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March 27, 2013 / HandsOnCorps

Beyond Academic Success…by Natasha Murtaza

Natasha Murtaza Picture
My name is Natasha Murtaza and I am one of the Academic Success VISTAs serving at Sylmar Biotech Health Academy through the non-profit, Youth Policy Institute. Sylmar Biotech is located in the East San Fernando Valley and is in its first year of operations with a student population of 112 ninth graders. As an Academic Success VISTA, I focus on providing tutoring and enrichment programs for the students.
Sylmar Biotech is 20 minutes away from the high school I attended and the neighborhood I grew up in. My high school, Granada Hills High School, is a public school turned charter and has one of the highest test scores in this area. Sylmar High School, a neighboring rival school, in comparison is struggling with low test scores and graduation rates. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and local non-profits are grappling to reinvent the education system in Los Angeles so low performing schools like Sylmar are able to model more successful public schools in the area who have flourished under similar difficult circumstances. In the last few years, LAUSD has invested in a couple of “experiments” to jumpstart the lagging education system in LA. Sylmar Biotech Health Academy is one of the results, a partnership school operated by LAUSD and Youth Policy Institute. The school’s successes or failures in the first few years of its existence will influence the path of educational reform and policy in LA.
While discussing education reform, there is plenty of talk about models, data and results but not enough about the students, families and neighborhoods. The worst performing schools in LAUSD are those located in lower income neighborhoods, where excellent schools are desperately needed. The schools in these neighborhoods have few resources and struggle dealing with not only the students’ academic performance but their difficult circumstances at home. It is impractical to ask a student to get straight As when they are moving from foster home to foster home or when their parents are working double shifts and they are the primary caretakers for their younger siblings. There needs to be a comprehensive approach to reforms and services provided. Youth Policy Institute has worked to create community schools, where the students, parents and community members all receive services and work together to improve the school.
The AmeriCorps VISTA program’s goal at Sylmar Biotech Health Academy is to provide additional resources to the students, parents and community and work to make Biotech into a community school. The Academic Success program at the school seeks to improve student academic performance and engagement through various tutoring, mentoring and enrichment programs. We recruit volunteer tutors from local colleges to help tutor students during and after school. We have an intervention program in which the school staff serves as mentors for students who are getting Ds or Fs in their classes. College Knowledge is another program we started that seeks to teach the students about college and what they need to get there. We run the student government and organize student clubs, playing a leading role in student programming. We have also organized various field trips and additional incentives for students to do well academically. My goal as an Academic Success AmeriCorps VISTA is to make the students aware of how college and education is accessible and available to everyone and is the means to a better life. I believe it is our responsibility as AmeriCorps members to ensure that we provide the resources for these students to do just that. This is what inspires me to do what I do every day no matter the difficulties and obstacles I face.

Natasha Murtaza
Academic Success VISTA
Youth Policy Institute
http://www.ypiusa.org

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