The East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring (EPATT) program has long sought to show disadvantaged students new possibilities in life, whether a new sport, better academic skills or a local college. It's also aimed to empower kids to have a voice in their own futures.
So when several students asked about the possibility of touring colleges in southern California, Tennis and Tutoring took action.
"There was a push for it," said Amy Kohrman, program development and communications manager. "They wanted to see what else was out there. Alumni who attended southern California schools would always stop by, and the students kept asking if there was a possibility for them."
This past year, with help from the Palo Alto Weekly's Holiday Fund, seven juniors along with the program's High School Group Coordinator Maribel Zarate and Operations Director Adrian Amaral made the trip, visiting campuses such as the University of Southern California, California Institute of Technology, Loyola Marymount, University of California, San Diego and Occidental, among others. Of the seven colleges visited, students applied for admission at six of them.
"We wanted to help them see more that is out there," Zarate said. "They may never have the chance unless you plant the seed. It inspires them to keep plugging away at school."
The students had to each research a campus and serve as "guide" for that school. Caltech got on the list because one student was matched with it through QuestBridge, a locally based nonprofit that provides scholarship opportunities to students. He applied after the visit.
Zarate, a graduate of University of California, Santa Cruz, is something of a role model for her students. Zarate came to the United States from Central America in the third grade without speaking a word of English. She taught herself the language, becoming fluent by the sixth grade.
Given that the program's student population is 76 percent Latino, Zarate has become a valuable resource as well as a passionate educator.
Tennis and Tutoring began its existence as a tennis program and morphed into an academic program. The program is housed at the Taube Family Tennis Center on the Stanford University campus, and Stanford's Director of Tennis Dick Gould also has an office in the building and serves on the program's Board of Directors.
"He's our biggest champion," Kohrman said.
It was one of Gould's former players, All-American Jeff Arons, who set it all in motion. Arons started a summer tennis program for kids in East Palo Alto to get them off the streets and onto the courts.
While maintaining its tennis component, Tennis and Tutoring rapidly developed into a year-round program to help underserved kids in East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park.
"I helped Jeff get hired by the East Palo Alto Recreation Department at the time to serve as a summer tennis instructor for youth just after he left the Pro tour," Gould said. "He taught after school during the school year and was a pied piper. We put in more courts, and he still filled the courts. It was his idea to add tutoring so that if the kids came to tutoring on Monday and Wednesday, they could play tennis on Tuesday and Thursday, or vice versa."
The program was held at Ravenswood High School and then Cesar Chavez Elementary School for 10 years, until a fire consumed the buildings, and Stanford allowed the facility to be constructed at its current location.
The program's partnership with Stanford resulted in one-on-one tutors. East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring's Tutor of the Year and Stanford graduate student Alina Liao, for example, saw a need to help at-risk and underserved youth. Liao shifted her focus in graduate school to a double major in education and business administration. She's a leader with the Graduate School of Business' nonprofit Challenge for Charity program, helping to develop students' commitments to community involvement and raising funds.
Tennis and Tutoring sponsors its own tournament tennis teams that participate in United States Tennis Association junior tournaments.
"We're not grooming masters, but it's nice to have," Kohrman said. "It gets kids active and teaches them a skill. They learn other things."
Tennis and Tutoring is a kindergarten through high school academic program, and even with five full-time and two part-time employees, along with the hundreds of volunteers, there's a lengthy waiting list. To help expand its impact, the program has developed "Project Rally," which is designed to help shrink the achievement gap in kindergarten and first grade.
Students from six different school districts participate in the program. Most are bussed from East Palo Alto. Kohrman said most students are up early and won't get home much before 8 p.m. every day. Participation is a commitment from both parents and students, some of whom attend Menlo-Atherton, Menlo School, Palo Alto, Gunn and Pinewood.
"Most don't read at their grade level when they enter EPATT and over 70 percent of them are on track to becoming the first generation in their family to attend college," Kohrman said.
The program isn't just about getting kids into college, though. There's a young man with a vision of attending culinary school and becoming a chef. He's getting the support needed to follow his dream.
Kohrman said the high school senior has cooked for Tennis and Tutoring and she gave him a great review.
The program is also as much about educating parents, Kohrman said, many of whom don't understand the importance of a college degree. The parents do, however, fully support the idea of giving their children a better chance.
The program is also dedicated to helping parents understand the resources available, so they can become advocates for their kids. And just as the program gives individual attention to the kids, there's one-on-one parent coaching as well.
More information about the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, including a list of agencies funded this past year and instructions on how to donate, can be found at Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund.