Every graduation is a celebration, but for the 22 graduates of San Mateo County’s Gateway Community School, the May 30, 2012 ceremony at the Bayside STEM Academy in San Mateo was especially meaningful. These students overcame tremendous obstacles in order to reach graduation day and receive their diplomas.
Gateway School, a community school program of the San Mateo County Office of Education (SMCOE), is a school for students who require a transition program after incarceration, or students who have been referred by their home district due to expulsion or other serious reasons.
“Graduation is a big deal for these students,” said Megan Price, Educational Services Manager of the Court and Community Schools Program. “Along the way, someone told these kids they were never going to make it. But they proved them wrong.”
Some of the students at Gateway are homeless or foster youth. Some get sent to Gateway because they brought a knife to school, were caught fighting, or because they had troubles with drugs and/or alcohol. Some are sent there because they failed to attend school at all.
“For many of them, the education system hasn’t worked,” said Price. “When they come to Gateway, we help them to build relationships with the staff and teachers. We care and we pay attention, and we build their trust; then they gain confidence in themselves and want to perform.”
In addition to the academic program, students benefit from the outside services of Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY) and the Cleo Eulau Center counseling interns who provide individual and group counseling. Cleo Eulau also provides counselors at the high schools throughout the Sequoia Union High School district for students who return to comprehensive high schools from the SMCOE programs. Gateway has its own garden, and the students have the opportunity to work there and learn about gardening and nutrition. The school has also been piloting online learning and Restorative Justice programs.
The 17th District PTA adopted the school. Volunteers led by liaison Lori McBride, who was present at graduation, started an online fundraising program and raised more than enough money for class sets of books and art supplies.
“With thanks to volunteers who donated generously at Woodside and Carlmont High Schools, and Taylor Middle School, we accomplished our fundraising goal,” said McBride. “We wanted to get the word out about these students, go to their school and see how the program works. After all, it’s the PTA’s role to advocate for all kids.”
At the graduation ceremony, student salutatorian Nicole Tran encouraged her fellow graduates to have balance in their lives and follow their dreams.
“We’ve learned the importance of our education,” she said. “Many of us have had to overcome adversity to get to where we are. Now that we are adults, it is our responsibility to take action and change our paths.”
Tran is now attending the Art Institute of California in San Francisco, studying culinary arts. She hopes someday to be a famous chef.
Other graduates of Gateway plan to go to college, trade school or begin work. One recent past graduate became a supervisor of maintenance for a local bus company. He came back to Gateway to talk to students and inspired them to succeed.
Rod Hsiao, President of the San Mateo County Board of Education, addressed the students, as did several other dignitaries including: Megan Price; Joan Rosas, SMCOE Associate Superintendent, Student Services; Stuart Forrest, Chief, San Mateo County Probation Department; and Anne Campbell, San Mateo County Superintendent.
Hsiao advised the students, “Graduation is the culmination of a lot of work. It’s okay to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them.”
He then told the story of George Crum, the inventor of the potato chip. In 1853 Crum worked in a restaurant and made some French fries that came out too thick, so a diner complained. He then sliced the potatoes ultra-thin, fried them to a crisp and added more than enough salt to make a point. The diner loved them and the potato chip became a hit.
”We are all rooting for you,” said Hsiao. “As you bite into your next potato chip, remember what deliciousness can come from your mistake.”