EastBay Today

Feature
Posted May 10, 2019

Fathers of the Forgotten

Cal State East Bay’s student success coach program key to helping Hayward youth graduate high school

HPN Student Success Coach Michael Harris worked for the Alameda County Probation Office for 28 years before moving into his current position.
Garvin Tso

At 5:50 a.m. the alarm goes off, and Anthony Jackson is up and running. He laces up his black Nikes and bounds out the door for a workout before his real work begins. Running through the still-dark streets of Hayward, past the home he grew up in on Huntwood Avenue, Jackson cuts left on Folsom near Ruus Elementary School where he was enrolled after his parents moved from San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point in 1989.

Jackson left Hayward for college, but he knew he would be back. And now, the Tennyson High School graduate works alongside Cal State East Bay alumnus and former student-athlete Michael Harris (B.S. ‘86, Criminal Justice) as Hayward Promise Neighborhoods student success coaches.

Led by Cal State East Bay and funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, HPNs is a partnership of residents, local schools, colleges, government agencies, businesses and nonprofit organizations focused on giving the children of Hayward the support they need to thrive from birth to college and beyond. HPNs coaches like Jackson and Harris work in Hayward high schools to identify and support at-risk students, improve attendance, connect students to tutoring and mentoring, and provide student and family support to ensure on-time graduation.

“A student success coach is a father, an uncle, a brother, a counselor — somebody that holds a young person accountable,” Jackson, who is also the high school’s basketball coach, said. “This is my ministry. I love working with people. I feel like I don’t do a lot well, but I do people well, and this is what I am here for.”

Enrolling in the student success program is an option, available to the 4,900 students within the Hayward Unified School District. Each coach has a caseload of approximately 80 students.

“In the times we live in, it is important for students to be educated,” Mt. Eden High School Principal Greg Fobbs said. “For that to happen, they have to come to school. This program has really been a success at Mt. Eden. A lot of our students are have been struggling academically, and one of the things we focus on is attendance. It only keeps improving.”

Jackson’s counterpart at Mt. Eden High School, Harris worked for the Alameda County Probation Office for 28 years before becoming a student success coach. He said he wanted to shift his focus to helping kids before they get into trouble.

“That’s what I really wanted to do,” Harris said. “I didn’t want to be a person who pushed papers. I wanted to sit down and talk to children, tell them my story and give them some hope.”

“I feel like these kids are forgotten and maybe not on purpose, but they are easy to overlook.”

Harris who played basketball at Cal State East Bay said sports and good role models guided him throughout his youth, but not all kids have those relationships and opportunities.

“I tell these kids it’s not where you start. It’s where you finish,” Harris said. “I find something the kids care about — whether it’s a grandmother, a dog, or a friend — and I plug into that interest and build a conversation from there.”

Harris greets students at the door of their classes, targeting those who are struggling with truancy to keep them accountable. He says there is a misconception that truant students are not coming to school because they are out on the streets getting into trouble, but he says the reality is many of them are working during the day to support their family. Others stay home with a sick younger sibling to enable their parent to go to work.

“This program offers that safety net for those students who are falling through the cracks, students who are having a hard time,” Harris said. “We don’t give up on kids because you never know when the light is going to turn on. We can’t give up. If we do, we may be throwing away the next doctor or president. Every kid does matter.”

Jackson and Harris make home visits, talk to teachers and administrators to make sure their students’ voices are heard, poke their heads into tutoring sessions and work to be seen as an ally on campus.

“I feel like these kids are forgotten and maybe not on purpose, but they are easy to overlook,” Jackson said. “They are quiet unless they are getting in trouble. They don’t speak out unless they need help. I’m here, and I am making them accountable for things that they don’t even know they care about. The best ability is availability.”

Xander Jordan, a 17-year-old junior at Tennyson says Jackson, who most students refer to as Coach Jack, has pushed him to go from earning Ds and Fs as a freshman to getting As and Bs.

“He’s helped a lot because he knows what I am going through and when I am going through it. It’s very rare to actually find someone who wants to help you,” Xander said.

Jackson and Harris walk through their respective campuses giving high fives and fist bumps, checking in by asking, “Where are you coming from? Where are you headed? Am I going to see you later?”

“So many of them are living without a mother or a father or both. Financially things are tougher. I am here to help. I am them. I belong to them.”

They both call this their “dream job,” seeing the work as service and are fueled by the students who come back to show off their college diploma, tell them about a new job or introduce them to their husband, wife or new baby.

“Sometimes it’s thankless,” Jackson said. “Some days the kids don’t want to hear you, and you’re advocating for the kids, so some days your co-workers don’t want to hear you. But when the people you are providing a service to come back, and they tell you ‘job well done,’ then it makes it worth it.”

Kelly Cosby, a Cal State East Bay student and Hayward Promise intern who graduated from Tennyson High School, said student success coaches have a reach far beyond their caseload. While she was not enrolled in the program, Jackson played a pivotal role in her direction.  

“The students he works with sometimes have a problem listening to others,” Cosby said. “I know I did. He knows he has to make a connection in order to move forward and he goes above and beyond to do that. Kids get to know him personally.”

At the end of the school day, hours after Jackson’s ritual morning run, he laces up his shoes one more time. This time he’s headed to coach basketball in the same gym he both practiced and played in more than two decades before, making sure on the way he interacts with any students on his path.

“I went to this high school, the things that these kids experienced from growing up in this area, I’ve experienced,” he said. “They are the same struggles, only now they are amplified. So many of them are living without a mother or a father or both. Financially things are tougher. I am here to help. I am them. I belong to them.”




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