Antonio Cesareo Gabriel and Heidi Hernandez Montes, both Los Altos High School, are among the 28 high school graduates to win the Pursuit of Excellence scholarship this year. The program, founded by Jerry and Dick Smallwood, started in 1985 with just one student. Over the years, more students, board members, and volunteers have been added to the program.
This year's graduates received $500-$5,000 — amounts the Smallwoods say is the tipping point that enables students to attend college.
Gabriel, who will be attending De Anza College in the fall received $2,500 for tuition, fees, and books.
Montes will be attending Foothill College.
A mentor program developed by P.O.E. aims to support students throughout each college year and ensure that future college expenses don't get in the way of students attending and graduating from college.
According to P.O.E. president Carol Mullin, the mentoring program started gradually. The program has always required students to come in every year over the summer for a renewal interview. At this meeting the mentor and student review transcripts and their financial aid packages. They also evaluate what their award will be for the coming year.
According to Mullin, the purpose of the mentoring program is to build a relationship with the students so that they have a support system that can guide them if they have questions or need some advice.
"We try to be their safety-net — so if something goes wrong they can call us and maybe we can help," Mullin said. "We have been successful in having kids call us when they are in a desperate financial situation — so instead of dropping out we have figured out a way to piece things together and keep them in school and graduate."
Jerry Smallwood handled all of the students through 2004. As the program took on more students, it became too much for one person. In 2005 P.O.E. increased their new students from 10 to 14, which meant that the pipeline of active students was going to increase from around 40-50 up to 60-75.
In 2005 members of the board became mentors for some of the students. By 2006 the board was splitting up new students each year so that each member had 2-4 mentees per year. Starting two years ago non-board members were added as mentors in order to keep up with the of students added to the program, which now number over 140.
Mentors start out with one student their first year and then each year have more students, getting up to approximately five students a year. Board members have anywhere from 10-15 students each.
P.O.E. oard member and Los Altos social studies teacher Anne Battle mentor to both Gabriel and Monte. She joined the program as a mentor in 2005 so that she could continue working with students who could use some added support in school.
"They are all smart, caring and fun to work with, Battle said. "I enjoy getting to know the students, learning about their experiences, and helping them whenever they need some support — either advice or resources."
Gabriel had Battle for a teacher and said he was happy to learn that she would continue to be there to support him in college.
"She is one of the persons I really got along with during high school and she is a person I look up to and that I can count on her help," Gabriel said.
Meetings with mentees are one-on-one, but the organization has begun to do some programs with the students so that they can form a community among each other.
"I really like the people in P.O.E. because the feel you get from them is more like a family like my AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) class from Los Altos," Gabriel said.
AVID is a college readiness program targeting underserved students in elementry school through college.
Carol Dawes, a past college advisor at Palo Alto High School, joined the board in 1995. She said she enjoys getting to help students continue with their goals or attaining a higher education.
"I find it very rewarding to become a part of the lives of these special young people who are so needing support both financially and personally," Dawes said.
The program targets school districts that have either an AVID program or a significant number of low-income students. High school teachers and counselors recommend students who can benefit from the scholarships.
Students continue to receive financial assistance throughout their time at college, even if takes longer than four years. Renewal amounts are based on a student's need and performance, but typically stay the same or are increased.