A group of people pose for a group shot in front of a mural that has Natives in Solidarity on left side and Black Lives Matter on the right
RISE staff and four students in the program’s classroom. Credit: Ally Markovich

A nonprofit that has operated out of Berkeley High School for over a decade is threatening to close up shop unless the school district starts contributing money to grow the program, which helps about 100 low-income students access higher education each year.

RISE has a track record of getting students from marginalized backgrounds to college. In the last three years, every one of its students has enrolled in two- or four-year colleges, ranging from Berkeley City College to UC Berkeley to Howard University.

Woman sits at desk in school classroom with papers in front of her and Natives in Solidarity poster behind her
Adriana Betti has worked at RISE since 1998. Credit: Ally Markovich

But Adriana Betti —  who heads RISE along with two case managers, Wardell Myles and Javier Rebollar — said the program, which receives most of its funding from the city of Berkeley, has become unsustainable. As the cost of living has risen and money from the city has declined, it’s become too difficult for the trio to keep the ship afloat.

“We’ve made the painful decision that… if the school district doesn’t fund us, that we will close our programs down,” Betti told the school board at a May 3 board meeting.

“Why don’t you fund programs that have shown a track record since 1976, that have been successful every year?” Betti asked. (RISE became its own nonprofit in 2013, though its origin story dates back to youth advocacy in 1970s Berkeley.)

Though it serves only BUSD students, the district doesn’t directly fund RISE out of its general fund, though the school district allows the nonprofit to operate out of a high school classroom at no charge and the program received $30,000 this year for academic mentors from BSEP, a parcel tax measure that provides 17% of the district’s budget.

This year, RISE operated on $260,000, not enough to pay its staff Bay Area wages and benefits, Betti said, and cover fees for 19 academic mentors. Now, Betti is asking the district to provide $234,114 and another $30,000 from BSEP. With a $483,000 budget, RISE would hire two more case managers and serve another 90 students.

“We have waiting lists of people trying to come in,” Betti said. Bridge, another popular program at Berkeley High geared toward preparing low-income students for college, is also oversubscribed. (Unlike RISE, Bridge receives funding from the school district.)

The budget won’t be decided until June, but so far, it looks possible that RISE will get more funds to expand. At a school board meeting May 3, $240,000 for two more case managers made it onto a list of items slated to be added to the general fund and several school board directors expressed support for the program, saying that it could help the district meet its goals for raising the achievement of Latino and Black students.

School board director Ka’Dijah Brown said she was excited to “ensure that the funding continues for that exceptional program in our district.”

“We have a lot of programs and not a lot of data to see what works,” said school board director Jennifer Shanoski. “This is a program that we know is helping close the opportunity gap. If we have a program that’s working, there’s no need to hire outside consultants.” 

RISE’s origins date back to 1970s

Two young Asian woman are talking with one another. The photo is grainy and in black and white.
Asian Youth Center workers Nancy Ikoma and Kim Kita in 1979. Credit: Berkeley Gazette

RISE’s roots in Berkeley date back to 1976, when a group of students created the Asian Drop-In Center to provide a community space for Asian youth. The program evolved into the Berkeley Asian Youth Center and later began serving the entire East Bay, providing support for newcomers from Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The program transformed several times over the next 20 years. In the ‘90s, it focused on youth impacted by gangs. That program eventually became RISE, which split off from its parent organization, East Bay Asian Youth Center, in 2013.

The program now focuses on academic support and college prep for primarily Black and Latino youth, as well some Native American, Arabic and Asian students. The program offers wrap-around services that include academic coaching for students, support for families and social services. Staff rattled off examples of numerous times they helped translate for families who called them in moments of crisis or delivered food to families’ doorsteps.

Winta Tesfaldet, a Berkeley High senior, said RISE prepared her to apply for college and walked her through the process. “I had friends [who are not in RISE] who have really suffered, especially this year, sadly, with applying to schools. They did it pretty blind,” she said.

Students in RISE often have a rocky time in school, their experiences marked by the death of parents or friends, hunger, work needed to help pay expenses at home, struggles with immigration and more. RISE case managers see it as their job to help students get through these experiences while pushing them out of their comfort zones.

Sanusi Signateh, the oldest of eight kids, took a robotics class because Myles forced him to; now, he plans to study to be a computer science major.

“I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t for RISE. I don’t think I’d be in school,” said Alessandra Leon, a senior in RISE who called Rebollar her “school dad” and Betti her “school grandma.” “If you want more people who look like me — more people of color — to go to college, you need to keep this program.” 

Over the next six weeks, district staff will establish priorities for the budget and wait for more direction from the governor on what education funding will look like next year. Initially, the district financial officer expected the district not to cut programs, but now it’s possible that the budget will shrink. 

The final district budget will be approved at the end of June.

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...