Kindergartners are encouraged to think about what they want to be when they grow up. In classrooms, they learn about different professions and draw pictures of themselves as firefighters, astronauts, doctors, artists and even U.S. presidents. Their dreams are big and they are unstoppable.
Yet somewhere along the way, far too many children see these dreams fade away amid the challenges of growing up poor. Founded in 2011, the El Monte Promise Foundation works with local school districts, parents, civic leaders nonprofit groups and donors to keep those dreams alive by preparing children for college at an early age.
The El Monte Promise Foundation is an outgrowth of the El Monte Community Building Initiative (CBI), a 10-year, multimillion dollar place-based investment of the California Community Foundation (CCF) designed to build the capacity of local leaders and organizations to work collaboratively on community problem-solving. After the first few years of planning and community input, El Monte residents and local institutions decided to focus on “ensuring that children in El Monte grow up healthier and better prepared for school, college and a career” as their common agenda and vision. Now in its eighth year, the El Monte CBI offers a learning opportunity on effective approaches to place-based philanthropy, as well as on how to address the “suburbanization” of poverty through locally-designed, resident-driven solutions in communities outside of the inner-cities.
Improving educational outcomes in El Monte, a bedroom suburb of 115,000 predominantly low-income residents just east of downtown L.A., is no small task. In the poorest neighborhoods, just one-third of adults have a high school diploma. While families want to see their children succeed, they lack the resources, the systems in place and the legacies of personal college experience that more affluent families rely upon to send their kids to college.
Explaining the aim of the Foundation, Norma E. Garcia, an El Monte resident and Board President of the El Monte Promise Foundation says, “to succeed, we are seeking to align all of the systems necessary to create the environment whereby all of El Monte’s children will attend college.”
To make this happen, the El Monte Promise Foundation, along with other nonprofit groups, sponsors college and career workshops for middle school students and their parents. Students take an online assessment of their strengths and interests and learn of potential careers, along with college majors that might be of interest and the courses that are important in preparing for them. The Foundation also provides financial aid workshops to connect students and families to available scholarship and loan resources.
The El Monte Promise Foundation is also launching an innovative approach to college savings. In response to studies showing that a child is seven times more likely to go to college if a college savings account is started for this purpose, the El Monte Promise Foundation announced the launch of the Scholars Savings Program. Starting this fall, students and their families will be encouraged to set up a fund for college savings and, no matter how small each monthly deposit, the Foundation will make a matching contribution. The program was designed after careful study of best practices from across the country and through extensive input from working-class parents on what types of savings programs would fit their families’ abilities and potential to save for their children’s education. At the community launch for the program, Ana Gutierrez, El Monte Promise Foundation parent representative, spoke of the importance of bringing about greater education opportunity to El Monte children, prompting a spontaneous pledge of support from a donor.
The Foundation’s efforts align with other developments in the community to increase student success. El Monte’s two K-8 school districts continue to work tirelessly to align their academic curricula with high school classes that lead to college. Additionally, district officials seek to improve teaching practices and policies for long-term English learners to get them proficient faster.
Focused on increasing college enrollment, the El Monte Union Pledge was created through a partnership of the El Monte Union High School District, Rio Hondo College, UC Irvine and Cal State L.A. The Pledge ensures that all students who graduate from the district are first in line to get the classes they want at Rio Hondo College—a local community college. Students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average and take the required classes are guaranteed admission to UC Irvine and or Cal State L.A. In just two years since the pledge was announced, the number of El Monte high school graduates enrolled at Rio Hondo College has doubled.
As the ten-year initiative moves towards its conclusion, it appears that El Monte’s efforts and innovative approach to community problem-solving will be more sustainable and poised for success with the establishment of The El Monte Promise Foundation. When asked what her dream is for the children of El Monte, Garcia replies, “in the future the children won’t ask themselves ‘Will I go to college?’. They will instead plan for ‘When I go to college…’”