[Currents header

October 14, 1996

Delta School makes a difference for at-risk kids

Oakes 104 isn't your typical UCSC classroom, and the students who attend classes there aren't typical university students. They're not even college students--yet.

Oakes 104 is the academic home of Delta School, a bold experiment in education that opened its doors in January 1995. Delta represents a second chance for high school students who have dropped out or are on the verge of quitting school.

Jodi Draper, 15, dropped out of San Lorenzo Valley High School last year. Like many Delta students, Draper says her former high school was boring. Uninspired, she gradually just stopped going to class. Draper heard about Delta a few weeks later and enrolled.

"It's more personal," she says of the school that finally meets her needs. "It's easier to talk to the teachers, and it's not quite so structured, so you're able to follow what interests you."

"It seems more lax, but you learn more because of the way it's taught," adds Draper. "You have to be motivated to be at Delta."

Delta's students run the gamut from high achievers who craved more freedom than their schools offered to wards of the court with strict probation guidelines. The reasons they dropped out also vary: Many say they didn't like the way teachers talked at them instead of to them, some come from troubled families, and some simply couldn't make it to school each day because they didn't have bus fare.

But whatever the reason, Delta offers an important option for some of the growing number of kids who aren't making it in a traditional high school. In Santa Cruz city schools alone, more than 200 students are dropping out each year.

Delta offers individualized academic support and gives students the option of earning their high school diploma, General Education Diploma, or completing the California High School Proficiency Examination.

Delta also offers a range of support services, including bus passes, part-time job placements, counseling, and some medical services, that help students meet their academic goals. Adult mentors provide academic support, advice, and encouragement. This fall, Delta is introducing a new program for teen parents that provides child care and classes in parenting and life skills development for teen mothers and fathers.

Referred to as "the Delta difference," all of these services are, like the classes themselves, designed to encourage students to stay with Delta. Students work with teachers to develop a curriculum that meets their individual needs, and students receive close supervision to help ensure that they meet their goals.

Administrators acknowledge that not every student has stuck with the program, but for those who have, Delta has been a chance to start over. The school, which aims to help up to 200 dropouts during its first three years, has enrolled 37 students this fall. So far, 12 of the 17 students who've been eligible to graduate or meet their educational goals have done so, says Delta's resource coordinator Dobro Goodale.

Anthony Tafoya, 16, has thrived at Delta, where he says students have an opportunity to work at their own pace. For Tafoya, that has meant auditing a UCSC class on Chicano history and exploring computers. The school also helped him get a part-time job at Salz Leathers Inc.

Delta is the product of a unique partnership between business and schools. In 1994, a group of local business leaders formed Santa Cruz Cities in Schools, a nonprofit corporation that is part of a nationwide program to help at-risk students. They teamed up with the Santa Cruz City Schools District, County Health Services, and UCSC to create the new high school.

As a charter school, Delta isn't bound by the state Education Code. Support comes from the state through daily-attendance funds, grants from private foundations, and community fundraising.

The UCSC-Delta connection runs deep. Siting the school on the university campus provides a dramatically different setting from a traditional high school, and it surrounds Delta students with the "best and the brightest" of college students and faculty. UCSC also issues Delta students identification cards that provide access to libraries and recreation facilities.

UCSC undergraduates tutor Delta students and also serve as mentors. "Undergraduates are absolutely critical to the success of our program," says Delta Executive Director Andrea Hesse. "They are the most important mentors Delta kids have because they look like our students, yet they've actually made it to the next step."

Graduate students have taught at Delta, says Hesse, adding: "Delta can be very therapeutic for UCSC students because it's an opportunity to give back to the community."

Already, many faculty have volunteered their services to Delta students, lecturing on subjects as diverse as AIDS in Mexico, South African poetry, and marine sponges. "There are all kinds of ways for UCSC faculty, students, and staff to get involved," says Hesse, who, like many of Delta's staff members, is a graduate of UCSC.

Steve Royal, who graduated from UCSC in 1994, started teaching at Delta with Timothy Fitzmaurice, a lecturer in writing at UCSC. Royal has since taught creative writing, literature, and even astronomy at Delta and says the satisfaction is incomparable. "If you can take a kid off the streets and put him in school and see his face light up when he gets an A on a test--that's all you need," says Royal.

Royal sets high standards for his students, many of whom respond. "I don't want them to look at Delta School as an easy way out," says Royal, who describes watching one 16-year-old girl in a creative writing class go from writing prose filled with desperation to beautiful short stories by the end of the semester. "To see a girl go from such a point of despair to being hopeful about the future--it was a thrill to watch."

If you'd like to find out more about getting involved with Delta School, call Delta's resource coordinator, Dobro Goodale, at 458-0406.

--Jennifer McNulty