The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.
This is definitely the time of year when we celebrate miracles. And locally, we have some individuals who work miracles in what they do to help others. Take Katie Bliss who began her career at the College of San Mateo eight years ago teaching English. Together with some of her colleagues she decided a program was needed to help incarcerated students at Hillcrest continue their education at CSM.
These students have many challenges. If things had gone right for them and or they had made the right choices, they would not have ended up in San Mateo County’s juvenile hall. They are in the juvenile court system, currently on probation or recently incarcerated. Their crimes range from petty theft to violent assaults. They may have been expelled from high school into the juvenile court system. They may have problems with substance abuse or mental health or come from dysfunctional families. This may be the last time these young people have the chance to turn their life around. And continuing their education is the first important step.
Project Change is unique and the first community college supported program in California to provide wrap around student support services, direct access to post secondary education and in-person college instruction inside juvenile youth facilities. It started in 2013 as a youth mentoring program. Today, enrollment is 175 students annually.
Bliss and her team piloted a course “Keys to Success:” for both college and high school credit at Hillcrest. It was offered to students who had completed their GED high school diploma and were ready to take college courses. “Keys to Success” is a college prep class which teaches time management, basic math and English skills, as well as information on how college works.
Once at CSM, Project Change also provides students with orientation and financial aid workshops. It helps with tuition, and provides $150 per semester for books and transportation. Each student has a mentor the first year — volunteer faculty and staff — who provides personal, social and academic guidance. Bliss says they try to be with the student “every step of the way.” That’s huge and why the attrition rate is so low. Bliss and her staff work closely with the county Probation Department, the courts and the county Office of Education.
Project Change is supported primarily by the community college district which contributes $100,000 a year. The California Wellness Foundation provides $50,000 and a small nonprofit, EachOneReachOne, provides $20,000. Contributions to the Community College Foundation also support the program.
The most difficult and unpleasant task when I was on the San Mateo Union High School District board of trustees was expelling a student. There was always compelling evidence why this student shouldn’t remain at school. He or she had broken the law, was a bad example or a threat to others. Yet when you met the parent or often a substitute parent — required at expulsion hearings — I often felt the fault was not just the student’s. One time, a parent refused to come to the hearing saying she was afraid of her son and it was the school’s responsibility. Often nobody wants these kids. Not their families. Their home school district. Or in the worst case, society. If they don’t complete their high school education, there is a good chance they will end up in jail. And today, if they are not able to secure at least a two-year secondary education, there’s a good chance they won’t be able to find a job to support themselves when they become an adult. Katie Bliss and her team are working miracles when they provide these kids with the keys to success.
Could there be a miracle at Bridgepointe shopping center? Since the Planning Commission unanimously turned down the shopping owner’s request to permanently end the ice rink at Bridgepointe and turn the site into retail, has there been a change in what might be possible? Will the City Council be influenced by what happened at the Planning Commission and try to come up with some way to keep an ice rink in San Mateo? Who knows? Miracles sometimes happen.