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Student Stories

Catalyst Students Paola Cervantes and Glenda Vargas

Catalyst Students Paola Cervantes and Glenda Vargas
Motivated Close Friends

Paola Cervantes and Glenda Vargas are two very motivated and successful graduates of Los Altos High School who jointly attended the ALearn catalyst class together four years ago and are now in college. Paola attends Cal State Northridge and Glenda is at Chapman University.

“No one pushed me to attend the class. I’m very self-motivated and plan to be the first generation in my family to go to college” said Paola. Glenda added “I wanted to get a flavor of what high school would be like and to become familiar with the materials.” Neither had transportation to or from school, so they figured out how to take the 6 a.m. bus each morning and return together in the afternoon. From their perspective, it was “quite an adventure” and they found motivation by treating themselves to Jack in the Box each day after class.

The two girls felt the ALearn class prepared them for high school, both from an academic as well as from a social perspective. Glenda shared “before the class, I hated English and now I can write more competitively” and Paola “loved learning different ways to do Math and participating in timed essays”. During College Day, both enjoyed hearing the college students’ different experiences and what it takes to get into college – they even visited the science department and tried to answer the questions as if they were college students. Both found it easy to adapt to high school because of the new friends they had met in class.

Paola and Glenda were both very active during their high school years with tutoring and student government. In their senior year, Glenda became President of the Latino Student Union and Paola, Co-Vice-President. Glenda was one of four students who received an Eagle Award, to recognize excellence in academics, leadership, and school service. She earned a 4.0 in her first semester at Chapman. Paola has been nominated at CSUN for an Undergraduate Student Training in Academic Research award by the Minority Access to Research Careers program. It is designed to improve her preparation for graduate training.

Both Paola and Glenda have been active promoters of ALearn and we thank them for all their support. Glenda will be joining ALearn this summer as a Teaching Assistant.

Catalyst Student Esmeralda Galindo
From C's and D's to B's and A's

Even though I didn’t know the teachers from the Catalyst to High School/Summer Bridge Program they were still great. For home room I had Mr. Nguyen, a really cool and funny teacher.  For Algebra 1, I had Mrs. Tran and she was a really helpful and patient teacher. Mr. Albers was the director of the program and I really didn’t get to meet him that much but he seemed to be a really good teacher to me.

In Catalyst I got a lot of help from every teacher I had. My Catalyst teachers were there for me when I needed help. In Algebra 1 Mrs. Tran helped me understand every lesson that we were learning. When my teachers saw that my grades were going down they actually had time for me to talk about my grades and how I could raise them.

In Catalyst I got to learn a lot. I was in Algebra 1 during the time. But during Catalyst I was getting prepared to be in geometry for my freshman year by retaking Algebra 1 and passing the exit exam. I got to learn new strategies for math and passed Algebra 1 with an A.

I really loved Catalyst. For me this was a good program where they showed me how high school worked. How the teachers at Overfelt worked with the students and how they really care about you. Catalyst helped me moved on from being a C and D student to become an A and B student.

Finally, Catalyst was one of the best programs I have ever been in during summer. Catalyst showed me how to be successful during my four years of high school. I had a good experience in this program and a good summer. Now that I am in high school I use all the strategies that Catalyst taught me to be successful. I will always remember the good and fun moments I had during Catalyst.

Catalyst Student Ana Jiménez
Math is Now Her Favorite Subject

Even though math wasn't my favorite subject in school coming into Catalyst, the program made me realize that math actually was my favorite subject. Over the summer I realized that math wasn't just numbers and equations, but a subject that is really fun to learn. Also, the teachers were great and the director of the program was very helpful.

Although being part of Catalyst wasn't what I wanted to do for my summer, I still decided to go. I went because my brother told me that it had helped him a lot in math. Looking back, I realize that my brother was right. The program helped me because we spent four hours a day learning math with one teacher, and it was worth it. I was able to ask questions and I was also able to stop the teacher in the middle of class to ask when I didn’t understand the lesson. I recommend Catalyst because it helped me during summer. I passed Algebra which was the math I had to take. If I could take Catalyst again I would because I am still doing well right now in Geometry.

