“It makes a difference to have someone who is invested in you and is closer in age to you, genuinely caring about your success…”
Every morning, faculty and staff members at Gooch Elementary School greet each student with a handshake at the front door of the building — even if it’s pouring rain. The students shuffle into the assembly room for community circle, their morning ritual during which each class sings their college song and chants to compete for the spirit stick.
Martha Bujanda’s mission as Gooch Elementary’s principal is to embed a “college-going” culture at all levels of education. Each class is assigned a college, and that college’s flag hangs outside of the room.
After singing each morning, the students, who she calls scholars, walk single file past a poster reading “The Road to College Starts Now” to their classrooms, where they are greeted for a second time by name with a handshake and eye contact.
“We force them to learn the social skills they wouldn’t learn anywhere else,” Bujanda said. “We focus on behavior just as much as we do academics.”
To further enforce the “going to college” mentality, Bujanda started a collaborative mentorship program in 2013, bridging the public and private school sectors.
Every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon, students from St. Mark’s, Hockaday, and Greenhill volunteer to mentor a third, fourth, or fifth-grade Gooch Scholar. Bujanda estimates about 40-50 percent of the students at Gooch participate in the program.
Greenhill student Isabel Chavez, 16, has dedicated her Saturdays, spring breaks, and three weeks of her summer vacation to the mentorship program. Last year, she mentored fifth-grader Stephanie Marin for three hours every Saturday.
“She was like my little sister, honestly,” Chavez said. “On Valentine’s Day, she brought me a box of chocolates.”
Greenhill students alone dedicated 1,135 hours during the 2014-15 school year to the program.
“This is true volunteerism because the students get to see their impact firsthand,” said Sally Rosenberg, director of service and learning at Greenhill. “Often they are more concerned with how their scholars are doing with their studies than they are with their own.”
Bujanda’s goal for the program is to build genuine, one-on-one relationships between the mentors and scholars.
“It makes a difference to have someone who is invested in you and is closer in age to you, genuinely caring about your success and believing passionately in you,” Bujanda said.
Gooch’s state rating went from “Improvement Required” to “Met Standard” in 2014, after one year of the Saturday mentorship program. In both 2014 and 2015, Gooch scored in the top 25 percent in the state for closing performance gaps. In 2015, 80 percent of Gooch students passed their STAAR exams, up from 60 percent in 2013.
Chavez got to see Marin graduate from fifth grade in May. She surprised her with flowers.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see what amazing things can happen when a community of committed individuals come together for the good of our kids,” Bujanda said.