January 30, 2013

This posse saves lives, helps students THRIVE

The posse formed at San Marcos High School, in partnership with La Cumbre Junior High School, saves lives one family at a time.

Actually, there are two posses right now, en route to four.

This remarkable partnership, coordinated by La Cumbre Junior High School Principal Jo Ann Caines and San Marcos High School Principal Ed Behrens, stands as a model that could be replicated anywhere, with long-lasting and important implications for under-represented students.

The partnership goes beyond the traditional interaction of courses and curriculum by providing ongoing identification and support for students. It targets high achieving students, from under-represented backgrounds, who need additional support to become college-bound.

Let me start at the beginning.

THRIVE Santa Barbara County, which funds the Posse Program, was created in 2009 through a collaboration of private and public funders, First 5 Santa Barbara County, school districts, community and public agencies, and community members, who wanted to tackle the complex issues impacting school success from cradle to career.

Several THRIVE programs are already making a substantial difference for young people countywide: Carpinteria, the first THRIVE effort, has met with remarkable success. Other THRIVE programs are operating in every corner of the county, from Isla Vista to Guadalupe and points in between. Funding for THRIVE comes from private and foundation sources.

The Westside THRIVE’s Posse Program, based on a national posse program that identifies the best educational practices, features the proactive junior/senior high school partnership. The Student Success Pathway starts with students being identified in seventh grade based on several benchmarks: They must be on track to complete algebra in eighth grade and be reading at least on grade level in English, for example. They must have good test scores, class grades, and good citizenship.

Many students from low-income, under-represented backgrounds are good academic students in the elementary years, but when they hit junior high, things can change for the worse. Before that happens, this program provides identified students with high-end tutoring and other support resources before school, at lunchtime, and after school.

A strong parent support component is also provided, through PIQE, Parent Institute for Quality Education, because many of these students might have higher English and academic skills than their parents. PIQE teaches parents about the A-G requirements for entry into University of California campuses. It teaches them how to be advocates for student placements, and provides college fiscal literacy, along with showing how to mentor and encourage their children. Through a partnership with Partners in Education, the students are provided with three career days through the year, where they are exposed to different careers and hear about the importance of reading, math, and other academic skills for specific professions.

At the end of eighth grade, the 120 students who have taken part must be pared to 35. It is a heart-wrenching process for all involved, but funding at the next level only allows for a cohort of 35.

In the spring of the eighth grade year, a San Marcos team comes to the junior high to meet with the students and parents and explain what the next years will hold. A summer bridge program is taught by a La Cumbre teacher, in coordination with the ninth grade Honors program at San Marcos.

These students will become part of the larger AVID program at San Marcos High, Advancement Via Individual Determination. Then, small “posses” are formed of eight to 10 students, taking high-level classes like Honors Geometry together, for mutual support.

Each posse cohort has three academic advisors hired to work individually and in depth with the students, meeting each one weekly. The advisors are graduates of La Cumbre and San Marcos schools, also from the AVID program, who are currently at Santa Barbara City College. They have “walked the walk” and are extremely dedicated.

The AVID coordinator helps coordinate communication among teachers as well.

The posses come back every week to meet together at La Cumbre Junior High because that is near where they live, and is a comfortable familiar setting. They talk about issues and solve problems that are academic or social or emotional. They talk up the college experience and help keep the students focused.

The program coordinators say most satisfying of all is to see these students enter junior high timid and shy, and then see them in high school confident and focused, “ready to slay the dragon.” Students in the higher-level posses provide encouragement to those who follow, serving as great role models, giving back, and helping create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For years in the past, school leaders have seen many under-represented students graduate from high school with the skills to go to college, who did not do so. Some students arrive with cultural and economic deficits, but not academic ones.

The Posse Program is in its second year; in four years 150 Westside Latinos will be on a trajectory to college. This is a partnership to celebrate and replicate.