East Palo Alto students gain coding experience and more

*This was published on page 4 of the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of EPA Today.*

Just because you were born and raised in East Palo Alto does not mean that you are automatically set up for failure. In fact, some think that the struggles are what makes those who live in East Palo Alto possess even more drive and resilience—you can succeed. The Live in Peace (LIP) Summer Showcase and StreetCode Accelerator Demo Day took place on Friday August 7, 2015. LIP’s StreetCode Academy worked with students, including students from East Palo Alto’s Students With Amazing Goals (SWAG) program, to develop mobile applications over the summer.

During his presentation, Bob Hoover, a longtime East Palo Alto activist and resident, introduced SWAG, a program that helps young students in East Palo Alto with their education. Hoover explained that SWAG came to life after a conversation with the city manager and the superintendent of the Sequoia Union High School District in which they spoke about the quality of education in East Palo Alto and Bellehaven. During the discussion, the superintendent pointed out that 50% of the students from East Palo Alto do not graduate from high school. “That just stunned me,” said Hoover. The shocking statistic motivated the three to do something about the dropout rate. So, they worked with the city, county, and school district to apply for a grant.

Hoover proudly said that out of the twenty communities that were awarded the grant money, his collaborative was the only one that focused on educating kids and making them successful. The other communities, according to Hoover, talked about breaking up gangs and putting people in jail. “We have the opportunity to show that you can do something different and that kids understand the importance of it when they have someone to help them sort through all the garbage that goes around,” said Hoover.

The SWAG program did more than just provide a summer of coding for students—It provided support. The program focuses on students who are behind and are lacking the credits to graduate from high school. Hoover explained that the program works on “inspiring young people and motivating them to be high quality students.”

Most SWAG staff members grew up in East Palo Alto and can identify with the struggles that the students are going through now. Erica Hayes, one of the program’s case managers, said, “For me, [there’s] nothing more rewarding [than] to come back and serve my community and help those like they’ve helped me.” Letty Garcia, another case manager, said, “I’m very passionate about community work and basically helping everyone. I’m from here, so I understand the educational turbulence that we all go through.” A third case manager, Paul Teu, added, “We used to be part of the problem and now we’re part of the solution.”

To provide some middle ground, SWAG also has younger staff members known as “Navigators.” One of them, Nico, explained that sometimes it’s easier for the students to talk to someone closer to their age who can relate to them. Another Navigator, Sia Kailahi, confessed that she used to be a “challenging student,” herself. She realized that she needed to make a change and so she helps students facing some of the same challenges that she did.

Many of the students who were present at the event were shy as they came up in front of the audience to say their names and to talk about their goals. Their shyness, however, was met with a sense of accomplishment as the crowd cheered them on. One of the students, named Stacy, talked about the difference that the program has made in her life. “My mind set then and my mind set now, it has improved,” she said, “I would just skip class and surround myself with negativity.”

After SWAG, Stacy can now talk about her goals for the future. She said that she plans on graduating high school, completing the cosmetology program at the College of San Mateo, and majoring in business and marketing so that she can ultimately open her own shop. The program made her realize “I do actually give an ‘f’ about stuff.”

The LIP event continued with a guest speaker, Demetric Sanders, who delivered a motivating speech about his own struggles and accomplishments. An East Palo Alto native, Sanders revealed that he “was born into a family that was plagued with drug abuse.” “I know what it’s like to come from a place where people tell you you’re not going to make it,” he said.

Despite his troubling home life, Sanders earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree from Stanford and is now part of the booming tech industry.

In order to get this far, Sanders said that he had to work hard. When he was six years old, one of his privileged friends had learned how to build a website from his father. “I was pretty upset because I didn’t have a father that could teach me how to build a website,” he said, “Heck, I didn’t even have a computer at home.” Of course, this didn’t stop Sanders from learning code. He checked out a book from the library to learn HTML on his own. Since he didn’t have a computer, he simply wrote down code in his notebook.

Sanders’ anecdote illuminated his incredible drive to succeed—incredible drive that can hopefully be passed on to the students of East Palo Alto. “It’s important to turn our adversities into advantages,” he said, “You have to realize that the color of your skin, your adversities, your experiences don’t make you less of an employee or less of a person or make your skills less important, but instead, they make your skills better.”

Stanford graduate Olatunde Sobomehin asked students and staff members to come forward after the moving speech where they were met by cheers and applause from the audience.

To conclude the event, Hoover said: “The most important thing I see happening here is young people blossoming into incredible human beings. There’s no better feeling and no better place to be than an environment where that is happening.”

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