discussed the interviews in their February monthly meeting as part of what Associate Superintendent Charles Young described as an ongoing conversation "centered on our work around equity.
"Students indicated the importance of teachers who support, challenge and believe in them," Young wrote in a Feb. 13 memo describing the principals' meeting. "There is an apt descriptor for this type of teacher to student interaction, which is referred to as the warm demander, i.e., those teachers who push the students to succeed by challenging, encouraging, and believing in their potential.
"Adversely, anything short of believing in the full and unique potential of all students is perceived as soft expectations and doubt in one's ability to succeed."