Community Connections Schools and Youth

DreamCatchers builds a bridge with Stanford to help struggling Palo Alto students succeed

DreamCatchers Program Director Fairley Dickerson talking with a student at the Paly event in March


A focus on students in Palo Alto who are rarely discussed…

The DreamCatchers Open House at the Paly Media Arts Center shined a light on an almost invisible group of students in Palo Alto schools: kids from low income families who struggle to reach even minimum academic requirements, let alone the high achievement of their peers. Most of these children are Latino and African American and live in households that don’t have the affluence and or college degrees that are the norm in Palo Alto.

The ‘achievement gap’ in Palo Alto is stark

As Dr.Max McGee, PAUSD Superintendent, explained, the outcomes for these students are startling:  Less than half of low-income, Hispanic, and African American students in Palo Alto currently test proficient in high school, compared to 90% of their White and Asian peers.

Dr. McGee stressed the urgency of closing this achievement gap in Palo Alto and quoted from a report called Mind the (other) Gap, saying, “The time is at hand for targeting public policies, private resources, and academic research to help these young strivers achieve excellence and rise as high educationally as their individual talents can take

The DreamCatchers Open House drew a sell out crowd at the Paly Media Arts Center on March 5th

Palo Alto parents, teachers and community members came together to learn about DreamCatchers on March 5th


He also mentioned the PAUSD Minority Achievement and Talent Development Advisory Committee, which began its work in December 2014 and is tasked with developing a list of recommendations for how to better support low income and minority students in Palo Alto.

DreamCatchers leverages free tutoring from Stanford students to help PAUSD kids succeed

The good news is that there is an organization called DreamCatchers that is working to change these outcomes and put low-income middle school students in Palo Alto on the path to success in high school and college. DreamCatchers, which was started in 2008, recruits undergraduate students and recent graduates from Stanford to provide low income middle school students with 1:1 tutoring and mentoring. (Check out this video to see the program in action).

Founder Sarah Mummah shared the story of why she started DreamCatchers when she was a sophmore at Stanford, and how she has sustained it even while pursuing a PhD at Cambridge University as a Gates Scholar.

DreamCatchers' Founder Sarah Mummah

DreamCatchers’ Founder Sarah Mummah

Inspired by the experience of watching the DreamCatchers students thrive due to the attention of their Stanford tutors, Sarah and other DreamCatchers leaders have ‘bootstrapped’ the program despite limited support or help from PAUSD until this year.

DreamCatchers currently works with 60 low-income middle school students, who are referred to the program by counselors from from Jordan, JLS and Terman Middle Schools. DreamCatchers students meet with their tutors twice a week for two hours using free classroom space at Palo Alto High School.

DreamCatchers gives kids academic support their parents can’t provide

At the Open House, DreamCatchers students and parents explained the value of the program in both English and Spanish (with live translation from a DreamCatchers Stanford volunteer), emphasizing that DreamCatchers tutors give kids the academic intervention that their families cannot provide. In fact, 96% of DreamCathchers students say that the program helps them with their homework in ways their parents cannot, and 93% say that their DreamCatchers tutor inspired them to go to college.

This additional academic engagement is crucial, said Dr. Amado Padilla, Professor of Educational and Psychological Studies at Stanford University, who is on the board of DreamCatchers. Drawing on his own experience growing up with parents who were farm workers, Dr. Padillla explained that while low come families intuitively provide emotional support for their children, they lack the resources to give the material and academic support that makes a difference for middle and upper income children in Palo Alto.

A panel of DreamCatchers students and their parents explained how important the program is for gaining academic support and for forging connections to a world of college graduation and professional jobs, which was facilitated by DreamCatchers’ Program Director Fairley Nickerson. A DreamCatchers Stanford volunteer provided translation for the panel and for other parents who attended the event and needed English language support.

Dr. Amado Padilla, Professor of Education at Stanford University and DreamCatchers board member

Dr. Amado Padilla, Professor of Education at Stanford University and DreamCatchers board member

Imagine raising kids in Palo Alto without all the ‘extras’…

DreamCatchers executive director (and former PAUSD school board member) Barbara Sih Klausner asked the Open House attendees to consider what it would be like to raise children in Palo Alto without these material and academic supports, such as summer camps, travel, tutoring, homework help, visits to colleges, etc. The students served by DreamCatchers do not have access to all these extras, she explained, but yet still have to try and keep up with the high academic expectations in Palo Alto schools.

A call to action to the Palo Alto community from Joe Simitian

Santa Clara County Supervisor (and former Mayor of Palo Alto) Joe Simitian closed out the Open House with a moving story of his own days at Paly, when the child of a custodian and the child of the Hewlett Packard fortune shared the same classrooms and the same odds of success.

But, he explained, things have changed in Palo Alto and in many other communities in the Bay Area. Not only has the achievement gap widened but the growth of tech jobs makes the need for higher education more urgent than ever.

That’s why he helped facilitate a $30,000 grant for DreamCatchers from Santa Clara County to match the $30,000 the organization is receiving from Palo Alto Unified School District.

Give to DreamCatchers by April 30 and double your donation

As Barbara Sih Klausner explained, DreamCatchers needs support from the Palo Alto community in order to expand and fulfill its mission to help all 250 low income middle school students in PAUSD reach their full potential. She urged the audience to give time, financial donations and energy to help DreamCatchers, and to take advantage of a $25,000 matching grant from the Nacey Maggioncalda Foundation, which will match dollar for dollar every donation received by April 30th.

To learn more about DreamCatchers or make a donation or sign up to volunteer, visit the website.

About the author

Victoria Thorp

Victoria Thorp

Victoria is the founder and editor of Palo Alto Pulse and has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. Victoria's diverse professional background includes working as the editor of , as a senior writer for KIPP and Teach for America, and as a radio producer for City Visions on KALW (91.7FM San Francisco). She is a graduate of Leadership Palo Alto and a member of the Palo Alto Partners in Education Advisory Board.

She has a BA in English from Tufts University and Masters in Education and Secondary Teaching Credential in English from UCLA.