Monday, November 2, 2015

How Texting Can Make the Difference in Attending College or Not

Daniel is a student who received uAspire Bay Area’s college affordability advising throughout his senior year at Impact Academy in Hayward. After he worked with his uAspire College Affordability Advisor to make a well informed decision about how to finance college, he still needed assistance on a surprisingly challenging next step: successfully enrolling in college. 

Daniel is not alone. Every year, roughly 20% of students from low-income homes -- and up to 40% in some large urban districts -- fall through the cracks over the summer after high school graduation. In this documented phenomenon, called "summer melt," high school graduates who have been admitted to and chosen a college don’t enroll in the fall. 

When researchers first approached uAspire about tackling the challenge of summer melt, we knew there had to be a way to ensure that college acceptance leads to college matriculation and, ultimately, college success. Today our advising of students starts in the fall of 12th grade year and lasts right through college matriculation. Last school year, our College Affordability Advisors supported 950 students in San Francisco and the East Bay with one-on-one guidance through the process of pursuing, accepting and enrolling in an affordable college; this year, our team is empowering 1,165 local 12th graders in 11 high schools and one after-school program. Over the summer, we rolled out the initial component of our post-secondary supports with 930 of our first local cohort. Designed in collaboration with researchers Ben Castleman and Lindsay Page and edtech partner Signal Vine, our innovative text-message-based outreach program has proven in uAspire’s other sites to counteract summer melt, increasing college enrollment by a statistically significant 7 percentage points!

Why use text-messaging? Just as we work with students in the high schools and after-school programs that they already attend, after high school we continue to meet them where they are -- on their cell phones! Our texting technology allows us to support students wherever they go to college and to use their preferred mode of communication to address complicated and nuanced information.

What’s in the texts? We use Signal Vine’s automated platform to send each student personalized reminders of critical steps to complete over the summer for their particular college. Students then rely on their uAspire Advisor’s guidance to walk through the steps of signing off on loans, paying the first term bill, and more—and text us many additional questions along the way! To see the power of uAspire’s virtual advising first-hand, check out the exchange between Daniel and our Advisor Michael this summer. By this time, Michael had responded to many questions from Daniel about signing his federal student loans and using financial aid to cover his full costs. The excerpt demonstrates the support and encouragement that Michael also provided when Daniel expressed concerns about the transition from high school to college.

With this innovative tool incorporated into our program model, we are able to ensure that students are both making financially savvy decisions about their post-secondary plans and getting a successful start to college. Thanks to uAspire’s guidance, Daniel was able to afford college AND successfully kick off his first year at UC Davis!

We welcome your help in ensuring that thousands of local students succeed in accessing and completing an affordable college education. To learn more about our work, please feel free to reach out to me at and/or sign up for our newsletter (

And thank you so much for being a friend and follower of the GreenLight Fund. The impact uAspire is able to make with Bay Area youth is a direct reflection of the power of the GreenLight approach!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

One Year Later: Genesys Works Alumna Peony Yu Reflects on Her First Year of College

Author: Grace Peter
Program Associate, GreenLight Bay Area

Genesys Works Bay Area Alumni Advisory Board,
Peony Yu pictured in the front row, third from left.

An insatiable sense of curiosity has been part of Oakland native Peony Yu’s makeup since she was a very young girl.

Fast forward to Peony’s junior year of high school, that interest in trying and learning new things drove her to become one of the very first young professionals to complete Genesys Works Bay Area’s eight-week summer training intensive and year-long internship at Gensler during her senior year. Last August, Peony spoke with GreenLight about her experience as a Genesys Works intern. We recently checked in with Peony to see how her first year of college at UC-Irvine went and how she’s used Genesys Works new alumni tools to succeed through a rigorous academic year.

Getting into college is often cited as one of the biggest challenges a young adult will have to face. However, for many students, persisting through their first year can be just as monumental – only 66% of first year college students re-enroll for their second year, regardless of income [1]. Simply put, the transition from high school to college is daunting, both academically and socially. Peony admits that one of the hardest things about transitioning was moving to Southern California, away from all she’s known, and living in a dorm room by herself. She dealt with loneliness and homesickness, but explained that focusing on her academics and joining extracurricular activities, such as lacrosse club, helped her overcome this.

