Over the past decade, demographic changes in the Bay Area have become impossible to ignore. Gentrification has displaced low-income families of color from the neighborhoods they called home for generations, and Contra Costa County has seen some of the most dramatic effects of these shifts. A recent study led by UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project indicates that Contra Costa County saw a larger increase in low-income residents of color than the Bay Area as a whole, with growth concentrated in East County cities like Antioch, Pittsburg, and Bay Point—areas that the study also shows to have some of the lowest resources and access to opportunity in the county. As part of a broader strategy to address these disparities across Contra Costa County, Making Waves Foundation (MWF) has launched a new pilot partnership with Pittsburg High School (PHS), which includes college access programming and the opportunity for PHS students in need to apply to MWF’s college success program (CAP).
In partnership with the Pittsburg Unified School District (PUSD) and Pittsburg High School (PHS), MWF’s CAP program is providing a series of college-readiness workshops to all PHS seniors and has accepted 22 graduating seniors into their program to receive ongoing financial and coaching support from CAP’s college success program. In this first year of the Pittsburg partnership, CAP has offered three online workshops open to PHS students and families: “Life After Graduation,” about finding and preparing for the post-graduation path that’s the best fit; “Navigating Finances,” focusing on personal finance, financial aid, and healthy debt; and “Career Readiness,” covering strategies like resumes, networking, and interviews.
The CAP initiative in Pittsburg is led by Coaching Services Manager Dr. Kristina Wright, who credits her team with helping to plan and implement the programming: Operations Manager Lauren Fong, College Coach Rosie Simpson, and Financial Services Coordinator Victoria Kupu. The CAP team worked closely with PHS’s college counselors and principals to design programming that would support the school’s goals and initiatives already in place. “I have really enjoyed our hands-on partnership with the counseling team at PHS. The work that they’re doing with their students is exceptional already,” Dr. Wright says. “With a school population of more than 3,500 students, they have an extremely large pool of seniors that they’re working with to talk about preparing for and applying to college. We wanted to be a support to that work, and really ask, ‘What are some areas you wish you could talk more about?’” Mariel Duran, one of two college and career center technicians at PHS, says, “From the beginning, the word ‘partnership’ has had a great meaning. Dr. Wright came in and acknowledged that CAP was by our side and not going to step over the programming that we already have in place. Instead, they wanted to fill in the gaps.”
Dr. Wright emphasizes that CAP and PHS are working together to get students to and through college. Some of these strategies are included in CAP’s workshops, but intensive college success support will also be provided to the first cohort of students accepted into the CAP Pittsburg program. These students, admitted to CAP by application, will receive need-based scholarships and one-on-one support from a college coach and a financial services coordinator for up to five years of their college careers. PHS College and Career Center Technician Synitha Walker has especially appreciated “the time and attention the CAP team has put into their work with the students.” She says, “Having specialists that meet one–on–one takes a lot of work. It has helped us to ensure that we are able to help as many students as possible reach a post-secondary experience.”
These one-on-one supports can make all the difference, especially for first-generation college students from low-income families, whose parents may be unfamiliar with the college process. Navjot S., a PHS senior newly admitted to CAP Pittsburg’s first cohort, explains, “As a first-generation college student, I don’t have many of the resources needed for college. CAP will help me fill in these gaps by providing financial assistance and guidance in my journey to get the education I have worked so hard towards since the day my family moved to the United States.” Aaliyah W., another new Wave-Maker from PHS, thinks the social-emotional support offered by coaches will be especially important for her success: “I know I will benefit from having a CAP coach as an extra support system to be able to help me when I’m struggling. A lot of times, when I am lost or confused it’s a little hard for me to ask for help, but as long as I know I have that support it makes me more open to asking for the help I need.” In addition to having a deep impact on the lives of students, MWF’s Pittsburg program is allowing CAP to innovate and experiment in how best to integrate their college success model within a school–district partnership. For example, CAP Pittsburg students are being connected with both their college coach and their financial services coordinator as soon as they are accepted into the program in the spring of their senior year, while previous CAP cohorts first met their coach closer to the beginning of their first semester at college. This will allow coaches to help students decide which college is the best fit for them—academically, financially, and socially. And then once they make their decision, Dr. Wright says, “We can immediately start talking: ‘What is your education plan going to be? What classes might you take in the fall? What are your summer plans? Do you want to get an internship to start building that resume now?’ We haven’t been able to offer that kind of support from the beginning, before they’ve graduated high school. I’m excited to see how this will really help students transition to college as well as help to avoid that summer melt, where some students end up not starting college after all.”
For Dr. Wright, leading this partnership with a Contra Costa County public school district has a personal resonance. She grew up in Richmond, and attended elementary, middle, and high school in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, schools serving primarily students of color that she says felt similar to PHS, except that at that time her high school did not offer comprehensive college access support. “There was not a college fair, or someone in the counseling office helping you apply to college and understand the process. For me, college was almost like a fluke.” Without that support, she initially enrolled in a college that was not a good fit—academically, socially, or financially—and she had to start the process over, first by attending community college then transferring to San Francisco State, where she received her BA after a six-year process. During that time, she began to work in Making Waves’ afterschool education program, and she now says, “Being around the students, talking to them about college, was ultimately what really motivated me to keep going, because I saw them looking up to me as somebody from their community—from their neighborhood—going to college.” After graduating college, Dr. Wright continued on to graduate school, eventually earning a master’s degree and a doctorate in education.
Working in Pittsburg, Dr. Wright says, “It’s been special to be able to share my own experience with these students—with being first-generation, not really understanding the process for college, even dealing with the reality of leaving your family.” Dr. Wright sees this work as an important reminder: “There are so many deserving students through all of these different districts—in Pittsburg Unified, in West Contra Costa. That’s why this partnership with Pittsburg has been so meaningful, because they’re all deserving of an opportunity. We have to find ways to reach them and support them, because they’re all amazing, and they’re going to do really great things in the future.”