100%: the percentage of Eastside graduates who have been admitted to four-year colleges since our founding. It’s a number we are proud of, but it definitely isn’t a given.
It would be easy to assume that Eastside is a prime destination for only the top students in East Palo Alto. The ones who have already set their sights on college, and just need a school that can help them get there.
But the idea that Eastside only admits the very best students is a misconception that ignores the deep diversity among our entering freshmen, who come from a wide variety of schools, family backgrounds and bring with them a range of academic preparation.
Who gets in?
Like most independent schools, Eastside has an application process. However, unlike most of these schools, the team that assesses these applications is not looking for the top performers. Instead, by reviewing family financial data and educational attainment histories, our admissions team focuses on those students who will most benefit from Eastside’s program. As a result, we admit students with a wide range of academic abilities, and we know that most of our students will struggle to meet the demands of our curriculum.
While some students apply because they’ve heard about Eastside from a family member, many don’t hear about us at all until Principal Chris Bischof presents to their middle school. Each fall he visits middle schools in East Palo Alto to talk to eighth graders about the benefits of attending Eastside.
“Because we do not have a lottery like a charter school, we have greater flexibility in our admissions process, and in fact we often turn away higher performing students to take students for whom Eastside will make a greater difference in their lives,” says Chris. “Our mission is to serve students who will benefit most from our program, and so we intentionally seek to identify and admit students who will be the first generation in their families to go to college and who have the fewest resources.”
All boats rise
One advantage to having a heterogeneous student body is the lower-performers benefit from being around the stronger students. This concept speaks to the idea that everyone benefits from diversity: the students who rely on their peers for encouragement and those who gain confidence and leadership skills by helping.
When Eastside’s newest students begin our Summer Bridge program, the evidence of a diverse freshman class is clear. The program is a six-week course including literature and math, a financial literacy seminar and high school prep, which provides students with strategies for managing their time and workload effectively, developing key organizational skills, and helping them set goals for a successful year. Taught by Eastside faculty, the Summer Bridge program allows our teachers to assess students’ abilities and skill levels and helps students begin building essential skills.
Cal Trembath, who teaches junior Writing for College and sophomore U.S. History during the school year, also teaches literature during the summer. A key goal during Summer Bridge is to introduce these new students to Eastside’s expectations and to recognize signs that someone may need additional resources once the school year begins.
“The gaps between our highest- and lowest-skilled students are particularly noticeable in Summer Bridge. I have students in who can write 5-paragraph essays on their own, with poignant and thoughtful analysis about literary themes and characterization in a novel,” he says. “At the same time, I have students who still struggle to write in complete sentences, or have trouble sustaining attention on a 10 page reading.”
Many students also get anxious early on about the amount of homework. Some say they have never had to regularly turn in work, or if they did it was just checked for completion. Some are also surprised to find that if an assignment doesn’t meet a teacher’s expectations, they will be asked to revise the work until it does.
“The criteria I use to evaluate their need for more resources include things like writing gaps — at either the sentence-level or with larger assignments,” says Cal. “I also look at their stamina: how accustomed are they to being attentive, engaged, and curious in the classroom?”
But the biggest indicator that a student may struggle with Eastside’s curriculum is how likely they are to seek help when they need it. “This is the big one. Those who proactively ask for help or feedback tend to be very successful in Summer Bridge, and at Eastside in general. Those who hide from that help in the summer are the ones I end up being most concerned about.”
Many layers of support
So where do students who enter Eastside academically behind get the help they need? All of Eastside’s faculty members are committed to going above and beyond to make themselves available to our students. But in addition to tutorial periods and conversations outside of class, students have access to math and humanities resources classes and individual tutoring.
Heather Renfro teaches our humanities resource class, which helps to bridge the gaps between those students who enter Eastside under-prepared and their peers. Each year Heather begins the class by asking the students to fill out a survey about their strengths, areas for growth and goals with respect to organization, reading, writing, and time management. She works with each student individually, looking at their daily planner, consulting on homework assignments and providing the space for them to work through their challenges.
“Because I see their work in each class, I quickly learn what kinds of support each student needs and can tailor my attention to those areas,” she says.
Throughout the year, Heather spends the first ten minutes of each class on instruction: clarifying assignments, discussing any upcoming projects or tests and talking about effective study strategies. The rest of the time is spent circulating among the group as each student works on History or Literature assignments independently. She pays close attention to each student, knowing that they all have unique strengths and challenges as they approach their assignments.
“For many of the students I work with, the workload at Eastside is hard to keep up with,” says Heather. “Many students aren’t used to doing much sustained work outside of class. Those students may not have used a planner to write down assignments before, are not accustomed to studying for tests, or revising work to get it right. I work on helping them build up the grit, persistence, and mindset that all the work is worth it.”
In addition to resource classes, students have access to tutors from the community who can help with specific subject areas. Each year we welcome as many as two dozen tutors who help serve anywhere from 50-70 students – helping them master the material and keeping them on-track in their respective subjects.
In addition to fostering a college-going culture, Eastside teachers and staff promote a culture of support. From extended school days with tutorial periods, to evening computer lab hours to tutoring and resource classes, there is no shortage of ways a student can seek help. These systems allow us to serve as a game-changer for our students, many of whom enter with significant learning gaps and few student skills yet ultimately achieve their dream of earning a college degree and launching a professional career.