Downtown College Prep creates nurturing environment for students

Downtown College Prep’s El Camino Middle School students create set-design concepts for an upcoming theater production. Traci Newell/ Town Crier

Downtown College Prep aims to create a safe learning environment for students, beginning in sixth grade and continuing as they work toward graduating from high school.

This year, Downtown College Prep opened its first middle-school program in the San Jose Unified School District at El Camino Middle School.

“The teachers and the principal enforce the rule of no bullying,” said sixth-grader Fernando Sandoval. “It’s a good community where all the kids can play together, even if they don’t know each other. There is no bullying, and it really is a place where you can feel safe.”

Downtown College Prep schools operate as charter schools in the San Jose Unified and Alum Rock school districts. The singular mission for students, most the first in their families to apply to college, is to be accepted to and enroll in a four-year university – a requirement for graduation.

Over the past few years, Downtown College Prep has expanded its impact in the community by getting students on the college track in sixth grade. El Camino Middle School students matriculate to the Downtown College Prep high school campus.

“What we can do in the middle school is so powerful,” said Jennifer Andaluz, co-founder and executive director of Downtown College Prep.

El Camino Middle School is only in its first few weeks, but the teachers and principal have already created a comfortable environment for students. Before the school year kicked off, students were invited to a summer camp where they had the opportunity to get to know one another.

“We want to make sure that the students have a super-safe, comfortable environment – that is our first focus,” said science teacher Matthew Carney. “Most research says that if the students don’t feel comfortable, they don’t take risks. If they don’t take risks, they don’t take the risk of failing – which is what encourages learning.”

Students said they enjoy the learning style at El Camino.

“The teachers try to give us different activities that we might like and learn better from, instead of writing it down on a piece of paper until we memorize it,” Fernando said.

Student Yahir Cuevas said the school considers a C grade the equivalent to an F, so teachers work with students until they achieve As and Bs.

“They aren’t light on you, but they don’t push you too hard,” said sixth-grader Leslie Fausto. “At my old school, they pushed you a lot. Here, they let you learn at your level and then they slowly encourage you to grow.”

Principal Antonio Cuevas, who previously served at charter schools in Oakland, introduced a unique theater program at El Camino, aimed at bridging the cultural divide for the school’s Latino families. The program includes assigning students to interview a family member who immigrated to the country and turning that interview into a theater piece performed for the school’s families.

“It bridges the gap that Latino families feel in the American school system,” Cuevas said. “It brings everyone together, and the students feel a heightened sense of engagement.”

All Holiday Fund contributions are tax deductible and processed through a donor-advised fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The foundation provides letters acknowledging donor contributions. The Town Crier will present grant funds to the 20 organizations in early 2015.

To donate online, visit

To donate by check, make checks payable to “SVCF/Town Crier Holiday Fund” and mail to 2440 W. El Camino Real, Suite 300, Mountain View 94040.

For more information about the Holiday Fund, visit

For more information about Downtown College Prep, visit

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