by Joanne Williams
Outdoors, after school, the playgrounds in Marin City ring with the ping of a baseball bat and squeals of kids riding high on the swings, while inside a cloistered classroom at Bridge the Gap College Prep (BTGCP), there’s only a murmur. At 4 o’clock, BTGCP students and their tutors hunch over homework, perched on Lilliputian-size chairs.
“Let’s focus on this problem,” says 16-year-old tutor Jack Jacoby, who has mentored a sixth grader for the past two years. As they work on algebra together, Jacoby says, “I like to show him that learning can be fun, and we talk sports.” Jacoby is a surfer, baseball player and student at Marin Academy.
Across the room, posters line the walls, along with cheery student artwork and encouraging pledges: “I promise to believe in myself and not give up.”
“I promise to help create a safe and supportive classroom by following all Bridge the Gap College Prep rules and by having a positive attitude.”
BTGCP is a free college preparatory tutoring/mentoring program for Marin City kids, first grade through high school. Since the high school program started three years ago, 100 percent of the BTGCP students have graduated from high school and matriculated to college.
The rules of the program are to work hard, show up, respect others, aim high—and believe in yourself. How hard is that? “It can be very hard if you are dealing with the chronic stress of poverty, or if you don’t feel safe, or if you are hungry,” says Jennifer Nichols, who has been manager of the volunteer program for the past three and a half years. Nichols has a B.A. in anthropology from Colgate University and a master’s degree in public health, population and family health from Columbia University. She has long been involved in community development, reproductive health care and education.
Founded 19 years ago by Denni Brusseau, Robert Hunter and Pastor Fred Small, and now headed by new Executive Director Laura Cox, BTGCP is a warren of rooms inside a public school building at 105 Drake Avenue. The budget is close to $1 million a year, and a third of it is raised each spring by Vines and Visions, an annual fundraiser. This year the event raised about $340,000. Funds also come from private donations and grants.
Children in the program are focused on thriving academically through high school and on to college. The organization is grounded in its volunteer-based tutorial/mentoring program. “Trust is everything in this community,” says Nichols, clear-eyed and reed-slender, who spends her off-hours on the tennis court or pedaling her bike. “Showing up each week for your tutoring assignment—the consistency, the dedication—is essential.” As we talk, a youngster comes in the door and Nichols hugs her before she meets her tutor.
One of the favorite parts of BTGCP’s program is the dinner served five nights a week for 25 high school students and five credentialed teachers. While eating catered meals that include foods such as pasta or grilled chicken, salad, bread and fresh fruit, students discuss current events around the large table, family-style.
Then it’s off to the classrooms for homework support and tutoring in math and other essential academic skills. “We are creating a college prep culture here that meets the specific needs of committed Marin City students—which includes a safe place where they have a voice, people who believe and good, healthy food,” Nichols says.
“I love working with teenagers,” Nichols continues, referring to her pool of more than 170 volunteers. “They have so much to offer and they don’t realize it. I feel a great responsibility to provide them with a meaningful volunteer experience, because when they connect with others, I know they will continue in their lives to give back. Volunteering makes a positive difference in both their lives and in the lives of the young students they support.”
All of the BTGCP students are Marin City residents and reflect the rich diversity of Marin City, Nichols says. Most of the students are African-American, about 50 are Latino and some are Caucasian. Students come from a variety of schools, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy and the Willow Creek Academy (both in Sausalito); grades one through three meet for one hour in the evening for one-on-one time with a tutor/mentor. Students in fourth through eighth grades meet after school for two hours, twice a week and high schoolers meet four times a week in the evenings.
The minimum volunteer commitment is one or two hours (depending on the program) per week, and many have been tutoring/mentoring for many years. Lawyers, teachers, parents and others from varied backgrounds and professions volunteer.
One student at Tam High has been in the tutorial program since the fifth grade. Now a junior, her goal is to study cinematography at Cal State Long Beach, a long-held dream. She grew up in Marin City with a single mother, who is director of operations at a local university. This summer, the teenager will volunteer in leadership training for the second year at Camp Mendocino. Her mentor at BTGCP has been instrumental, she says, in furthering her college goals.
This summer, BTGCP plans to bring two students from Daraja (which means “Bridge” in Swahili), Kenya, to Marin to develop a workshop there for high school girls—similar to Marin’s Bridge the Gap. “They have nothing there,” Nichols says of Daraja. “It’s the first time young women will be learning from other young women. Some women in the Daraja program are orphaned, some escaping from arranged marriages or abusive homes.” Plans for 2016 are to send two Marin City high school girls to Daraja in exchange. “It’s a beautiful model for the world,” Nichols says.
Back in Marin, the interest level in BTGCP is high.
“We have a 12-year-old in the program who is caregiver to six siblings,” Nichols says. “We want to give him every opportunity to succeed.” Recently, a fifth-grade boy walked in and said that he wanted a tutor and he wanted to get into the evening program as well. He brought back his signed permission slip and his instruction is underway.
“Like others in the program, he has a belief in a different outcome for his life,” Nichols says.
Ask Joanne what she learned at [email protected].
Bridge the Gap recently received its first grant from the San Francisco Foundation to provide intensive academic and social emotional skills development for Marin City students. The organization is also collaborating with the Sausalito Marin City Recreation Center, Bayside MLK Academy and Marin Community Development Corporation to prevent academic skill loss over the summer by providing math and literacy classes. To learn more, visit btgcollegeprep.org.