Strength in Numbers

East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy

Last week, my colleague and I attended a pre-graduation dinner at East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy (Phoenix Academy) honoring its 2015 high school graduates.  We were preparing for our volunteer photo shoot at their upcoming high school graduation ceremony, and I’ll admit with some guilt that I was distracted by the fact that the Golden State Warriors were currently losing in Game 3 of the NBA finals. Just a few minutes into the post-dinner program, however, all thoughts of the game dissipated and I was totally riveted by what I heard.

Phoenix Academy is a public charter school that has had phenomenal success serving over 300 hundred students in grades 9-12. With almost 100% of its students graduating from high school and going on to college every year, their results are in stark contrast to the bleak reality of a 60% high school dropout rate in East Palo Alto. The school is guided by the practical belief that a college degree will provide its graduates with the opportunity to earn a family-sustaining income and make a positive impact on their community.  Essentially, their goal is to break the cycle of poverty by preparing their students for college, and they are succeeding.

The post-dinner program was simple and understated, but there was a palpable feeling of something unique and bigger than the marking of a milestone. They were celebrating the perseverance and sacrifice of individuals, families, and an entire community. Throughout the event, Administrators inspired the audience, speaking of kids who had touched their lives, worked harder than they thought possible, and accomplished so much. The kids then spoke, thanking their parents, their student advisors, and the school community for their support in helping change their lives. I am an outsider to this group, yet I was completely engrossed, witnessing the power of the community that underlies Phoenix Academy.

After the dinner event, I confess again that I hopped on my phone and was jolted by the news that the Cleveland Cavaliers were decidedly heading towards a win and 2-1 series lead.  At this point, I’d had enough of playoff basketball and was happy to turn my focus towards interviewing three graduating Seniors. They reflected on their plans for the future and their experiences at Phoenix Academy. While each of their personal circumstances, backgrounds and stories were vastly different, there was incredible strength and consistency in their perspectives when describing the school.

Juan Mendez shared his intense struggle to stay motivated and continue in school after losing three close friends, two due to gang violence.  Phoenix Academy provided a real community for him when he truly needed it, and his teachers and classmates gave him hope and inspiration just to show up at school every day and not give up. His family believed in him and supported him through four years of hard work, adversity and dedication. Not only did Juan make it through, he will be attending UC Berkeley on a full scholarship.

Jailene Mendoza shared a different set of challenges, as her family struggled financially to put food on the table, and her mom battled breast cancer. Like Juan, with the unconditional care of her family, teachers and friends, she was able to beat the odds and get the grades she needed to go to college, something she wasn’t sure she could do on her own. Phoenix Academy taught her that she’s never alone in her struggles, that there is a community and extended family around her that understands what she is going through and is there to support her through it. “A lot of my friends are going through really tough situations. We all support each other,” says Jailene as she described how one of her classmates lost her sibling in her senior year, and how the whole school community came together to help her through this tragedy. They were like family, a lifeline of support and hope. Jailene will be attending Cal State University-Stanislaus where she plans on studying social work and criminology.

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Juan Mendez and Jailene Mendoza

Phoenix Academy teaches and inspires perseverance.  It helps its students find their confidence and potential. Cristian Jimenez sums up his experience at the school as “a second chance.” In other schools, he struggled to get his work done and keep his grades up. His teachers and peers at Phoenix pushed him to do his homework and not give up, and he worked his way up to a 3.8 GPA. Today he confidently proclaims: “I now know how far I can go.” Over and over again, in the speeches I heard, kids thanked their teachers for their constant reminders to get their homework done, to never to give up, and when life hits you hardest, to put your head down and hit the books. Cristian speaks with pride of his Dad who worked two jobs to support the family.  With a look of steely determination, he says that he can’t wait to look his parents in the eyes one day and thank them for everything they’ve done by showing them his college degree.  This isn’t just a wish – you can see in his eyes that it’s a promise he intends to keep. Cristian will be attending Ridley Community College in Fresno, and after 2 years of good grades, he intends to transfer to UC Santa Cruz on a full scholarship.  

Cristian’s advice to incoming Phoenix Academy freshmen is to “have an open mindset. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Don’t be afraid to fail.” He was encouraged by a teacher to try a computer science course, something he had never considered. This course opened his eyes to the possibilities and more important, he found something he truly enjoyed and was good at. As a Junior, he began attending computer hackathons in Silicon Valley. As a Hispanic student he felt out of place. This inspired him to set up similar events at Phoenix Academy, and kids who didn’t know anything about computer science got to participate and thrive in something totally new to them.

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Cristian Jimenez

When I asked students what they might want to do with their lives after college, I was struck by how, without hesitation, each responded emphatically that they would be coming back to East Palo Alto to contribute to the community that shaped their own success. Jailene Mendoza wants to  work with kids guiding and counseling them, citing with hope and enthusiasm that “kids deserve everything.” Juan Mendez envisions a career in criminal justice. Cristian Jimenez sees a future for himself in technology. All three want to work in East Palo Alto, to “help open up doors to others the same way we had doors opened up to us.” Phoenix Academy’s mission of building a generation of students who will make a positive impact on the community is coming full circle.

Over a week has passed since the Phoenix Academy pre-graduation dinner, and I’m thrilled to report that in the meantime, the Golden State Warriors have captured the NBA Championship. They did it with an extraordinary team effort. The students at Phoenix Academy have achieved a far more meaningful and important victory than an NBA championship as they graduate from high school and move on to college, and I can’t help but think about the ultimate team effort that got them there. This dedicated community of East Palo Alto students, parents, families, teachers, and administrators are all pulling towards a common goal and proving year after year that when you put your mind to something, anything is possible.  The 2015 graduating class of Phoenix Academy and their community are a shining example of the strength of teamwork of the highest order. They bring real meaning to NBA champions’ mantra: Strength in Numbers.

About Omer Cohen 3 Articles
Chief Operating Officer at Lytro, drummer, and family man trying to compete with younger, faster soccer players on Sundays.

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