News

DreamCatchers helps underserved students achieve academic success

Afterschool program pairs middle schoolers with tutors from Palo Alto and Gunn high schools and Stanford

The air was electric in rooms 1704 and 1705 of Palo Alto High School's science building on a recent Thursday evening. Students from Jordan and Terman middle schools were about to look up their grades.

"I did good on my test!" a dark-haired girl in a purple sweatshirt said, raising her arms in victory.

"Ohhh! Oh no!" a boy exclaimed, half-laughing and momentarily shading his eyes.

For many low-income middle school students, the DreamCatchers afterschool math program is a way out of the scholastic wilderness.

The program pairs each student with a volunteer tutor-mentor from Paly, Gunn High School or Stanford University.

"People are so supportive. This is like a community, and you get a lot of attention," said Eden Frias, a seventh-grader at Terman Middle School.

The boy who had earlier put his hand to his head said he would be lost without DreamCatchers, which he joined two years ago.

"If I wasn't here, my grades would be Fs, or the best would be Ds. They have gone up to Bs," he said.

Anelsy Reyes, a Jordan sixth-grader, agreed.

"They have helped me understand in a better way," she said.

The program offers fun projects to teach complicated math subjects, such as using origami to do geometry and study the concept of area. It also has units on "healthy behaviors" and "building dreams," to help students understand what is necessary to reach their goals. This year DreamCatchers added coding and robotics lessons with participation from the company Palantir, Stanford students and the Gunn and Paly robotics teams.

With assistance from a $10,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, DreamCatchers hired a new program director in 2015: Miguel Fittoria, a Paly graduate who grew up in East Palo Alto and now has a master's degree in human development.

Bilingual and with an understanding of the environment the students come from, Fittoria is in constant contact with parents, building expectations for their children's success. He introduces parents to the online programs Infinite Campus and Schoology, so they can track their child's progress and check their assignments, he said.

The program has started to monitor how the students are doing on quizzes, homework, class participation, tests, projects and overall grades, all of which indicate different facets of the student's learning.

Fittoria is firm but gentle when a student asks when they will get to "play games," such as the coding and robotics they did earlier in the week.

"I thought we would have a fun activity," the girl said.

"You need homework time," he replied.

Fittoria is in near-constant motion. He sits in on four math classes; he talks to counselors; he comes to parent-teacher meetings.

"I want them to see me at school. It helps for them to know that someone is checking on them," he said.

DreamCatchers offers something that other programs can't duplicate, he added: that sense of being a valued member of a community.

"For me personally, I got terrible grades in my freshman year of high school. I worked hard. Then I received a Kiwanis award. It meant so much that someone else in the community valued me," he said.

Now Fittoria wants to push these kids and let them know they are a valued part of the Palo Alto community, he said.

The strategy seems to be working. Students whose grades were Cs now are earning Bs, and some are straight-A students, Fittoria said.

And while the students are benefiting from the program, so are the tutors.

"I've seen the ability of a tutor to empower. This is the most rewarding volunteer work I have done. You get immediate feedback," said Aaron Zelinger, a Stanford senior.

"It's about people. It's about helping them to help themselves."

Donations to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be made at the Holiday Fund page here.

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Comments

32 people like this
Posted by Where's the beef?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 27, 2015 at 9:40 am

I feel good when reading this article because it is a feel-good article. But it does raise basic questions about PAUSD: why do we even need a program like this in a district so rich with resources? We have tons of money. The parcel tax allowed Glenn McGee to order up a bunch of new positions, but why are those needed if our teachers are all highly-qualified and the best that money can buy?

Also, while this program generates a good feeling, does it cause measurable progress? Will we see that progress in the 3rd-8th Smarter Balanced Assessment results in 2016 for these students when compared to the overall student population?


25 people like this
Posted by Just curious
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 27, 2015 at 11:07 am

This appears to be a successful tutorial program.
Hopefully all factors around a family's income and monthly expenses are considered. Many families sacrifice and struggle to live in Palo Alto because of the quality of advantages here including the educational system. My questions: What is the name of the tutorial program to help students not identified by the program as low income? Are the majority in this low income program residents of East Palo Alto here on the Tinsley program? Again, it can't be repeated enough that many Palo Alto residents, including those that bought when houses were significantly less, are working "three jobs" just to pay the mortgages and can't afford much else. Also, if most students in this program are from EPA and get in automatically due to their zip code, remember everyone in East Palo Alto is not low income.


22 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 29, 2015 at 4:13 pm

@ "Where's the Beef?"

You hit the nail on the head - how will this program be measured, and will there be transparency to go along with it?


10 people like this
Posted by Barbara Sih Klausner
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 21, 2015 at 3:45 pm

Some pertinent information about DreamCatchers:

• We are a nonprofit that serves sixty low-income middle school students in Palo Alto Unified.

