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Our Story, continued

By Meril Smith, Former Edenvale Principal and Adopt-A-College Founder

In 1987, the Edenvale community had the second highest crack cocaine arrest rate in San Jose. 42% of the children were dropping out of high school, less than 10% continued any education after high school. As a new principal of the local elementary school, I not only found this situation a waste of human potential tragic, but simply unacceptable.


Most parents living in this impoverished community tended to be hard-working employed at minimum wage jobs. The vast majority of families were people of color. Many were immigrants who spoke little English. A majority of the children qualified for the school's free or reduced lunch program. Parents did the very best they could within the limited resources available to them. Like most parents, they wanted a safe community in which to raise their families and a better life for their children. In looking at the arrest rate, the high school dropout rate, and in talking wiht community leaders and staff members, the question was: "Could we really do something to make a difference? If so, what?


The educational research at the time was pretty clear:
  • By the end of 3rd grade, teachers could predict with 80% accuracy students who were likely to drop out of high school.
  • Student aspirations, how they saw themselves fitting into society, were firmly established by age 8



We realized that is were were going to make a real impact in the community, if were were going to give youngsters a real chance, the number of dropouts had to decrease dramatically. We also knew from the research that whatever we decided to do had to start very early in the children's educational life and not wait until junior high or high school.
One Saturday, while sitting waiting for my car to go through the local wash, I observed a smartly dressed woman and her two sons. One boy was wearing a Georgetown University jacket and the other had on a Notre Dame jacket. As they got into a new Mercedes and drove off, I asked myself what were the real differences between these boys and the youngsters from the Edenvale community.The boys were not necessarily any smarter, but they did have all the advantages.
In addition to their apparent affluence, it was clear the parents had established high expectations and the boys already knew they were headed to college. Seeing these young boys wearing college jackets gave me the idea, a way to raise student aspirations and make graduating from high school a community aspiration, but also a way to introduce the idea of going to college.
Over the next few months, a small group of us contacted about 1500 colleges and universities throughout the United States.
We told them about what we were trying to do and asked them if they would do two things: send a t-shirt from their college for a youngster to wear for special events and the name and address of a pen-pal than an Edenvale student could write.
Over 300 colleges responded and the Adopt-A-College Program was born in March 1988.That year, when the 6th graders were ready to leave Edenvale Elementary School and start junior high school, I made every student a promise. "When you graduate from high school in six years, and you want to go to college, I personally promise to give you a scholarship to get you started." The promise was the "carrol" to encourage students to stay in school and graduate from high school. I had no idea where the money would come from, but we had a motto at Edenvale School: 
"No one can do everything. Everyone can do something. Working together, we can accomplish absolutely amazing things!"
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