The news at the national level has been grim: tension between urban police and the communities they serve; high schools failing to prepare low-income students for college; and college costs escalating so that students have to work full-time or go into heavy debt to pay for a college education.
Locally, however, there’s much to celebrate. The following story of a recent Los Altos High School graduate shows how the efforts of local police, great teachers, volunteer mentors and generous donors are paying off in helping low-income students carve out promising futures for themselves.
Six years ago, Jose Amaya’s future looked bleak. He was the youngest of eight children, and his parents had just a third-grade education. At home, the family spoke only Spanish. As the only family member born in the U.S. and seven years younger than his next-oldest sibling, Jose often felt lonely and ignored.
Looking for a sense of belonging, Jose tried to emulate an older relative who had joined a gang.
“I tried to make his gang my family by talking, dressing and acting like them,” Jose said.
When he was 15, Jose was caught shoplifting. Fortunately, instead of sending him to Juvenile Hall, the police officer told Jose, “I think you’re a good kid. Go home and don’t do it again.”
The break he received from the policeman motivated Jose to free himself from gang culture. But enrolling in AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) when he entered ninth grade at Los Altos High gave him the guidance he needed to turn his life around.
He said he is convinced that without AVID and the encouragement he received from his AVID teacher, Keren Dawson-Bowman, his science and math teachers and his classmates, he would have ended up in continuation school and a life of minimum-wage jobs.
When he was young, Jose knew he was good at math because it was so easy for him. But because he was hanging around kids who didn’t value education, he didn’t value his own intelligence and academic potential. Participation in AVID allowed Jose to envision himself as a college graduate.
Success in college seemed even more likely when his teachers discovered that Jose had a real passion and talent for math and science.
“Jose is a true scholar,” wrote one teacher. “He gets energized by learning new ideas and is curious about the world around him.”
In Jose’s senior year, the MVLA Scholars program assigned him a new mentor, Bill Mason, a retired math instructor from UCLA. Bill, Jose said, was “with me every step of the way” through the college application process.
Not only did Bill help Jose with his academics and college planning, but he also became a father figure, someone Jose trusted enough to open up to about personal issues he had never shared before.
“Whenever I try to thank Bill for all he has done for me, he just tells me, ‘Pay it forward,’” Jose said.
Paying it forward comes naturally to Jose. In addition to working 30 hours a week to contribute to family expenses, he helps his extended family with child care (including the care of his nephew with autism), mentors freshman AVID students and works with the police to show troubled middle-school students that they have options other than gangs and drugs.
Today this 18-year-old who just six years ago seemed headed for a life of trouble is about to begin college at UC Merced to prepare for a career as a mechanical engineer. The recipient of five scholarships, Jose will be able to concentrate on his studies without taking on the heavy work schedule he had in high school. Moreover, he will graduate debt free.
To all who know him, Jose has proven the accuracy of that police officer’s words. He exemplifies all that being a “good kid” entails. And much, much more.
Jose’s story shows that when determination and hard work are undergirded by a community that provides academic and financial support, low-income kids can beat the odds and overcome the obstacles that prevent so many from realizing their potential.
For more information on MVLA Scholars, visit mvla scholars.org.
Nancy Ginsburg Gill is a Los Altos resident.