Community Connections

Upward Scholars empowers low-income adults through education

Catherine Ramirez, an Upward Scholar student. Photo courtesy of Upward Scholars.

As an ESL teacher at Sequoia Adult School, Palo Alto resident Elizabeth Weal was able to connect with a population of people she never knew before: immigrants whose limited English kept them sidelined in low-level service jobs. “My students had the motivation to tackle demanding jobs such as gardeners, prep cooks and office cleaners, and go to school at night,” Elizabeth recalled. “But they all lacked one thing they needed to move up from the lowest rung of the economic ladder: English skills.”

Helping English learners bridge the gap

While the classes at the adult school were effective in helping students to begin to acquire the basic English skills, to prepare for better-paying jobs, her students had to transition to community college to learn more. And that’s where the smallest challenges could derail their dreams.

“I realized that for my students, even getting a bus pass or having to apply for financial aid was enough to stop them from moving forward with their education,” Elizabeth said. “That’s when a group of teachers, volunteers, and administrators at the school decided to set up an organization to provide them with additional support.”

Enter Upward Scholars (formerly Sequoia Adult School Scholars)

In summer 2011, Elizabeth formed a partnership with Sequoia Adult School and Cañada College and raised funds to help two students transition to ESL classes at community college. Since then her effort has grown into an independent 501(c)3 organization called Upward Scholars that is supporting over 200 learners this year from adult schools throughout San Mateo County.

Upward Scholars celebrate earning laptops.

Fulfilling a range of needs to help students move forward

To fulfill that mission, Upward Scholars provides students with the following:

  • Funding for textbooks
  • Bus passes or parking permits to help with transportation
  • Free one-on-one tutoring with a community volunteer
  • Laptop computer
  • Ongoing support and connection from Upward Scholars staff

All support is provided to Upward Scholars free of charge, thanks to individual donations and grants from local funders such as the Palo Alto Community Fund and the Almanac Holiday Fund. Even a small donation can a huge impact for the students that are connected through Upward Scholars.

Scholars aspire to education beyond ESL

While Upward Scholars is primarily focused on helping adult learners gain higher level English skills needed for employment, some students, like Lorenza Villaneuva, continue past the ESL classes and enroll in AA programs with the goal of eventually matriculating to a four-year university.

Upward Scholar Lorenza Villaneuva is on track to graduate with honors from Cañada College in 2020.

Lorenza first came to the U.S. from Mexico to escape from an abusive husband. While working full time to provide for her daughter, Lorenza earned her GED from Sequoia Adult School, completed Cañada’s rigorous ESL sequence and enrolled in the College for Working Adults.

Lorenza has been on Cañada Colege’s Dean’s list three times, and is scheduled to earn associate degrees in economics, psychology, and interdisciplinary studies in 2020. Then she plans to transfer to a university to study business administration.

For more about Lorenza’s inspiring story, see this video of a speech she gave at a Palo Alto Community Fund event this past fall.

Community tutors provide important support

Elizabeth expanded the program to include tutoring in 2014 when she realized that many students couldn’t take advantage of the free tutoring available at Cañada College due to work and family demands. She has recruited over 60 community volunteers who meet individually with scholars to help with homework, practice English and build a supportive relationship. Over 75% of tutors come back semester after semester, and are grateful for the chance to help their scholars move towards their goals.

Almost one third of Upward Scholar students receive free tutoring from community volunteers.

Upward Scholars also recently launched a “Conversation Club” program, where scholars and community members come together to share stories and help students practice English.

Outcomes prove that a little help can go a long way

Upward Scholars does surveys of its students to assess the value of the program, and the results prove that it doesn’t take much to make a huge difference. One hundred percent (100%) of all scholars surveyed said that Upward Scholars had helped boost their confidence, and 59 percent felt more optimistic about their future thanks to Upward Scholars’ support.

Better English skills also boosts parenting

Almost half of the Upward Scholars are parents, and they report that gaining additional English skills helps them better support their children with homework and other education needs. As for their kids, many of whom are in high school, they are super proud of their parents for working so hard to learn English.

“Parent education programs are essential,” explains Elizabeth, “But if parents are not empowered to interact with their kids’ teachers or help  their kids with their homework,  their kids are at a significant disadvantage. Our Upward Scholars are gaining the language skills they need to be strong advocates for their children.”

How you can help and get involved

All photos courtesy of Upward Scholars

Upward Scholar Alejandro Avendaño quit high school before he graduated, but eventually went back with a dream of becoming a police officer. Thanks to Upward Scholars, he could afford to matriculate to the College of San Mateo and just became a community service officer for the San Mateo Sheriff’s Office.

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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 GreatSchools.org , 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.