• Each student is paired with a near-peer volunteer for the school year; they work together every week so that the volunteer can develop an understanding of his/her student’s needs and develop a positive, supportive relationship. The core of our volunteer base and leadership team is composed of Stanford students. It also includes local high schools students and young professionals.

• The criteria for being a DreamCatchers student is family income (e.g., qualifies for Medi-Cal or free and reduced price lunch) and attendance at a Palo Alto Unified middle school.

• Most of our referrals come directly from the guidance counselors at JLS, Jordan and Terman. They meet regularly with the teams of classroom teachers and have a very good understanding of which students might benefit most from a tutor/mentorship program like DreamCatchers.

• We are not a VTP-only program. This year, our students are evenly split between Palo Alto residents and non-Palo Alto residents. What they all share in common is that they attend one of our three PAUSD middle schools.

As for measurable progress, I don’t think you’d get much pushback from the district or other after-school programs to the notion that it is, yes, very difficult to design a program that can claim credit for “progress in the 3rd-8th Smarter Balanced Assessment results in 2016.” Students in our program go to school during the school day and, like their peers, get varying levels of supplementary support. To be clear, some of our students struggle academically, but others are thriving as straight A students.

The challenge that DreamCatchers is trying to address is that these students do not have access to outside-of-school resources that are often a given for many PAUSD families and students -- parents and siblings with college degrees who attended schools like the ones in PAUSD. They understand the when, what and how of providing the appropriate after-school support to help their own children thrive academically. Our families not only do not have the financial wherewithal to pay for private tutoring, they also don’t have the benefit of personal experience to be able to tutor their own children. They provide cohesive, loving and supportive family settings, but many of our parents are neither native English speakers nor college graduates.

When I think back to my own experience shepherding three children through PAUSD, I realize how much informal tutoring occurred around our dining room table and during trips in our minivan. My spouse and I, with our typical-of-Palo Alto multiple graduate degrees (about half of adults in Palo Alto have a graduate degree), had the context and knowledge to gently scaffold our children’s learning in so many different ways – and at so many different times. Much of it was so subtle and nuanced that no one stopped to take note and say, “Now let me teach you something that will build your confidence and pass along knowledge that will help you in school…” Both explicitly and implicitly, we assured our children that their academic struggles were not theirs alone and did not reflect some pre-determined ceiling on what they could master. I would venture that most of our DreamCatchers students have absolutely no inkling of the breadth and depth of informal support that their peers have gotten at home over the years. They just see classmates who seem to seamlessly take in new concepts and skills. I worry that perhaps they have drawn unfortunate and inaccurate conclusions about their own abilities and potential.

DreamCatchers, like many other after-school programs, has an array of interwoven goals that include, but are not limited to, improvements in academic performance. The resource gap that we are trying to fill requires not just providing academic content knowledge, but also reinforcing a sense of belonging and confidence within our students. I think any visitor – and all are welcome – would see that we provide a very safe, very welcoming, very positive social space for students and families to feel like they belong, and are understood and supported.

That all being said, we still hold ourselves accountable for seeing improvements in academic performance. It’s a tough standard to meet for an after-school program that serves primarily to help students get their daily and weekly homework assignments done. We have, however, chosen to focus on math this year. We are collecting a number of data points that include school grades, Common Core mastery based on a computer-adaptive online program, weekly and quarterly survey responses about attitudes and behaviors related to math. This is just the baseline year for building a program that will be designed to churn out that “progress in the 3rd-8th Smarter Balanced Assessment results” that the earlier posts referred to – and that we at DreamCatchers will also use as our benchmarks over time.

True, sustained progress and high quality programming take time to develop and achieve, and we are making a long-term commitment to that goal. For starters, we have a truly stellar group of math educators who serve on our volunteer Math Advisory Board. They include the heads of the math departments at our middle schools, the district leader on Common Core math at the secondary level, and a slew of veteran master teachers, including a recipient of this year’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and an educator who has worked closely with Prof. Jo Boaler at Stanford. With their guidance, we are tailoring our activities, including enhancing our communication with classroom teachers so that we piggyback on the learning that takes place in school, so that we know what our students need to know. We are collecting information and materials from our students’ classroom teachers and sharing them with our volunteer tutors. We hold tutor training sessions to refresh their knowledge of middle school math. Our ultimate goal is to develop a program where tutoring is fully customized to meet the academic, PAUSD-based needs of each of our students, starting with math. We are fortunate to already have in place the key ingredient, which is sixty enthusiastic individual tutors who are eager to help their middle school students succeed in school.

