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Santa Barbara’s Recipe for Academic Success

The Santa Barbara Education Foundation is not your normal nonprofit supporting students. Rather it is like an educational Robin Hood, matching donors with students who need it most. 

Students like Antonña Mollo. During her freshman year, Mollo’s mother died of an overdose and her father was sentenced to 12 years in jail.  

“I grew up so angry at the world, constantly asking ‘why me?’” Mollo says. “Gangs and violence became my sense of peace. My crazy life spread through the halls at school, and for once I was placed in a program that was meant for me.” 

That place was the Academy for Success, a program developed by Dos Pueblos High School Math Teacher Kelly Choi. When some of her students weren’t showing up to class, Choi took the time to ask why. Some were hungry, while many others, like Mollo, had turbulent home lives. 

The program identifies struggling students in the 9th grade. Instead of taking courses from different teachers year to year, students stay with the same cohort of students and a team of teachers to take the classes they need to  graduate.  And the group “becomes a family,” says Margie Yahyavi, executive director of the Santa Barbara Education Foundation. With additional mental health services and counseling, the students flourish: there is a 95% reduction in disciplinary action; 98% of Academy students graduate high school; and 92% enroll in some type of post-secondary education.

(Photo by Benjamin B. Morris ©2016)

But this is only one of many programs that Yahyavi and the Education Foundation’s generous donors support. The nonprofit raises private funds to assist students in three ways: funding programs like Academy for Success developed within Santa Barbara Unified schools by faculty or administration; supporting outside programs that want to work within the schools; and finally by sustaining programs that the Education Foundation developed themselves. 

Yahyavi is particularly proud of the work the Foundation is doing to ensure that vulnerable students stay on track through long summer months. “We are tackling summer learning loss with our robust summer programs,” she says.  

With nearly 60 percent of southern Santa Barbara County’s students enrolled in the Santa Barbara Unified School District, giving to the Education Foundation is one of the most clear-cut ways to lift up educational outcomes for the community as a whole. 

The Promise of Higher Education

The goal was audacious: provide every recent high school graduate in the south coast area of Santa Barbara with two years of college education for free. There would be no eligibility requirements beyond a student’s commitment to enroll full time, remain in good standing, and take advantage of academic advising. 

Since 2016, when the Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) Promise was launched, more than 5,000 students have received free tuition, books, supplies, even bus passes and student health services. 

“We call it a promise for a reason,” says Geoff Green, the CEO of the Santa Barbara City College Foundation. “This is a commitment we are making in perpetuity.” 

The initiative has been a resounding success. It has dramatically increased the number of local students enrolled full-time at SBCC, which research shows leads to higher rates of completion and transfer to four-year colleges. In addition, SBCC Promise students’ average GPA stands above a 3.0. And with student debt hitting a whopping $1.7 trillion, what the SBCC Foundation has managed to do here is a template for the nation – a fact that the White House took notice of in 2016 when the SBCC Promise received national recognition upon its launch.

“A century ago, America had a serious debate about whether universal public high school was even necessary” Green says. “One hundred years later and it is clear that for the vast majority of people, high school isn’t enough.” 

For SBCC graduate Leslie Marin, the Promise made it possible for her to be the first person in her family to attend and graduate from college. After the Promise, she transferred to the University of California, Santa Barbara on a full scholarship where she has a 3.7 GPA. 

“[The SBCC Promise] took a huge financial burden off my shoulders and my parents’ shoulders,” Marin says. “I wouldn’t have been able to go to college right after high school; I would have had to take a couple semesters off to pay for tuition and supplies.”

This is but one example of how the SBCC Foundation stands up for its students. When COVID-19 hit, the Foundation distributed more than $2 million in emergency grants to 2,335 students in a mere three weeks to help them stay enrolled and moving forward even as stay-at-home orders were creating a wave of unemployment. 

“So many of our students tend to live at the economic margins,” Green says. “It was our obligation when the pandemic hit to provide a bridge until other support became available.”