Peony also credits Genesys Works for its help in this transition. The organization’s alumni program is designed to empower its graduates to thrive in college and beyond and to give back to the Genesys Works community. Genesys Works keeps alumni connected to one another through events and online platforms, sharing information about college readiness and opportunities for them to succeed, and providing ways for them to participate in Genesys Works’ ongoing mission in their communities. This past year, Genesys Works Bay Area had 100% participation in their alumni programming. Peony chats with Landen Zernickow, the Bay Area Alumni Success Manager, on a regular basis to connect on how college is going and her plans for the future. This summer, she also joined the first ever Alumni Advisory Board and has been accepted to be a part of the speakers bureau, a group of students that serve as representatives for Genesys Works in media and public relations. Additionally, Peony has kept in touch with her cohort and made new connections with the second and third cohorts while helping them with mock interviews, among other Genesys Works activities.

Peony recognizes Genesys Works for giving her valuable support and perspective. “I want to shape myself to be a leader rather than a follower,” Peony commented. “In high school I followed what my friends wanted to do, not what I wanted to do. Now, I am joining clubs and looking for internships because it’s what I want to do for myself.” In addition to taking a chemistry class this summer, Peony had an internship through the Genesys Works Alumni Worker Program with WestEd, an education-focused nonprofit, where she worked as a remote helpdesk technician assisting teachers around the country. She plans on majoring in Biology, but is also interested in Computer Science and Environmental Studies, both areas she intends to explore this fall as a sophomore at UC-Irvine. All 18 young professionals from cohort one that enrolled in post-secondary education will be entering their sophomore years this fall.

Peony eventually hopes to work with impoverished communities around the globe through programs like Doctors Without Borders. “I changed as a person. I want to be a leader now and give back to Genesys Works and volunteer as much as I can,” Peony said. “I learned from my mistakes and I want to help other people avoid making those same mistakes. I want others in the program to be even more successful than me.”


Friday, June 26, 2015

Maximizing Oakland’s Potential: GLF Bay Area zeroes in on two priority areas for 2016 investment

Author: Grace Peter
Program Associate, GreenLight Bay Area

GreenLight Fund Bay Area is in the midst of its fourth selection cycle, but it is the first focused solely on unmet needs of low-income families in Oakland, CA. In order to make a successful investment in Oakland, GreenLight has done immense diligence on the city over the past 6 months. The growing ESL population, surge of gentrification, and increase in traumatic experiences as well as changes in government and school leadership have marked a shift in the needs of low-income families in Oakland. In order to determine which issue areas GreenLight can most effectively invest in for deep outcomes, we are executing the GreenLight Method, through which we: 

● Discover unmet needs of low-income families
● Scout for innovative solutions across the country
● Select an organization that will meet the needs of our geography
● Invest our money, time, and passion into our selected investment
● Measure our investment’s impact to ensure our effectiveness

Currently in the discovery and scouting phase, we have identified two issue areas with the help of our local advisory council that we are considering for investment into Oakland: middle school math preparedness and early childhood care.

Middle School Math Preparedness 

Math skills are an important predictor of future academic success for children of all ages. Studies show that early math skills represent potential in not only future math performance, but overall academic achievement. If a child falls behind in their math performance, it is extremely challenging for them to catch up. Success in math is a vital component to success in middle school, high school and beyond.

In Oakland, student test scores decrease in proficiency from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school. The system is failing students of color, who fall far behind their white peers in both literacy and math scoring. In 2014, only 38% of OUSD middle school students tested as proficient or better on the CST Math Test. For Latino students, that percentage dips to 25%. African American middle school students have the lowest proficiency at 14%.

While looking for innovative models in the middle school math space, we will be particularly focusing on the needs of ESL and low-income students, who face huge barriers to success. 

