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.