Acclaimed tennis and tutoring program for East Palo Alto youth focuses on parental involvement


Kids stream into the hallway of the Taube Tennis Center at Stanford University, plopping down their tennis rackets and picking up their backpacks. Filing into brightly colored classrooms, the students take their seats. In a matter of minutes, a steady buzz of quiet conversation, pencils scratching and focused concentration takes over.

For over 25 years, East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring (EPATT) has been ushering low-income East Palo Alto kids from the tennis courts to the classroom. What started as a summer tennis clinic in 1988 has developed into a comprehensive youth development program, with one-on-one tutoring provided by Stanford students and tennis lessons taught by a team of professional coaches and former alumni.

The organization has had enormous success. In a community where the high school dropout rate is estimated to be between 60-75 percent, 95 percent of EPATT students graduate and many go on to university. As a result, there’s a waiting list — sometimes of several years — to get into the program.

Having achieved these academic goals, EPATT is now focused on getting parents — who are primarily Spanish-speaking and some of whom never completed high school themselves — more involved in their children’s education.

“If I could say that there’s one thing that’s really changed about our academic focus, it’s changing who we’ve focused on,” explained Kesha Weekes, EPATT’s academic director. “At this point in our 25 years we understand tutoring … but parents, and helping them to be effective has been our new charge.”

EPATT’s focus on parents comes as the Ravenswood City School District, which serves East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park, is experiencing major changes. The district is slated to receive new funds from the state under a new K-12 school funding formula. It is implementing new state educational standards. And it just elected a new superintendent, Gloria Hernandez, who has also made increased parental outreach a primary goal.

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Hernandez said EPATT was a good model for what she hopes to see happen in the district more broadly.

“What EPATT has proven is the central role our parents play in determining our students’ success,” Hernandez said in an email, explaining that the organization serves as “proof of the large number of parents we have in Ravenswood who are ready and eager to engage in their students’ education.”

At EPATT, the organization’s staff is available for one-on-one consultation with parents every night of the week. Furthermore, parents are required to follow-up on these meetings in order to continue to be a part of EPATT.

Each family receives an EPATT report card, evaluating students’ performance in the classroom and on the court, as well as parents’ involvement.

As parents filed in to pick up their kids on a recent Wednesday evening, Christina Erwin, the coordinator for EPATT’s elementary school students, handed them a list of activities differentiated by grade level that counted towards the parental involvement portion of the report card.

For kindergarteners through fifth graders, suggestions included volunteering in the child’s classroom. For middle school-aged kids, parents were encouraged to take a leadership role in the PTA. For high school-aged kids, going on family college tours and communicating with college counselors was advised.

Concrete suggestions are important, Weekes said, because not all parents intuitively understand how to be advocates for their children. “There is no set of training courses or requirements for parenthood. It’s amazing how many people go ‘I’m learning this as I go,'” she explained.

Currently, EPATT serves 150 kids and their families. Trying to reach beyond this select group, Ravenswood began offering an eight-week workshop series for parents of elementary school kids in January, focusing on how to partner with their children’s schools and connect with their community at large.

“Our parents, they want their kids to succeed and they want to be as involved as possible, but unfortunately that’s not always the case,” Ravenswood School Board President Ana-Maria Pulido said, explaining that parents are oftentimes working multiple jobs, making it difficult for them to be as involved as they would like.

Weekes hopes that Ravenswood and EPATT will continue to learn from each other, ideally working more closely in years to come. “I’m hopeful that in this new administration there’s a long-term commitment to East Palo Alto,” Weekes said, “because the problems are long-term problems to solve.”

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