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Connie Alexander and Audrey Gamble are two African American women who founded Gateway Educational Services in Santa Barbara in 2009.
The nonprofit program, which provides assessment-based tutoring for K-12 students, has a track record of tremendous success in preparing kids for college and beyond.
Alexander describes herself and Gamble as the black people you don’t know. Despite ten years of being Gateway directors, they are often met with surprise by other educators and funders. “We’ve just had a very different experience as African American women running a non-profit, especially on the financial side,” Alexander said.
“People don’t have a visual of black and an educator…. They’ve never had a black teacher or a black professor so this is a new concept for them. We’re asked ‘are you just an educator for black people?’ even though our learning center looks like the global village in the afternoon,” Alexander said. “We have white kids, we have a high percentage of Latino students because of the demographics of our area, we have students that are Vietnamese and we have every social class as well.
“Our push and our vision is around the equity of education and how we support kids.”
Entering students receive an initial assessment to see where they will need improvement. An individualized educational strategy is then formed for each of the program’s 50 students.
The average student who comes through the door is two grade levels behind and typically engages with the program for about 16 months. The focus is to first help them reach their grade level in the subjects where they have deficiencies and then to surpass it.
But the Gateway center goes well beyond homework help. It takes a holistic approach to the academic and personal development of each student in the program. As part of the college readiness program, high school students are tutored for the SAT/ACT tests and receive help completing the financial aid applications. SAT scores increase 200-300 points after students are tutored at Gateway. The center also includes case management assistance for students with IEP’s and learning disabilities.
In the Covid-19 era of remote learning the Gateway program has embraced the challenge and provided students with the tools to thrive in non-traditional learning environments. Much of the remote programming was developed during the fires and debris flow of 2018 which caused the program to close for seven weeks. As a result, there was no such interruption when Covid-19 necessitated remote learning.
“On March 16th we hit that virtual button – and had no closure and 99% of our clients came online with us. A few opted not too because they thought it would be too hard. What this pandemic has taught us is the deep divide between those who have access to computers and the literacy needed to navigate being online. We need more computer literacy programs for our Spanish speaking parents,” Alexander said. “The school iPads are great but they can’t do everything on them so we have started getting donated laptops and refurbishing them for our families so they have more than one device in the house.”
In addition to its work with K-12 students, the program also stays in contact with students while they are in college for continued support during what can be a difficult transition for any young person.
“There was a Pew Foundation study that said one of the reasons that first-generation college students don’t succeed isn’t because of money, but because of a lack of support.” Alexander said. “They don’t know how to reach back and tell mom and dad they are struggling because they feel the pressure for everything to be perfect.
Another foundational aspect of Gateway Educational Services is preparing the teachers of the future by pairing first generation college students who are considering a career in education with Gateway students. The 8-10 tutors, most of whom are juniors and seniors at UCSB, serve as role models and mentors for the K-12 students.
Lizette Juarez, a Gateway tutor who recently graduated from UCSB, will begin working as an educational specialist in August at Voices College-Bound Language Academy, a charter school for Latinos in the South Bay. Originally from Paso Robles, Juarez long dreamed of becoming a teacher and has found that tutoring at Gateway has increased her understanding of the challenges these young students face.
“Most of the students[at Gateway] have learning disabilities so a lot of them have anxiety about learning and they really lack the confidence to develop their skills,” Juarez said. “It’s really important to create a personal relationship so that they feel comfortable enough to ask questions and to express concerns. Then you know when they’re learning and when they need more support.” Gateway students understand that it is not unusual for students to need help throughout their academic careers and many often return when they realize they need more support.
In the process of educating students Gateway Educational Services also serves as a source of information for parents, who at times can be overwhelmed with paperwork, especially for those that speak English as a second language.
“This program is the best thing that ever happened to us. It’s wonderful,” said Rocio Jimenez, who has enrolled her three children in the program. “My first language is Spanish and sometimes I am unable to help them with the [English] language. I think it’s the best help that we can get. ”
A challenge Alexander and Gamble have often faced in applying for grants and other funding has not been about the success of their program, but about who they are and how well connected they may be in the Santa Barbara community.“We can say well here is our record of improvement, here is our record of effectiveness,” Alexander said. “But what comes up a lot in Santa Barbara is who do you know.”
Nevertheless, both Alexander and Gamble are continuing to make Gateway a path for young students to achieve their dreams. “It’s soulfully gratifying work,” said Alexander. When I wake up in the morning I soulfully know that I am connected to purpose. If you step into this you better know that you are called to do this because there is a big difference between the vocation and the calling.”
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