Please come visit our program. We welcome visitors and constructive input. We are always looking for more volunteers who would like to pitch in to share their time, expertise, resources and heart to support sixty energetic, entertaining and engaging middle schoolers and their tutors. All ages are welcome to help with the program.

I can be reached at Barbara@dreamcatchersyouth.org.

Thank you,
Barbara Sih Klausner
Executive Director, DreamCatchers


13 people like this
Posted by You said very little
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 23, 2015 at 11:18 am

[Portion removed.]

Dreamcatchers appears to operate on the deficit model, or the assumption that some kids simply need things, or resources as you called them, so they can be like the overachieving majority in Palo Alto. Nowhere do I see evidence of respect of the gifts, talents, and "resources" that the kids already have, which would include their parents and families, both of which are often undervalued [portion removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Barbara Sih Klausner
a resident of Stanford
on Jul 5, 2016 at 8:36 am

Dear "You said very little" and those who "liked" the comment,

Thank you for expressing your sentiments. It's always very useful to know what others are thinking. Please feel free to come out from behind your anonymity and meet with me and our staff to educate us about how to better approach our community's opportunity gap, or better yet, come and help us with the program. We are a community-based organization. We certainly don't claim to have all of the answers and are always looking to improve our work.

To reiterate from my earlier post, this is the dilemma we are trying to address, which is not to say that it presents the entire picture:

"The challenge that DreamCatchers is trying to address is that these students do not have access to outside-of-school resources that are often a given for many PAUSD families and students -- parents and siblings with college degrees who attended schools like the ones in PAUSD. They understand the when, what and how of providing the appropriate after-school support to help their own children thrive academically. Our families not only do not have the financial wherewithal to pay for private tutoring, they also don't have the benefit of personal experience to be able to tutor their own children. They provide cohesive, loving and supportive family settings, but many of our parents are neither native English speakers nor college graduates."

Barbara


2 people like this
Posted by Barbara Sih Klausner
a resident of Stanford
on Jul 5, 2016 at 8:48 am

I would also like to note that our program director is a bilingual, bicultural resident of East Palo Alto who attended and graduated from the PAUSD system and one of our long-time board members has spent several years researching and getting to know many of the families who live in Buena Vista. They both very much understand and value the resources that our parents and families bring into their children's lives, as do all of us at DreamCatchers.

Again, I invite any and all -- supporters or naysayers -- to come and meet with us, in person, without the cloak of anonymity.

Barbara


10 people like this
Posted by That felt awkward
a resident of another community
on Jul 5, 2016 at 9:24 am

[Post removed.]


8 people like this
Posted by That felt awkward
a resident of another community
on Jul 6, 2016 at 8:59 am

I will repeat my post, but I will censure all the meat of it. Basically, I criticize Barbara Sih Klausners previous posts as condescending to parents of her program and to anonymous posters. I would think the powers of the Town Square and the powers of those who responsibly and irresponsibly click the Report Objectionable Content would welcome basic critical expression. Let me add that every one of us parents have much to contribute to the educational success of our children. I hope I have sanitized this post sufficiently to survive.


Like this comment
Posted by Barbara Sih Klausner
a resident of Stanford
on Jan 17, 2017 at 3:55 pm

To All Other Posters,

I don't think I ever said that parents don't have much to contribute to the success of their children. If my comments appeared to be condescending and not cognizant of the role that parents play in their child's academic growth, health and well-being, then I apologize and am happy to hear feedback on better ways to express my thinking or, probably more to your point, to modify my thinking. But, I also think it's pretty accurate to say that parents -- with language barriers, financial constraints and a more limited familiarity with the path to an American four-year college education in a high-performing school district where some of the important tools to academic success are hidden behind closed doors -- do in fact benefit from and appreciate support in overcoming those barriers. This is true of any parent facing any one of these barriers. DreamCatchers parents tend to face all three, and they join the program because they appreciate the help it provides. Is this part of the deficit model that is not acceptable?

I welcome critical expression. If any of the posters feel like their comments are being censored, and they feel that I have much to learn from them because they are intended to provide constructive criticism, then why not contact me directly? I am always interested in learning from others, but not so interested in just being a whipping post for anonymous sources.

Sorry if that's awkward. I don't claim to be well-spoken on this topic. Your comments have certainly given me pause, in a good way, but only because I was willing to get past the 100% negative tenor of all of the postings. After I attempted in good faith to answer one set of questions, I am challenged on yet another, without any acknowledgment of the prior set of answers. I may not do everything right, but I certainly don't do everything wrong either. Do you wonder why no one wants to talk openly and honestly about sensitive issues? Better to hide behind the silence of misunderstandings?

And yes, I am critical of anonymous posters. I have followed far too many online blogs to expect any positive exchange to come out of this one, unfortunately. But do let me know if you'd like to stem the tide.


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