In order to improve middle school math preparedness in Oakland, we will be looking for models that work specifically to shrink this achievement gap and have had success in urban environments similar to Oakland. Additionally, we will be looking for organizations that may introduce technology, blended learning, and personalized instruction into the classroom so that each child is met where they are.

Early Childhood Care

High quality early childhood care is critical for the successful development of children and economic stability of families in our communities. Research indicates that high-quality early childhood care and education can have long-lasting positive effects, such as higher levels of behavioral/emotional functioning, school readiness, academic achievement, and educational attainment. It has also been found that low-income children who attend intensive, high-quality early education programs have greater long-term outcomes than their peers.

Studies conservatively estimate that high quality preschool programs save taxpayers approximately $2.50 for every dollar invested, by reducing future costs for special education. As we look at this critical issue through a local lens, we know that there are over 26,000 children ages 0-5 in Oakland, with over 28% in poverty.

There is a lack of licensed early childhood care providers in Oakland and more broadly in Alameda County, particularly for infants and toddlers. An estimated 41% of children ages 3-4 in Alameda County are not enrolled in a preschool or a child development center.

Whether in unlicensed or licensed early childhood care, many Oakland children are entering kindergarten unready. Additionally, demographics are shifting to a larger population of English language learners in Oakland with many early childhood professionals lacking training or expertise in serving these students. Only 63% of Oakland kindergarten students were meeting or exceeding teachers’ expected proficiency levels for overall readiness for kindergarten.

GreenLight Fund hopes to improve the status of early childhood care in Oakland by looking at models that will either increase the quantity of early childhood care providers in Oakland and/or improve the quality of providers that already exist. Additionally, we will be looking for organizations that introduce trauma-informed care into their models and include the entire family in the early childhood education experience.

Timeline for Investment

From now until September, GreenLight will continue to scout for national, evidence-based models that address either middle school math preparedness or early childhood care. These organizations will be heavily vetted by GreenLight staff and our local advisory council so that by Spring 2016, one organization will be chosen to enter the GreenLight Bay Area portfolio and work in partnership with local organizations to serve low-income families and children of Oakland next year.

*All graphs shown were originally created by Urban Strategies Council for their Oakland Achieves report.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Surfacing Priority Issues in Philadelphia

Author: Caylin Viales
Program Associate, GreenLight Philadelphia

GreenLight Philadelphia’s annual process – called the GreenLight Method -- begins each year with a discovery phase to identify opportunities for transformation: issues that are currently not being directly addressed, and where smart, effective interventions would make a substantial difference in the lives of low-income families. To do this, GreenLight staff reviews the latest data and research from local institutions and conducts a wide range of conversations with key stakeholders in the nonprofit sector, business community, local government and academia. Through our research and these early-stage conversations, we have surfaced three priority issue areas for our 2015 diligence process: early literacy development, middle school student success, and social determinants of health. Below, we discuss each issue by describing the demonstrated local needs and potential opportunities for partnerships with proven national programs.

Early Literacy Development

Research has shown that early literacy proficiency is the foundation of nearly all future student learning. Third grade reading levels are highly predictive of eighth  and ninth grade reading performance, high school graduation and college attendance. Third grade is critical because this is the year students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” In fact, students who cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade are four-to-six times more likely to drop out of high school without earning a diploma – a life path that has huge social costs to students and their communities. According to School District Data, only 40% of Philadelphia School District third graders were reading on grade level in 2014. Moreover, reading tests show large racial gaps – in 2014, Black and Latino students showed a 29-point gap in reading proficiency rates compared to White and Asian students.

Early literacy development is a Philadelphia School District priority, and it is the foundation for the citywide “READ! By 4th” Campaign, which brings together more than 50 public and private partners to double the number of fourth graders reading on grade level by 2020. By convening roundtable discussions with early literacy experts from the district, the campaign, and the city, GreenLight Philadelphia has identified two clear opportunities for impact within early literacy development: parent engagement and in-school literacy support. In order for students to gain the literacy skills necessary to read on grade level by fourth grade, both teachers and parents must work in collaboration to provide a comprehensive education in and out of the classroom.

