BY KARA SHOEMAKER | February 4, 2021
As SBF works to share language and culture in Santa Barbara County, we want to note that in the African American/Black community some individuals identify as one, the other, or both. In this article, we will use both to properly represent this community.
“As a young person in high school, a teacher told me, ‘I don’t think you are really college material.’ He looked at my PSAT score, gave me a brochure for a secretary school, and he said, ‘Your people have done really well there.’ That was rough,” shared Connie Alexander. “Growing up as a woman of color, I experienced not having certain access – so for me personally, this is about creating a direct path and access for young people of color.”
While this interaction between Alexander and her teacher happened many years ago, students of color still struggle to access a college education. Research shows evidence of systematic bias in teacher expectations for African American/Black students, and non-Black teachers were found to have lower expectations of Black students, compared to the expectations of Black teachers which can hinder gateways to opportunities for African American/Black students. Additionally, African American students are often concentrated in in schools with fewer resources and are less likely than white students to have access to college-prep courses. Connie Alexander and her colleague Audrey Gamble, the Co-Executive Directors and founders of Gateway Educational Services, are taking action to help students of color in Santa Barbara County attain higher education.
“Gateway came to be out of an unaddressed need in the community,” shared Gamble. “I started in education years ago under a different platform, and that platform did not work based on the needs in Santa Barbara. The price point was too high, and it left a lot of people without access to education. With the help of Connie, we transitioned to a nonprofit platform to raise money for those students who are underrepresented in this community.”
Established in 2009, Gateway Educational Services is Santa Barbara County’s only nonprofit learning center. Programs include assessment-based reading and math intervention, college readiness programs, and academic summer camps. But Gateway is more than just a program for students. It engages the parents, and builds close relationships with families that often span a student’s academic career.
“We have a [high school] senior who came to us in third grade. They wanted to hold her back because she was so far under that the graph looked upside down, but within eight months’ time, we had her performing at above average. The teacher went running across the schoolyard to show her mother,” shared Alexander. “Now she’s a senior in high school and we are assisting her in applying for college and being accepted. We made that promise to her as a third-grade girl. That’s the kind of partnership we focus on in terms of working with families – it’s that deep. When we talk about Gateway families, that is what we mean.”
Today, there are sixty-four students (and their families) in the Gateway program throughout Santa Barbara County, and they are preparing to take on more. Gamble and Alexander are expanding Gateway services in Lompoc with support from a $35,000 grant from the Santa Barbara Foundation, in partnership with the Clifford and Bernadette Silliman Family Trust. This grant will allow Gateway to bring twenty Black/African American students into the program during the 2020-2021 academic year.
“We are thrilled to fund the work of Gateway,” shared Petra Gomez, Program Manager at the Santa Barbara Foundation. “Connie and Audrey are doing impactful work in our community and their successes with students, commitment, and passion are evident. Their work is much needed for our community in Lompoc, for the families and students. It’s an investment that is changing children’s trajectory in life.”
Lompoc Unified School District (LUSD) has the highest percentage of African American/Black students in Santa Barbara County. At the same time, according to the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress the average school performance of Lompoc students, and particularly Lompoc students of color, is significantly lower than that of students in surrounding districts. The funding level for Lompoc is also lower than neighboring districts. The closure of schools due to COVID-19 is expected to result in a widening of the achievement gap. Students from low-income families and students of color are suffering more, on average, as a result of the pandemic than students from upper- and middle-class families and white students, which leads to an increased gap in academic outcomes.
Gateway plans to change academic outcomes and create a clear pathway to college for Lompoc students by providing early outreach and mentorship from tutors who are first-generation people of color (African American/Black and Latinx). While tutoring must be done virtually, Gateway will engage parents and provide valuable workshops that include FAFSA and other grant and scholarship opportunities, A-G requirements (high school courses required by UC and California State universities), and story sharing/student panels. Gateway is also partnering with the Lompoc Unified School District.
“Lompoc Unified’s focus is on student achievement and helping students reach their potential,” said Bree Valla, Deputy Superintendent at LUSD. “By partnering with Gateway Educational Service, we can not only ensure that all students are successful and get individualized support, but can also provide parents with tools so they too can assist their children. We are excited to partner to provide more opportunities for our students and families.”
By taking a holistic approach that embraces children early in their academic career, and engages parents, schools, and the wider community, Gateway has been changing the futures of youth across the county.
“We want to change the trajectory of families, and we have throughout Santa Barbara, quite frankly. And now we get to do that in Lompoc,” said Alexander.
To learn more about Gateway Educational Services, visit: gatewayeducationalservices.org.