East Palo Alto, CA

Silicon Valley Youth launches two new academic enrichment initiatives for East Palo Alto students

Justin Gu

Silicon Valley Youth Co-president Justin Gu shows the Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Advanced Math class a video of World Cup highlights.Photo byHarriette Huang

Starting in the fall of 2022, Silicon Valley Youth has created new school-year enrichment programs for students in East Palo Alto.

SVY’s contributions to East Palo Alto date back to 2016 and have included donations toward arts programs in school, support for writing contests, anti-bullying campaigns, iPads for students’ distance learning during the pandemic, scholarships, and much more.

This past fall semester, in collaboration with math teacher Harriette Huang from Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School in the Ravenswood City School District, SVY has initiated projects such as teaching math through fantasy football and hosting weekend reading classes.

SVY Co-president Justin Gu said the organization primarily aims to make learning accessible and enjoyable for East Palo Alto students.

“Right now, our main goal at Silicon Valley Youth is to help the students develop their love for learning,” Justin said. “We hope to show them that learning is fun and accessible and not just limited to the classroom.”

To achieve this mission, Justin and Executive Vice President of Operations Cayden Gu have led an in-class program on Wednesdays that uses sports as a bridge between students and math. They have been working closely with Ms. Huang to set up the program in her seventh-grade advanced math class.

Justin said that when he first met the students, he noticed some of them having trouble focusing on math due to a disconnect with the subject.

“A main area of need for the students was showing students why math is relevant in the world around them,” Justin said. “The concepts were often hard to grasp because of how abstract they were."

Justin also said he quickly discovered that many students were enthusiastic about sports, which inspired his idea of teaching through sports examples.

“Sports had sparked my own interest in math when I was growing up, so I hoped to bring my experiences to the students,” Justin said. “I saw that as a way I could reach and encourage them.”

Justin added that he tailors sports-inspired activities to align with the curriculum and concepts that students are studying throughout the rest of the week.

“Recently, the students have been learning averages, so I created some word problems centered around passing yards in football, which they were pretty excited about,” Justin said. “I also created a fantasy football league for the class as a way to add a little fun competition for the students.”

Ms. Huang said she previously had difficulties in connecting with her students, but the sports and fantasy football examples have yielded high student engagement.

“Students are excited,” Ms. Huang said. “The sports video clips are fantastic, and the math problems designed let kids see how math can help them to do what they want to do. This is authentic, math becomes a handy tool for them.”

However, Ms. Huang added that her students’ unfamiliarity with English also impacts the way they engage in her classroom.

“Our kids have language barriers, and they usually don't want to speak out,” Ms. Huang said. “They worry about their pronunciation, and they worry about their grammar. They worry that when they speak English, they'll get teased by peers.”

These language barriers inspired SVY Co-president Annli Zhu and Executive Vice President of Academics Anping Zhu to initiate weekend reading classes. In these sessions, they and other volunteers lead breakout rooms to guide individual students or pairs of students through books.

“We discovered that a crucial bottleneck to many students' learning abilities was limited reading skills,” Annli said. “Therefore, we coordinated with Ms. Huang to find students interested in practicing reading and organized the weekend reading sessions.”

Ms. Huang said she has seen students improve in her classroom after participating in the reading sessions.

“With our reading program, the kids read out loud and talk about the books, so I can definitely see their speaking is much better,” Ms. Huang said. “They’re willing to share during class (and) ask questions, and (their) interaction is much better than at the beginning of the year.”

For the reading program, SVY has also donated funds to help purchase books for the students, such as the Percy Jackson series and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Ms. Huang said these book donations have helped her discover a broader scope of possibilities for ways to help her students.

“I think the (money donated primarily builds) confidence for me, so now I know what I can do for the kids,” Ms. Huang said. “I'm going to ask kids what kind of books they want to read. We are probably going to go shopping on Amazon together, so they can pick and choose the books they want and we are going to have it, so that's amazing.”

This semester, SVY aims to develop these reading sessions into a larger Reading Buddies program. Ms. Huang said she believes the Reading Buddies program will have the potential to help students starting from a younger age.

“I see that big potential because I want it to go to the elementary school once we establish it,” Ms. Huang said. “If they start reading in first grade, second grade, and then by middle school their reading is at the grade level, their whole learning is different. That's going to be amazing. That's going to be huge.”

Annli said SVY aims to build on the success of these programs to continue finding new ways to help these students, broadening these efforts so more SVY staff members can become involved.

“The various programs we pioneered at EPA this semester not only helped many students, but also taught us how to best support them going forward,” Annli said. “Next semester, I hope that we can enlist more SVY teachers to participate in these programs with Ravenswood.”

Ultimately, Ms. Huang said these SVY programs have been important for students to become exposed to more opportunities around them, which she hopes will help students draw out their potential.

“To be honest with you, I think East Palo Alto kids are just as smart as anywhere else,” Ms. Huang said. “The only reason that they are behind is because they don't know, they don't see. That's the only reason I think that stops them from getting better opportunities, and working with SVY, they are connected with the world around them.”

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Student journalist for The Campanile. Co-president of Silicon Valley Youth.

Palo Alto, CA

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