The teachers were the main thing that made Catalyst a great program. They were very helpful to every student. The teachers also made the program fun at times. The director Mr. Albers was also very important to the program because he was the one who motivated and still motivates us to do our best at all times. He inspired us to do the best we could on our tests, quizzes and even in our behavior.

All in all, Catalyst was a great experience for me. The teachers were very helpful. Coming to Catalyst made me realize that I have to do my best in all my classes. It also helped me in my math. Catalyst made me change my thoughts about learning math. And the program wasn't just about learning, but it also was also a program that made me get to know more people and I got to have lots of fun.

MAP Student Sara Palacios
12/12: A Fraction to Love

"Double wow" was what both Sara Palacios, a 7th grader from the Herman Intermediate School, and her mother felt after she was accelerated to Pre-Algebra earlier this year. Sara's acceleration was a result of her participation in the ALearn Math Acceleration Program (MAP) last summer.

Sara struggled in math in elementary school, and her 6th grade teacher encouraged her to attend the summer MAP program. Sara was not anxious to give up summer vacation days to take four hours of math each day. However, by the end of the 19-day program, she showed the highest improvement of any student who had completed the program in the last three years. She went from scoring two out of 12 to a perfect 12 out of 12 in her word problems math module. This was her first “Wow.” 

Sara credits her teacher and teaching assistant for helping her “visualize math better” and encouraging her to ask questions and not be afraid. Her favorite activities were the white board exercises that provided a team environment and helped her make new friends.  

Sara thought visiting San Jose State University during the College Visit Day was "pretty cool." This was her very first visit to a college campus and she's now excited about going to college one day. 

Sara’s mother said “Wow!” when Sara was moved up to Pre-Algebra within a week of starting 7th grade. Today, Sara feels confident about math, is not afraid to ask questions and considers math one of her top subjects.

For those not doing well in math and interested in moving up a math grade, Sara highly recommends the MAP – as her experience proves, “it really works.”

Catalyst Student Milena Lacayo
Leader and Problem-Solver

Milena is a very engaging and creative Junior at Los Altos High School who developed leadership, problem solving and math skills while attending ALearn’s Catalyst to High School program two years ago. These skills increased her confidence and enabled a much easier transition from 8th grade to freshman year. It also pushed her into taking AP courses during her sophomore year and ignited her passion for creative writing and the desire to become an English teacher.

Milena credits being nominated as the captain of the frisbee team as helping her to develop leadership skills. Milena shared that she had “never been the captain of any team previously, nor really into sports and it was an awesome experience”. The other students actually listened to what she had to say which provided her even more confidence to coach her team.

According to Milena “I learned a lot about problem solving skills by participating in both the rocket launching and egg dropping challenges. We had to carefully choose the appropriate materials to use in order to launch a rocket 50’ and in the egg challenge, we had figure out how to protect an egg from breaking as it dropped from a certain height. Of course, having a dozen cookies at stake also helped!”

The students were also introduced to Socratic seminars where they sat in a circle and made up questions about such books as Fahrenheit 451. Milena says “I would have been knocked off my feet in high school if I hadn’t been introduced to this methodology during the summer.” Milena’s math skills also improved. She failed her first test, but when she was given the option to be moved to Algebra or to stay in Geometry and do her best, she elected to stay in Geometry and her math skills went up.

Milena plans to attend USF and become an English teacher. The Catalyst program factored into her decision to be an English teacher by encouraging her creative writing skills which led her to the realization that she was “legitimately good” at writing. Just recently, Milena won her second consecutive award at a school sponsored Poetry Slam Competition, topping last year’s Honorable Mention with this year’s award for Best Overall Poem and Performance. She hopes to have at least one of her submissions published to be eligible for a free copy of the magazine highlighting her peers’ incredible talent.

We commend Milena and wish her continued success!

Glenda Vargas
ALearn Student, Teaching Assistant, and future Teacher

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."

Courtesy of Sharon Noguchi of San Jose Mercury News and Bay Area News Group