Kevin Bac Itzep, now a ninth grade grade stidemt at Eastside Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, celebrates his graduation from Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto. He thanks to DreamCatchers from his porch. Photo courtesy of Dreamcatchers.Posted December 18, 2020
Despite limitations, DreamCatchers continue to prepare students for high school
Nonprofit innovates to give students what they need during pandemic
by Lloyd Lee
Leave it to Sarika Lansberg to get middle school kids excited about high school despite it taking place online.
As a senior at Palo Alto High School, she too knows about Zoom fatigue and all the could-have-beens if it weren't for a pandemic. But it's not like Lansberg feels she's been dealt an empty hand — "It hasn't been too bad," she said — and she hopes to help the students at DreamCatchers feel the same way.
"I've always been someone who loves kids," said Lansberg, 17, a volunteer tutor at the nonprofit organization since her freshman year. "I feel like this is something I can do as a high schooler to make a difference."
DreamCatchers helps low-income Palo Alto middle school students get ready to succeed in high school through individualized, one-on-one tutoring and enrichment activities in subjects like music, art and journalism, through which students engage with each other in groups.
"(The) individualized approach is the best approach," said Gezel Frederick, interim co-executive director of DreamCatchers. "It's more focused and students are able to develop a relationship with the tutor, which is so necessary (because) the outcome of the learning is very dependent on that relationship."
But, unsurprisingly, the pandemic has posed a new challenge to the organization that works on a model of close, one-on-one facetime. Students can no longer meet with their tutors or peers in-person at Palo Alto High School, where the program is based. And even the outside summer programs, which the nonprofit typically offers by negotiating free or reduced tuition with sponsoring organizations, were canceled this year.
"As time went by, parents were very concerned about the students not socializing enough," Frederick said. "The other challenge is Zoom fatigue. Most of our students that have dropped out — it's strictly Zoom fatigue."
Lansberg can see it at times in Angle, the seventh-grade student she currently tutors.
"It is very hard during the pandemic because it's not like I can be sitting there with him to read books on a weekly basis," Lansberg said. "Sometimes he doesn't come to a session because he might forget or has something else going on."
Along with issues of student retention, the nonprofit's funding has dropped off as foundations have either refocused their philanthropy toward COVID-19 relief efforts or simply closed up shop due to the pandemic.
"One-third of our funding will close down," Frederick said.
But those hurdles haven't stopped DreamCatchers from innovating or people like Lansberg from helping younger students. The organization has created more resources for its students outside of tutoring and launched its own summer programs that encouraged students to engage more with each other, albeit over their computers.
"One thing we've tried to do is really expand our work beyond tutoring," said Ryan Crowley, a classroom director at DreamCatchers and a senior at Stanford University.
Outside of schoolwork, students are given more opportunities to interact with each other through collaborative online games, such as Kahoot! or skribbl.io, or simply in video chat rooms without the tutors present, to make up for missed social interaction, he said.
And thanks in part to the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund grant of $20,000 this year, students also had the chance to try some of DreamCatchers' new summer enrichment programs, including a book club, persuasive essay writing workshops, muralism projects, a journalism program and, with Lansberg's direction, Project Rise, a program to help rising high school students tailor what their next four years might look like.
Lansberg's idea behind Project Rise came from her own experience as the oldest sibling in her family, where she had to navigate all the resources at Palo Alto High School on her own or through the help of her neighbors. With her four years of experience, now she's easily able to guide her little sister and the students she tutors on what to expect when they enter ninth grade.
Project Rise simply aims to do this with all the rising high school students in DreamCatchers, diving into discussions of the courses and clubs available at school as well as sessions in which they can think about what they're interested in and how to fulfill that interest in high school.
"There are club fairs and different ways to find those resources in high school, but I feel that it's nice to have someone to talk to and talk over what you like so you don't have to do all the research on your own," Lansberg said. "When there's a club list of like 300, it's really hard to get around all of them."
At the end of the eight-week program, the students can kick off their freshman year with a familiar group of peers they can turn to at school.
"We did a little feedback survey at the end and a lot of them thought that it was really good and that they would recommend it to the next class," Lansberg said. "They also thought it would be a good idea to have one or two sessions during the year to have a little reunion."
Frederick said the organization hopes to continue to build robust summer programs in the future, especially ones that will be in-person when the pandemic subsides, by seeking more funding. Lansberg said she hoped that she could expand the Project Rise program to also focus on rising middle school students.
"We know there's a silent poverty in Palo Alto. That is the truth," Frederick said. "We only reached out to our middle schoolers, but we know there are problems beyond that: We know the problem is in high school; we know the problem is in elementary school. What we want to do is to continue reaching out to even more of that population."