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Air Gallegos, Director of Education & Career, talks about supporting UP! students to access online learning

June 30, 2020

By MARIA MEDUA | June 24, 2020 at 12:00 pm

Air Gallegos, Director of Education at Canal Alliance
Air Gallegos

Air is a proud bi-racial Chicana and California native who has spent her career focused on social justice. She has been leading our Education and Career programs since January. As we celebrate the graduation of seven UP! seniors all bound for college, we sat down to talk about Canal Alliance’s youth education program in the time of COVID.

Canal Alliance (CA): For those who are not familiar with University Prep (UP!) would you describe the program, what are its goals and why is it needed?

Air Gallegos (AG): UP! is a college access and success program that supports Latinx youth to obtain a four-year college degree. Most students come from low-income and immigrant backgrounds, and are the first in their families to pursue a college education.

The program operates through a cohort-based model that provides an intensive afterschool academic program for students in grades 6 through 12, who commit to building their academic skills, graduating from high school and completing a four-year college degree. For all students, UP! provides case management support, and college students receive scholarship assistance for throughout their educational journey. By addressing the significant gap in educational opportunity and access to resources that exists for low income youth of color in Marin, UP! works to dismantle one of the largest equity gaps in education that exists in all of California.

CA: Since shelter-in-place was implemented in Marin, and the shift to distance learning, what challenges have UP! students faced, and how has Canal Alliance helped students overcome these challenges?

AG: On Friday, March 13th, San Rafael City Schools announced a citywide school closure with the hope that students could return to campus by the end of the month. The district outlined a plan for remote learning to begin on Monday, March 16th. Over the intervening weekend, families began to absorb the new distant learning plans and began to feel the pressure of transitioning to home learning.

UP! staff were proactive; we immediately reached out to all of our students and their families – from middle school through college – to make the transition to online learning as easy as possible. We began by surveying students to understand who lacked access to online learning and would need access to computers and internet; we also began to uncover the overwhelming speed with which many people in our community were losing work. Through our connections to students and their families, we were able to quickly focus on the needs of the community by providing 24 students with Chromebooks, providing wifi hotspots to students when needed, providing access to individual therapy and social-emotional learning classes. We also launched our Client Support Fund to raise money that could be distributed to families in need of financial assistance.

For the first few weeks, Henry Velasquez, UP! Middle School Supervisor, supported his students by contacting their teachers and helping students turn in assignments using just their cell phones. In this way, he was able to bridge the gap for students to access remote learning while we also worked to get computers and internet access to students who lacked access to them. Staff held an individual check-in with every student, from 6th grade through college, and implemented online Zoom tutoring for middle and high school students so no one would fall behind academically.

That same weekend, many families living in the Canal neighborhood found themselves suddenly out of work and unsure how they could pay rent or buy food and other necessities. To get a better sense of the impact, UP! staff surveyed all of our educational clients by phone the week of March 16th, and found that of the 249 Canal area families we spoke with, more than 50% had experienced job loss, and more than 70% had experienced some reduction in their employment due to COVID.

Our families were – and still are – facing an unprecedented crisis. Our entire Education & Career team pivoted our focus and priorities in just weeks; in addition to the regular programs we run, we shifted our focus to providing case management for students and their families. Our number one goal during this time has been to help families navigate the complex safety-net system to get the help they need to address their most urgent needs, whether that be applying for unemployment insurance, following up with the IRS to get their stimulus check, applying for rental assistance or coming to our weekly food pantry.

It has been critical to have the Canal Alliance Client Support Fund available. With the generous support of hundreds of funders and individuals and companies, we have been able to offer immediate cash assistance to families regardless of their immigration status. This aid has helped families with many needs, from paying rent to buying food, medicine, diapers or other essential items.

With parents out of work, families crowded at home, and students at a loss of their regular social interactions with friends, it was more important than ever that staff find a way to continue to offer our students behavioral health support. Michael Gomez, our Program Supervisor for High School students has been working with our UCSF clinician to host social-emotional learning groups for students once a week via Zoom.

This period of time has been particularly hard for our college students, who had been living their own lives away at school. Now, finding themselves back at home while trying to complete their studies and having to pitch in with family responsibilities, it’s been very stressful. To support them, our Youth Education Senior Manager, Ashley Busby, has been leading online mindfulness trainings.

Additionally, Our UCSF clinician is offering support to UP! parents by teaching emotional regulation techniques and supporting them to tap into their own internal resources, which run deep in this community. Many of our families are struggling financially, but our community is resilient; many of our families lean on their faith, their new time with family, getting out for walks, and finding strength and hope as we all come together to find solutions.

CA: What will UP! students do this summer?

AG: Despite the need for social distancing, academic supports will continue through the summer through online tutoring and workshops so that students are prepared for the transition to their next grade level in the fall.

Through our partnership with Aim High, our middle school students will be enrolled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses online for three hours a day, along with other activities. Our high school and Advanced Placement (AP) students will receive regular tutoring via Zoom.

UP! college students are all home through the summer, and there are not many jobs or internships available. Canal Alliance does have some capacity to hire, and we’ve been able to employ some of our returning college students in departments like Social Services, in positions where students are able to give back to the community that has supported them.

During the summer, we’ll also continue to guide students toward activities such as resume building, getting work experience or volunteering, so they continue to prepare for life after college. We will also work on building our students’ internal skills by offering workshops on topics such as resilience and self-confidence, which are needed now more than ever during this difficult and uncertain time.

Additionally, this is a really difficult time for our college seniors who are graduating into an economy with an unemployment rate of 15% here in California, so we are prioritizing providing them with additional financial assistance to support that important transition from college to the next phase of their lives.

CA: Do UP! students know what to expect this fall? If so, what are the unique circumstances that our program will have to navigate to make sure students have a successful school year?

AG: To be honest, we’re not sure what to expect. We’re working in partnership with the San Rafael City School District, and we will align our programming with the district plan. We don’t know whether we will be helping students remotely or in-person in our building, or perhaps a combination of both. But what we do know is that no matter what, we’re going to be able to support our students and their families; that’s our mission. Our staff has proven to be incredibly adaptable and dedicated to ensuring the best outcomes for our students, and we will continue to move forward doing the same.

Fortunately, college applications and FAFSA forms were all due well before the COVID crisis hit, so all seven of our UP! high school seniors are set to graduate in May and start college in the fall. Some of these students were looking forward to having the residential college experience, but they may have to wait, as some colleges will limit their instruction to remote learning this fall. For many students living in the Canal area, who do not have a quiet place in their home to sit down to study, the shift to online classes will be difficult. Our College Supervisor, Claudia Garcia, will be available to help students evaluate options and adapt as best they can to the current circumstances.

CA: Anything else you would like to highlight?

AG: As we approached virtual high school graduation on June 13th, we made the decision to use resources that would normally be spent on a celebration event to provide all of our UP! high school seniors with new laptops to take with them to college. Our seven UP! high school graduates will be attending the following colleges next year: College of Marin, Santa Rosa Junior College, UC Santa Barbara, Sacramento State University, Sonoma State University, San Francisco State University, and Dominican University.

We are also raising money from individual donors to provide college financial assistance for all of our UP! high school graduates.

We are grateful for the support of our generous donors who have made gifts to our college scholarship fund. This fund is critical in helping motivated and hard-working students from low-income backgrounds to pay for tuition, room and board, textbooks and other essentials. I invite others to join us in supporting our students during this period of instability and crisis. These gifts help our bright, dynamic young people overcome any barriers to success and achieve their dreams of being the first in their family to earn a college degree.

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