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Access to a First-Rate Education

Thursday, November 14, 2013

At a recent retreat of the Board of Trustees of Children’s Day School, the facilitator, a former long-time Head of Lick-Wilmerding High School here in San Francisco, said to the trustees: “Do not be afraid of asking for money on behalf of the school. Remember that you are offering donors the opportunity to change the world.”  I was thinking about how powerful that statement was this week.

According to this article in Sunday’s New York Times, half of all American children will at some point during their childhood reside in a household that uses food stamps for a period of time.  In addition, the American social safety net is extremely weak, filled with gaping holes and is getting weaker.  In San Francisco, we see both poverty and wealth. The financial windfall from the success of the technology industry is driving up the cost of rent for CDS families and for teachers seeking apartments.

The article goes on to say, “The United States is one of the few developed nations that does not provide universal health care, affordable childcare, or reasonably priced low-income housing. As a result, our poverty rate is approximately twice the European average. Poverty is ultimately a result of failings at economic and political levels rather than individual shortcomings. The solutions to poverty are to be found in what is important for the health of any family — having a job that pays a decent wage, having the support of good health and child care and having access to a first-rate education. Yet these policies will become a reality only when we begin to truly understand that poverty is an issue of us, rather than an issue of them.”

So how do we make it an issue of us? At CDS our community supports access to a first-rate education for 35% of our students whose families could not otherwise afford an independent school education. Our teachers developed a social justice curriculum and work to help our students understand the root causes of poverty and how ever greater concentrations of wealth in our society hurt us all. Social justice involves institutional and societal change that would offer equitable access to resources and opportunity to all people.  Middle school teacher Kirk Bell offers a math unit on “Living with Integrity in San Francisco on Minimum Wage,” helping our students understand how difficult it is to make ends meet in jobs that may be important for society like caring for the elderly, yet pay minimum wage.

How does our commitment as a community to access to a first-rate education help individuals and ultimately society as a whole?  It helps because statistically we know that independent school graduates become thought leaders and change agents in their communities. 

We recently spoke with CDS alum, Emerson Herrera, about his experiences at CDS and how CDS has impacted him as a high school student, a college applicant and as an individual. We couldn’t be more proud to share his story.

Fulfilling His Mother’s Dream
CDS Alum Emerson Herrera ’11 is Proud and College Bound

When sixteen-year-old Emerson Herrera talks about Children’s Day School, his face lights up. Ask him about his former teachers, and he can’t help but boast. “All of my CDS teachers have something about them and their teaching that I will always remember.” Emerson began at CDS as a fifth grader. He is now a junior at International High School in San Francisco where, he says, his CDS background is helping him succeed, as he continues on his path to a college education.

Emerson’s family first came to the U.S. as immigrants from Guatemala, when he was just 2 1/2 half years old. He attended public schools during his early years. As a student at Leonard R. Flynn Elementary, Emerson loved learning and thrived in the classroom. His fourth grade teacher saw something special in Emerson and thought he was a perfect candidate to apply for SMART, an agency that provides access to education and opportunities for motivated, financially-disadvantaged students in San Francisco.

Through SMART, Emerson was encouraged to apply to CDS. He was accepted, and also began attending a rigorous after-school program twice a week. “I met other motivated students from similar backgrounds to mine. We learned from each other, and grew together.” Moving from public schools to a private school was a significant change for Emerson. “It was a big transition, but the teachers at CDS made it much smoother for me. Melanie Liu and Kirk Bell in particular were very helpful in helping me prepare and adjust to this new school.”

While he was still in fifth grade, Emerson’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer. Two years later, her illness worsened and when Emerson was a seventh grader at CDS, the family traveled home to Guatemala. His new friends at CDS came together, and members of the CDS community financially helped Emerson with the trip to Guatemala so that he could be with his mother. “At the time, I thought it was just a vacation,” he remembers. “I really didn’t realize what was going on. Later, after she passed away, my dad told me that her last wish was that she wanted us to come back to the states so I could finish my education. She wanted me to go on to college.”

Emerson was away from school for about a month, yet his CDS teachers and the administration made it clear to him and his father that he could return to classes whenever he was ready. “The school was so accepting,” he says. “They told me I would be welcomed back to school whenever I was ready to come back. I’m very thankful for their support.”

As Middle School Head Josée Mayette says, Emerson left CDS for a while, but he was never forgotten. “We stayed in touch with the family and when we heard he was coming back, we were thrilled. We never told his classmates that he was returning; I just walked Emerson into class one afternoon and it was complete pandemonium. His classmates tearfully and joyfully jumped on him. It was a happy reunion.”

After he returned to San Francisco, Emerson continued to excel in his studies. He credits the CDS faculty. “My teachers at CDS were all great—every one of them. I always liked how the teachers include everyone in the class discussions.” He says he also became a much better writer while he was at CDS. “I actually use many of Melanie’s writing techniques in my high school classes today.” Emerson is proud to have been part of the first eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C., now an annual tradition. After his graduation from CDS, Emerson was accepted to International High School. “It was a great moment and I know my mother would have been proud,” he says.

“I knew the people at International would really welcome Emerson and his family, and he would find a great community and education there,” says Josée. “We worked diligently to make sure he was accepted and would be supported through graduation. Telling Emerson and his father, after all they had been through, that he was receiving a four-year scholarship to one of the best high schools in the city was an honor, and one of my best memories as an educator.”

Today, Emerson regularly volunteers at Flynn Elementary, the same school where years ago he was a shy pre-teen. “I try to go back and help the teachers and the students. And I love working with younger kids.” As a ninth grader, Emerson helped a new kindergarten teacher who found out on the first day of school that one of her new students was autistic. “I became a friend to a young boy named Nalphonsus. I was able to really connect with him. I hadn’t started school yet, so we were able to work together for his first two weeks of school. I really enjoyed it.”

Through the process, Emerson has learned something about himself: that he can be a valuable mentor to younger students. “Last year, I worked with first graders, and this year I’m helping out with students who are in second grade. I’ve made some strong connections with some of these kids since I’ve now been with them for three years.”

Reflecting on his years at CDS, Emerson feels that he really grew up on this campus. “CDS cares so deeply about their students,” says Emerson. “When I was here, I knew they cared about me as a student, but they also care about who I am as a person.” Emerson says that his high school reminds him a lot of CDS. “International is a very tight-knit and diverse community. I feel at home there.”

For a sixteen-year-old, Emerson has quite the busy schedule. He juggles his time between high school, his continued work with the SMART program, and volunteering. He’s also staying connected to CDS. He was recently invited to be part of an admissions Open House event on November 20, during which he will participate on a student alumni panel.

Another proud moment for Emerson was in September, when he was selected as the closing speaker for an event that featured SMART. JFK50: Justice for All marked the 50th anniversary of the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Held at the new SF Jazz Center, the evening featured diverse leaders from business, law, journalism and government, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Thurgood Marshall Jr. and Chief Justice of California Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye.

Everyone at CDS is excited to see what’s next for Emerson. He recently began the first steps in applying to colleges. He says that while it’s early yet, he does have a dream of going to school in New York. Whether he’s near or far, Emerson will always have a home here in San Francisco, at the corner of Dolores and 16th.