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ALearn students pay it forward, return as teaching aides


Courtesy of Kathryn Hanson
Adriana Sanchez and Salvador Chavez hoist a welcome sign for graduates of the ALearn program, which prepares underrepresented students for college.

First-generation college students Adriana Sanchez, Salvador Chavez and Valeria Dominguez can testify to the success of the nonprofit ALearn, which prepares underrepresented students for college.

When ALearn launched its first summer program in 2008, Sanchez was hired as a student teacher during the summer of her junior year, while incoming freshmen Chavez and Dominguez were enrolled as students. Today, these “ALearners,” all graduates of the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, are not only working on completing their college educations, but they also have returned to the program as teaching assistants.

“I decided that the best way to give back to the program was to come back and help, to come back to where it all started for me,” Chavez said.

ALearn, founded in 2008 by Los Altos resident Kathryn Hanson, offers four programs in 12 school districts in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. It is an annual recipient of the Town Crier’s Holiday Fund.

The hard road

The road from middle school to college isn’t an easy journey for ALearn students. Sanchez returned to assist with the ALearn Catalyst program, which focuses on math skills and college awareness in preparation for the high school-level curriculum.

“I know how it feels to be in their shoes,” she said. “I know how it is to be struggling in school, to be struggling in math. I always needed that help, but I never had it.”

Sanchez graduated from Los Altos High School in 2009 and attended Foothill College for three years before transferring to Santa Clara University. She admits that her educational journey has been difficult, simply because she didn’t have someone to emulate.

“I’m like a role model to them,” she said of ALearn students. “It’s great knowing you had that influence, especially for minority students who don’t have that role model to look up to. … Us being here means a lot to them. They get to feel connected with us because we’ve been through that recently.”

For Chavez and Dominguez, whose first experiences with ALearn were as students, the Catalyst program was more than a jumpstart on their freshman year – it gave them the opportunity to build their confidence before braving the intimidating halls of high school.

“As a student, ALearn impacted me in the way I saw myself,” Chavez said. “I went into the program not very confident in the person that I was – I was always the student sitting in the back. The program pushed me out of my boundaries, it put me in a place that I wasn’t very comfortable with at all. I had to interact with other people, I had to ask teachers for help, and I wasn’t used to doing all that.”

The ALearn program had a similar effect on Dominguez.

“I was really shy, and making new friends from different schools was the best thing that happened that summer,” she said. “I still talk to all of them today. The amazing thing is that we all have something in common – we’re all the first generation in our families to go to college.”

First-generation students

According to Sanchez, Chavez and Dominguez, ALearn encourages students to forge connections with their peers, fostering individual growth and development and preparing them for college.

Over the course of six weeks as a teaching assistant, Dominguez noted the development of her students, from constantly asking the teacher for help to learning how to communicate and help each other.

“That’s what they gained the most, I think – confidence in math, confidence in themselves,” she said.

Chavez said he learned the value of education through the program.

“I decided that education was the best thing for me, and that it was going to bridge a better life for me,” said Chavez, an occupational therapy major at Dominican University.

For more information, visit alearn.org.

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