Tuesday, Feb 24, 2015
Carol Marks
  • Written by Elena Kadvany, originally printed in the Palo Alto Online on Feb. 21, 2015


    Armed with a recently awarded $885,000 federal grant, San Mateo County is launching a targeted effort to combat truancy and boost graduation rates for East Palo Alto and Belle Haven youth.

    The county's "Students With Amazing Goals" (SWAG) program will launch with 80 students this spring, providing them mentoring, tutoring, vocational training and other supports "outside that offered by more traditional curriculums," a county press release reads.

    The SWAG program is funded by a three-year, $885,000 Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) that the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded San Mateo County in February.

    "Seeing youth attend school and graduate is an important goal countywide but stakeholders say the need in East Palo Alto and the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park is particularly keen," the press release reads.

    High school graduation rates for East Palo Alto students hover around 50 percent, attendance rates fall far short of the district average and suspension rates are 300 percent higher, according to the San Mateo County Office of Education.

    Using 10 program areas ranging from athletics to substance abuse, SWAG aims to reduce the truancy rate by 75 percent for middle and high school students on probation, drop the rate among their non-probationary at-risk counterparts by 50 percent and see a 50 percent high school graduation rate among fifth-year seniors.

    "Imagine having the opportunity to attend college when you never thought you would or being diverted from the judicial system to a positive outcome," East Palo Alto Mayor Lisa Yarbrough-Gauthier said in the release, adding that improved graduation rates can lead to earning a wage that makes self-sufficiency and potentially home ownership in their own community a possibility.

    SWAG will occupy a former community day school at 763 Green St. in East Palo Alto, a site already home to program partners One East Palo Alto and Live in Peace, which offer a range of life skills, recreation and educational opportunities for local youth.

    "The best crime prevention tools we have for at-risk youth are education and wrap around services," Deputy County Manager Mike Callagy stated in the release. "We know when an at-risk youth finishes high school and goes to college or into vocational training, the experience can be life changing."

    The federal grant was secured with help from a steering committee that included Superior Court Judge Cliff Cretan, Sequoia Union High School District Superintendent James Lianides, former Menlo Park Mayor Ray Mueller, Human Services Agency Director Iliana Rodriguez, Pastor Mary Frazier, County Undersheriff Carlos Bolanos, Chief Probation Officer John Keene, Mayor Yarbrough-Gauthier, former East Palo Alto mayor and current Ravenswood City School District board member Sharifa Wilson, Chief Deputy District Attorney Karen Guidotti, Robert Hoover and Heather Starnes of Live in Peace, San Mateo County Private Defender Program Managing Attorney Richard Halpern, San Mateo County District Four Supervisor Warren Slocum and One East Palo Alto Executive Director Dr. Faye McNair-Knox.

    — Elena Kadvany