For many high school graduates, going away to college can be daunting. But for first-generation students such as Glenda Vargas, of Mountain View, the leap was much more formidable.
"It was super scary," said Vargas, 20, now a junior at Chapman University in Orange County. "When my mom calls and I try to tell her what I'm going through, it's really, really hard to explain." Her family didn't have any idea about things such as tough classes, dorm living, Greek life and her recent role as a resident-assistant overseeing a floor full of freshmen.
That Vargas made it to Chapman and is thriving is due to her own grit and courage, but also to ALearn, a nonprofit math-preparation and college-readiness program tailored to low-income, underrepresented students in the South Bay and on the Peninsula. A math teacher at Crittenden Middle School in Mountain View recommended her for a summer booster session in 2009.
It turned out to be a pivotal experience for the teenager, who commuted on an early-morning bus with her best friend to get to summer school by 7 a.m.
ALearn's Catalyst program offers intensive six-week math instruction and high-school prep for incoming ninth-graders who otherwise might flounder just when they need to feel confident and resolute. ALearn offers similar booster programs for incoming sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
When Vargas took the ALearn class, it was combined with a college-prep program, known as AVID, for students who would be the first in their families to attend college. The program included science, English and community-building.
Vargas passed algebra I that summer and advanced to geometry as a freshman with other high-achieving students. She said she wouldn't have been able to achieve it all without ALearn, which is offered free of charge to students who are recommended by teachers.
"Everything connected because of that summer," she said. "Because I got that boost of confidence in math, I was able to explore opportunities in high school." While at Los Altos High, she tutored math to at-risk Crittenden students, became a leader of the Latino Student Union, completed calculus and was accepted to colleges.
Vargas was set to attend UC Santa Cruz when a visit to Chapman changed her mind.
"The SoCal weather and the friendly people were so welcoming," Vargas said in a telephone interview from the Chapman campus. She hasn't looked back. "I love it here."
Vargas is majoring in education and double-minoring in math and leadership. After earning her bachelor's degree in May 2017, she will continue for a year at Chapman to get a master's degree and teaching credential -- so she can realize her dream of teaching high school math.
She's returned for the past two summers to her Mountain View family and worked as a teaching assistant at ALearn's Catalyst program, to inspire more students like her.
The program is not just a rehash of last year's math class. It offers more hands-on and project learning that's fun, Vargas said. "That really worked for me and my style of learning."
In 10 school districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, ALearn targets students with D-pluses up to Bs, then seeks to launch them to the next level, said Denise Mohsenin, director of programs. The program has a 94 percent student retention rate. In its first three classes, 98 percent graduated high school. And 64 percent completed courses required to enter California's public universities -- compared with just 29 percent of Latino students in the county. Since its founding in 2008, ALearn has served more than 7,900 students.
Demographics make these efforts imperative. Fewer than 26 percent of low-income students complete algebra I, considered a gateway class to college; fewer than 8 percent complete algebra II. Nearly 21 percent of local Latino students drop out of high school. And only 20 percent of African-American and 16 percent of Latino first-generation students graduate from college.
ALearn is hoping to expand its high school program to include mentors and other guidance for college-bound students, and a peer-support group to keep students on track.
"We look at this as a pipeline of continual support," Mohsenin said.
Vargas is creating her own pipeline. She's inspiring a brother to transfer to a four-year college, and a cousin in third grade proudly wears a Chapman sweater.
"Not just for my family, but my extended family," she said. "I'm exposing them to a different life."Return to success stories