With both her parents incarcerated, Adrian Sledge, who was in the care of her grandmother, faced tough odds when she entered Menlo-Atherton High School.
"Jenna Carson pushed me; she told me, 'You can do this, this is possible, this is possible,'" Sledge recalled. "She got me to do things I didn't think were possible.
"She would check in and say, 'Did you do that homework? You should play basketball.' She made me a doctor's appointment, took me over to Stanford to get a physical and drove me home. I'd never played basketball before, and it was so hard to pick up the game, but playing basketball really helped me."
That was 15 years ago.
This summer Sledge who graduated from M-A and went on to play basketball in college and became a cosmetologist is back at M-A to share her story with at-risk freshmen who face similarly daunting challenges as they head into the competitive high school environment.
This month the campus is host to at least three initiatives aimed at easing the transition for at-risk students, most of them from East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District. A fourth, and related program "Freshmen Rise Up" is underway at the East Palo Alto clubhouse of the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula.
Sledge, who works during the school year in M-A's special education department, helps in the summer Compass program, where students score at a sixth-grade reading level or below. Fifteen years ago she was a student in the inaugural year of that program, then led by math teacher Carson.
"It's amazing to come back and say to the students, 'Hey, I walked these hallways. I grew up in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. I know what it's like to grow up in the environment but also what it's like to succeed and step out of it,'" Sledge said.
Other Compass mentors include current M-A students like Rayner Zarco, who participated in Compass a year ago as he prepared to enter high school.
"High school is a challenge you have to take, and you put in all you have," said Zarco, who played football and maintained a 3.0 grade point average during freshman year.
"I was pretty excited when they asked me to mentor this summer, and I said I'd totally like to help the new freshmen because I was one of them before."
Besides math and English, Compass students are coached in life skills, physical education and leadership.
They're counseled about the benefits of adopting a "growth mindset" as recommended by Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck focusing on improving their performance through hard work rather than assuming they aren't naturally gifted and then getting overwhelmed and shutting down. They learn the agreed-upon "core values" of M-A "P.R.I.D.E." for patience, respect, integrity, determination and empathy. They learn their way around the large campus and how to run the "Bear Mile" around the perimeter of the school.
The classes are "about what we'd like for our students to embody as citizens coming into M-A," said teacher Tara Charles, who has led Compass for the past three summers.
"We want to pre-identify students for any services they might need during the school year counseling or a health checkup and familiarize them with ways to get small groups together or clubs."
Once the school year begins M-A offers an array of extra supports, including the friendly "MyLife" program run by former teacher Desiree Caliguiran, who represents the Boys & Girls Club on the M-A campus.
"The thing that scared me about high school was keeping my grades up and having a lot of different classes and teachers," said Zarco, who participated in MyLife during his freshman year.
"I'd go in there and the people ask if you needed help. They'd give you your own tutor, like parents who volunteered or seniors. It was pretty fun, and it actually did help me keep a 3.0 and above for the whole year, which was great for me."
Caliguiran, whose title is "school site case worker," is actually on the payroll of the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula but functions much like an M-A staff member in her role of anticipating the needs of at-risk students.
She takes her cues from M-A Principal Matthew Zito, constantly adapting her program to address needs identified by school administrators.
"The program could look very different by next year because (Principal Zito) is always looking to reshape it," said Sean Mendy of the Boys & Girls Club.
To further prepare students for the high school transition, Caliguiran this summer is running a "Freshmen Rise Up" at the Boys & Girls Club's East Palo Alto clubhouse.
She counsels the importance of attendance, stressing that once academic requirements are taken care of students can take classes like art, ceramics and theater. She suggests that high school graduation can be a possible stepping stone to college not necessarily a given for teens who often are the first in their families to graduate from high school.
Students play games like the "A-G relay race" to familiarize themselves with the so-called "A-G requirements" for admission to California's public four-year colleges.
For a final project, students reflect on the factors that most motivate them and make a "personal pathway" poster.
Caliguiran said the motivations that emerge vary from student to student.
"Some are very future oriented and they want to go to college and become a doctor or a teacher," she said. "Others say they don't know what they want to be, but they say, 'I want to retire my mom because she works three jobs and I never see her,' or 'I want to be successful because my siblings look up to me.'
"Forward thinking is not intuitive for many of these kids, but, whatever it is for them, we want them to own it and embrace it," she said.
Students leave the program with their own "individualized reference sheets," listing extra support systems in high school and how to access them.
"We offer our own services but also the homework center at M-A or the AVID program at M-A, and we do a workshop on what to do when you need these," she said.
In addition to Compass and Freshmen Rise up, teachers are running two math and science transition programs for students, both on the M-A campus.
Financial support comes from a variety of sources including the Sequoia Union High School District, the Menlo-Atherton Foundation for the Future, the Sobrato Foundation, the Boys & Girls Club and the Ravenswood Education Foundation.
"It's the old 'it takes a village' cliche, but it really does," said retired Intel executive Tracy Koon, who is now a Boys & Girls Club board member and reading tutor.
"We're all after the same thing, and we can't do it alone."
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