Middle School Student Success

The middle grades, broadly defined as fifth through eighth grade, play a pivotal role in long-term student attachment to school, high school graduation rates and access to college or advanced career training. Attendance, behavior and classroom achievement in the middle school years are key predictors of success in high school – particularly in lower income neighborhoods. In Philadelphia, a Philadelphia Education Fund study shows that sixth graders who failed courses, attended school less than 80% of the time, or received an unsatisfactory behavior grade have only a 10-20% chance of graduating on time. Moreover, a CLASP report showed that the largest proportion of Philadelphia students (40.6%) drop out of high school in ninth grade – a direct result of the challenges associated with the transition from middle to high school.

One of the goals of Philadelphia’s tiered system of neighborhood, citywide and special admission high schools – many with special curricular programs – is that students find the right “fit” to complement their academic record, skills, and interests during the transition from middle to high school. This system of lotteries and special admission requires students to understand the characteristics of different high schools. In addition, it is crucial that students have the appropriate information and guidance to submit applications and take relevant exams. The only support the district currently offers for middle school students are school counselors. Middle school counselors, however, are overburdened with caseloads that can exceed 500 students per counselor. An analysis of school district data by Research for Action shows that nearly 80% of district eighth graders apply to attend a school other than their assigned neighborhood school – yet more than 58% of District high school students end up enrolled in schools that they did not choose. With the lack of adequate counselor support at the middle school level, students do not receive the education or information necessary to make the right choices in their high school selection process.

To address middle school student success, GreenLight Philadelphia is looking for proven national models that provide student counseling and expanded learning opportunities. By integrating middle school academics with a defined support system and expanded learning opportunities, students would be more prepared to make appropriate choices in their high school selection – easing the transition to high school and lessening the chance that they will drop out before graduation.

Social Determinants of Health and Access to Community Resources

Philadelphia is currently the lowest-ranked county in Pennsylvania in many health factors (such as clinical care and behavioral, social and economic factors) and health outcomes (such as mortality and morbidity). In studies of the healthiest cities in the United States, Philadelphia often ranks far behind our peer cities such as Boston, Washington D.C., New York City and Pittsburgh. The 2014 Philadelphia Community Health Assessment (CHA) shows that child asthma, diabetes, hospitalizations, and the forgoing of care due to cost are all health indicators that are worsening over time. GreenLight Philadelphia is focusing our diligence on health interventions addressing key social determinants such as access to healthy foods, encouraging physical activity and remediating unhealthy housing conditions.

Social determinants of health are the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work and play that affect a wide range of health and quality-of-life outcomes. Within Philadelphia, living environments and related health factors vary widely from neighborhood to neighborhood. These disparities in access to resources have wide-ranging impacts on long-term health. We are particularly interested in health outcomes related to geographic disparities in access to resources such as fresh and healthy foods and recreational facilities, two major social determinants of health. For example, city data shows that 26% of families in North Philadelphia do not have access to fresh food and over 70% do not have access to recreational facilities, which may be linked to the extremely high levels of adult and child obesity.

GreenLight Philadelphia is looking for national models that address the social determinants of health as a critical component of a comprehensive healthcare system. In order to address the resource needs of low-income residents in Philadelphia, our community health centers and hospitals need to expand their capacity to connect patients to important community resources and assist them in utilizing those resources.

Each of these issues present complex, persistent problems facing Philadelphia’s children, youth and families. Our city has struggled with low literacy rates among our young students for decades – a problem that has long-term social costs related to high school graduation, college completion and career success. Our middle school students haven’t received the support they need during the difficult years leading up to the transition to high school --  a make-or-break time as they begin to plan for their futures and make critical decisions that affect their life paths. Futhermore, our world-class health system been unable to meet the broad, complex needs of low-income patients to keep families in Philadelphia active and healthy. GreenLight Philadelphia has begun early-stage conversations with multiple organizations to discuss their growth plans and potential local fit in Philadelphia. We are excited about the growing momentum around bringing one of these exciting, proven models into our city to address one of these important issues.