M-A’s Computer Academy, a program dedicated to mentoring and supporting selected sophomores, juniors, and seniors, is made up of 150 of M-A’s 2,200 students. It’s a close-knit community that relies on ambitious students, focused teachers, and volunteer mentors.
M-A’s Academy began in 1981 as the first one in the state of California. It aspired to grow and support students in high school while preparing them with unique mentoring and community building opportunities for college and career life. Now there are over 300 programs throughout the state. “There is research that students in academy programs, compared to their peers, attain a higher level of post-high school education and can also earn higher wages. So I think there is definitely a positive impact,” said Brett Olsson, Biology and Environmental Science teacher for M-A’s Academy.
Each year, the Academy chooses only 50 freshmen to join the program the following year as sophomores. Academy members present the program to several freshmen classes, and those interested in a smaller school atmosphere can then apply. Teachers and guidance counselors also recommend students who might be a good fit.
While 50 make a small community, there is a wide variety of students who join. Some are interested in the computer aspect of the Academy; others seek the extra support to help them reach their high school academic and social goals.
Olsson explained, “Maybe their freshman year they struggled a little bit, but they are motivated and want to do better and they want some support.”
For students worried that smaller class sizes would be a social constriction, Olsson said that they can still be a part of M-A’s larger campus. While sophomores and juniors are required to take four classes in the Academy, they can also join “electives outside of the Academy and be involved in sports and clubs. So, they get the smaller environment, but they still have the bigger school to be a part of.”
WORKING WITH A MENTOR
One of the main benefits of the program is the chance to work with a personal mentor. At the start of their first year in the Academy, the students take a survey about what mentor would work well with them. “My mentor was the perfect match because he was really patient with me and he understood what I came from,” said Eric Estrada, a senior at the Academy.
The mentors are adult volunteers from local businesses. At least four times a year, they meet with their assigned student to give advice and help them with academic goals, course selection, and preparing their resumes.
“Many of them work for google or a high-tech company, but we also have had firefighters, nurses, doctors, lawyers, and all different kinds of careers,” said Olsson.
In her 11th year working in software engineering at Apple, Christine Franco is one of these mentors. She believes that the Computer Academy is an excellent way to offer her high school, college, and career advice to eager students.
“I have been there. I can relate to pretty much everything they are going through like whether it’s about their job, and if it’s about being nervous to do an interview, or not knowing what to study. And if I don’t have direct experience, I am just really empathetic in listening and trying to understand what they are going through.”
Franco finds the most rewarding aspect of partnering with an Academy student is building close relationships. “One of the students that I worked with, we established a really strong relationship. It’s been nice to keep in touch with her … Seeing how because I showed up and I clearly cared about her, what a huge difference it made for her and motivated her to keep going and to do better in school.”
Estrada speaks fondly of the mentor program because his mentor not only helps him but inspires him too. “He helps me get on track. If I am having a little trouble with grades … they give us motivation, and they remind us of why we are in high school. They help us overall.”
However, there is more to mentoring than meets the eye. Franco explained that some students have financial struggles. “One of the primary goals is to have the students in the academy apply and get accepted to college. But for some of them, because their families might not have a whole lot of money, or they are struggling financially, they think that maybe college isn’t even an option.”
To help out, Franco will introduce them to scholarships, community colleges, or other options that are available.
Olsson described the other difficulties students face at home: “I have had students kicked out of their apartment because their rent had been raised. Some have had to move or commute across the bay to come to school. Or they have a death in the family or an illness. A lot of students are coming to school with their different unique struggles.”
The best way for mentors and teachers to support them is by developing relationships and fostering an understanding atmosphere within the class. This way students can “feel comfortable and safe in the classroom to be open and share certain things that are going on … because ultimately it’s the students themselves who can actually do the work and come to school,” said Olsson.
Estrada agreed that having the same teachers for two years and a close community of students helps. “The academy is pretty much a family. The teachers are kind of like your parents,” said Estrada.
Note: To cover the other valuable aspects of M-A’s Computer Academy, there will be a part two article discussing the special field trips and what makes being part of the program such a memorable experience.