From grade school to grad school: Stanislaus State, MJC, Stanislaus County educators link arms

K-12, Modesto JC, Turlock University Link Arms

The Stanislaus Education Partnership kicks off, joining three systems to smooth the path from grade school to grad school. Business and philanthropic leaders join in applauding the partnering of California State University Stanislaus, Modesto Juni
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The Stanislaus Education Partnership kicks off, joining three systems to smooth the path from grade school to grad school. Business and philanthropic leaders join in applauding the partnering of California State University Stanislaus, Modesto Juni

Young people look around them and dream of changing the world. But when employers look at the region, they see limited potential. The upward spiral of an educated workforce has not happened here – yet. A new partnership aims to change that.

Three levels of education have joined forces as the Stanislaus Education Partnership: California State University, Stanislaus; Modesto Junior College; and elementary through high schools, represented by the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

“Good stuff is coming,” said Sue Rich, SCOE assistant superintendent, at a kickoff event Thursday at the Modesto branch of the Stanislaus County Library.

Speakers laid out the problem in low numbers. The region’s high school graduation rate is 82 percent, only 17.6 percent of adults in the county are college graduates, and the per capita income is a little more than $20,000. A two-hour drive away, 57 percent of San Franciscans have degrees and per person make twice as much.

Then they talked of coming together to find solutions and smooth the road from grade school to grad school.

MJC President Jill Stearns called the effort transformational. “This partnership, this coordination of effort, is foundational,” she said.

“We can’t keep singing the same song, ‘We need more college graduates in the region,’ if we aren’t partnered together,” said Stanislaus State President Joseph Sheley.

Stanislaus County’s percentage of graduates is typical for the area from Lodi to Kern County. “That’s not good enough,” he said, and it will take more than money to fix that.

“You can knock on any door in this region and just about any parent will say, ‘I want my child to go to college.’ But then you’re going to ask, ‘And what does that take?’ And they’re going to answer – quite appropriately – ‘I haven’t got a clue, and I’m scared to death.’”

Colleges need to get the message across that college is possible. Students need to plan on a college-going future starting in grade school, Sheley said.

“We need to do outreach in the right way, not just handing out literature,” he said, suggesting cities, churches and businesses could help spread the word.

“You’ll see a climb in that number of college degrees in this region. And then I promise you, once they do, you’ll see businesses willing to invest here,” Sheley said.

Getting businesses here used to be about getting more jobs, said Dave White with the Stanislaus County Alliance. The challenge has shifted, he said, to getting the skilled workers employers are seeking. As schools add strong programs, however, graduates leave for better paying jobs elsewhere.

“We’ve got to keep your young people here,” White said. Speaking of the schools’ partnership, he said, “We couldn’t applaud this more.”

Also applauding was the Stanislaus Community Foundation. “We firmly believe the best way forward, on really any vexing regional challenge that faces us, is to collaborate,” said CEO Marian Kaanon.

The foundation administers more than 40 scholarships, and has been selected for a College Futures Foundation planning grant to create strategic, needs-based scholarships to advance college-going in the region, Kaanon announced. The College Futures website lists it as a $105,000 grant.

“College may not be for everyone,” Kaanon said. “But we do know that a college degree generates more income in one’s lifetime, is linked to a healthier lifestyle, greater civic engagement, better parenting among many other positive attributes. So having more college graduates, in our opinion, is paramount to a brighter, more vibrant community.”

All three institutions – the university, junior college and county office – have tried different initiatives on their own or with local schools. The university sends its student teachers into classrooms. MJC links with high schools to align certain career courses.

SCOE provides a second chance for high school dropouts to get a degree and move on to MJC through its Come Back Kids adult charter school. Iraq refugee George Youkhanna said at the event that he arrived at 14 with no formal schooling and passed the age limit at regular high school without graduating. The charter helped him finish classes.

Now Youkhanna wants to go to MJC, but said he can’t afford the fees. Financial aid was not something anyone had ever mentioned to him.

Those simple connections – so obvious to college-going families and so invisible to first-timers – figure hugely in keeping this region’s educational level depressed.

“How do we make sure we’ve given them that insider piece of information that means they’re going to succeed?” Sheley asked rhetorically.

One way being tried is a SCOE program sending Stanislaus State tutors to high schools, including Orestimba High School in Newman.

“The Stan State tutors get hours they can put toward their student teaching. Our students get the one-to-one attentition with them and realized they can do it, too,” said Orestimba teacher Justin Pruett, who came to the kickoff with several of his students. The program involves parents and tours of the university campus, all to foster the idea that college is doable.

SCOE’s Valley Charter High School sits adjacent to the MJC East Campus, sending its students to college classes that also count toward high school graduation. Valley High graduate Melanie Reynoso heads to Stanislaus State this fall with two years of credit already under her belt. Reynoso graduated with an associate’s degree from MJC a week before donning her high school gown and cap.

Reynoso said her senior year, “I made very good use of my planner.” The first year at MJC, the classes were easy and she stayed to herself. “I was in my own shell,” she said. “But in higher-level classes, anatomy and physiology, I needed to connect with students around me to be more successful.”

Connecting was the day’s theme. “That’s exactly what we’re talking about today, aligning institutions and systems so that ultimately more of our kids get into college, stay in college, graduate and become productive members of this great community,” Kaanon said.

After the event, Sheley described improving the economy as a slow build. “It’s a pipeline issue,” he said. “You have the individual graduate, who will end up with life chances that translate into their success and their children’s success. When you can scale that up, the region begins to prosper.”

As the region prospers, the state will reap the benefits, Sheley noted. “If you want to see California get its engine running,” he said, the state should invest in its interior. “The return on investment is here,” he said.