Graduating seniors from Berkeley High School’s Bridge Program (L to R): Raejean Hightower, Ryen Deloatch, Carl (Neal) Edwards Joshua Butler, Zierre Robinson, Armando Maravilla, Labria Young, and Michelle Resendiz. The program held a ceremony May 27 to present the seniors with sashes. They will graduate June 13. Courtesy: The Bridge Program

Four years ago Armando Maravilla came out of Longfellow Middle school a C-student.  Due to graduate from Berkeley High School next week, Maravilla is now heading to San Francisco State University, planning to study psychology.

How he got from there to here has a lot to do with the Bridge Program at Berkeley High, he believes.

The Bridge Program takes C-students from middle school — about 30 every year — and offers them summer programs, afterschool homework support, and lots of advice, nagging and hand-holding by dedicated teachers. The goal is to keep those C students from slipping, and hopefully make them B and A students.

“It felt helpful – all the advice, the summer programs, the information — how you’re supposed to talk to teachers,” said Maravilla.

In all, the Bridge Program served 114 Berkeley High students this year, most of them Latino and African-American, and most from low-income families. It is one of several programs at Berkeley High meant to address the achievement gap between these students of color and their white classmates.  This achievement gap exists not only at Berkeley High — where black and Latino students are scoring lower on tests such as the state exit exam and graduating at lower rates — but across the country. Closing the gap has been on the national agenda since at least the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Berkeley has enacted the 2020 Vision Plan to narrow the gap.

Efforts like the Bridge Program have made a difference. Two indications: African American and Latino students’ scores on the state high school exit exam and the old Star test have mostly gone up for the past two years.

“The trend lines are all going in the right direction,” said Principal Pasquale Scuderi. “But in certain places they’re not moving as fast as we need them to move (to close achievement gaps).”

That’s why the school — and community groups — run a variety of support programs.

The Bridge Program, founded four years ago, was originally meant to last a few weeks during the summer before freshman year — as a bridge between middle school and high school. But the Bridge’s first teacher, Jessie Luxford, asked if she could follow the kids through their freshman year.  She asked again the next year, and the next.

“The reason I get up in the morning is that I believe in this,” said Luxford, who can talk a mile a minute and overflows with enthusiasm.  “If you give them enough attention and have high enough expectations, and include the family, they can reach those goals.”

Now Luxford’s first class is graduating.  Of 29 seniors, 19 were accepted to four-year colleges — mostly California state universities — and 24 of them were on track to be eligible for four-year colleges as of the first semester this year.  That’s an 83 percent eligibility rate, compared to a 40- to 50-percent rate for the rest of the school’s African-American and Latino students.  The students in the Bridge program have a better school attendance rate, as well.

In addition, most of the Bridge students are earning better than Cs now, said Luxford, and 81 percent took Advanced Placement classes during their junior year.

This year, Luxford worked with the sophomore and senior Bridge classes, while Kate Trimlett and Kimberley D’Adamo Green handled the freshmen and juniors.

Jessie Luxford, coordinator of the Bridge Program, talks to students Antonio Navidad-Franco and San Juana Mejia. The Bridge program services about 30 students in each grade at Berkeley High School in an effort to prepare them for college. Credit: Andrea Tamayo

Every day the Bridge teachers check the kids’ grades and attendance online (on PowerSchool), talk to teachers and counselors and parents, and follow up with the students when they arrive for the afternoon homework program.   For an hour or more after school, the students can work on their homework, or work with a tutor in the room, or get a pass to visit a teacher on campus.

Luxford tries hard to strike a balance between fun and work.  “If it were silent here, no eating, this program would not work.” So she and the other teachers buy snacks with their own money, and there’s a steady stream of chatter in the room, with Luxford regularly calling out things to students like, “not appropriate” and “are we working?”

“She texts us and calls us. She calls our parents.  You have to do it [your homework] and she’ll back off,” said sophomore Jacari Trent, one of eight students who spoke to Berkeleyside.  Seven heads nod in agreement. They don’t love the texts.  But, “the best part,” adds Trent, “is Ms. Luxford. I sort of get my energy from her.” Heads nod again.

“Ms. Luxford is like our mom at school,” said senior Ariana Tamayo.

Luxford earned a master’s degree at Mills College on supporting struggling students. She, herself, remembers the struggle as a child when she moved from a public school to a private one. “I was so unprepared,” said Luxford. “I was terrified of getting help.  I never want kids to feel that way. My heart goes out to students who may find school hard.”

And so she prods almost 60 kids every day, in hopes of seeing them not only go to college, but finish.

The Bridge program costs roughly $125,000 of an overall high school budget of around $20 million, Scuderi said. This year and next, about one-third of the Bridge program is being funded by the city.

The Bridge is not the only program at Berkeley High giving students an extra push to succeed.  Almost another 500 students at the school of 3,200 are getting support from another half-dozen programs: AVID runs a study skills class for promising students who need extra help; RISE, a city-run program provides tutors after school on campus to almost 100 students; and the YMCA’s Y-scholars supports almost 200 more kids, in a variety of Berkeley schools, some at the high school.

Some of the students in the Berkeley HIgh Bridge Program (from left): Armando Maravilla, Jared Scott, Jacari Trent-Pontoon (in green shirt), Karina Juarez, Aia Abushareefh, Yakira Evans, Michelle Resendiz and Ariana Tamayo. Credit: Jessie Luxford

Under another new program, the school has identified the students with the most discipline incidents and is stepping in with extra attention. “It’s nothing super cutting edge,” said Scuderi. “Just more people paying attention to more kids at different intervals.  That’s the spirit of all these programs.”

Perhaps, in part, as a result of these programs, the graduation rate for African American students jumped 6 percent last year from the year before, and increased 10 percent from four years earlier.  (Although the Bridge program can’t get credit for that, as this year is its first graduating class.)  Scuderi said it’s hard to point to one reason for the increased graduation rate, but added “I think we’ve become much more systematic at paying attention to kids who need it, much earlier.”

He hopes that will only increase next year under new guidelines whereby kids coming out of middle school are identified for early interventions.  New funding from the state for low-income students and English Learners (LCAP funding) will pay for a new intervention coordinator and counselor in the fall to work with students doing poorly.  Scuderi estimates that about 10 percent or more of the freshman class this year, who are not already receiving extra support, could use it.

The Bridge program has also expanded within the district.  The three Berkeley middle schools began programs this year for sixth graders, serving 60 African American students (20 at each school). The students attended a one-week summer program, went to a support class twice a week, and were monitored by a coordinator through the year.  Data has yet to be analyzed, but teacher reviews indicated that the students generally did well in school, according to a report from Neil Smith, head of educational services.

Besides the homework support, the tutoring, and the handholding through college applications, there’s one more reason the Bridge Program works, according to Armando Maravilla. “It puts you in the right crowd.”

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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...