On May 22nd, nearly two hundred guests gathered at The Olympic Club in San Francisco for Aim High’s Annual Spring Luncheon. The collective energy was palpable as attendees jumped into writing I Am From poems, an activity taken straight from summer curriculum. Board President Shafia Zaloom led guests through the exercise and shared examples from students. A handful of people shared their creations with the room, while the rest read their poems to table mates over a full-service lunch. 

Following the meal, alumni Sarah Kong and Oscar Acabal and incoming Aim High Board President Bill Mellin delivered powerful speeches detailing their own Aim High stories. Sarah took listeners on a journey to her family’s hometown of Guangzhou, China. And Oscar set the scene of his upbringing in San Francisco’s Mission district in the early 2000’s. Bill found Aim High after researching ways to narrow the achievement gap between low-income youth and their more resourced peers.

The three different stories shared similar sentiments about the power of summer learning. At the end of his speech, Oscar invited the audience to join him in a call-and-response of Aim High’s Morning Mantra:

With my roots in community,

And the building blocks of respect,

I choose to reach for opportunity

And exceed my expectations

To make this day,

And every day

The best day ever

Enjoy the words of our speakers in full below. And as we approach our 33rd summer, we look forward to continuing the collaborative spirit synonymous with our community’s philanthropy.

Want to see the Aim High magic in person? Join us for a Visiting Day this summer!

Feeling inspired and ready to give? Make a donation today!

Our captivating speakers at Aim High’s Annual Spring Luncheon. (From left to right: Bill Mellin, Sarah Kong, Oscar Acabal, and Shafia Zaloom)

Sarah Kong, 2011 Aim High Alumna

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for joining us at Aim High’s Spring Luncheon. My name is Sarah Kong, and I am an Aim High graduate.

I grew up in the Bayview District, one of the most socioeconomically challenged neighborhoods in San Francisco. To this day, the Bayview has a reputation for violence, drugs, and poverty. In spite of that, members of my community remain resilient. My family is a reflection of that mindset. My parents both worked multiple jobs to provide for our family of seven, so my grandparents took care of my brother and me.

During elementary school, I visited my family’s hometown of Guangzhou, China, with my brother and grandparents. As we explored the city, my grandparents reminisced. They shared their experiences of raising a family in Guangzhou, and growing up during the Cultural Revolution in rural China. Due to poverty and famine, my grandparents were obligated to join the workforce at an early age, abandoning school. However, despite having limited education, my grandparents have always had a love for learning, and repeatedly reminded my brother and I of the privileges and power that came with education and knowledge. As a result, my brother and I understood the importance of education at an early age. We understood that my parents and grandparents had left the comfort of their home countries in pursuit of a better life.

Although my grandparents helped ignite my love for learning at an early age, I still found school challenging. I attended an over-populated public middle school on the other side of town, where learning was dull and unfulfilling. I felt disconnected from my classmates and kept to myself in the classroom. I had always been shy and afraid of stepping out of my comfort zone. I felt lost and uninspired.

One day in 2006, I heard about this free summer program called Aim High. Typically, I had spent my summers at home watching TV. But after learning about this opportunity, I was excited to try something new.

This is where my Aim High story begins. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I entered the doors of the program and was immediately welcomed. To my great surprise, I spent the next five weeks being everything but withdrawn; In Diahlo’s Humanities class, I learned about immigration process, and was eager to share my parents’ immigration story with my peers. In Arturo’s Science class, I learned about the different aspects of an ecosystem, and even rallied some of my new friends to join me in catching fish from the McLaren Park pond for our soda bottle biospheres. In Lydia’s Issues and Choices class, we analyzed 2Pac lyrics and relayed them back to the injustices of society. We even discussed the mysterious concept of college. In the afternoon, I learned how to cook and helped put together the Aim High yearbook. After my first summer at Aim High, I entered middle school feeling confident, outgoing, and ready to take on new challenges. I returned for three more summers after that.

Aim High had become a sanctuary for me. Over my four summers there, I gained the skill, confidence, and perspective I needed to succeed in middle school and beyond.  For the first time, I could relate to my teachers. They treated me with respect and empathy, and it reshaped my way of thinking. They encouraged me to ask questions and step outside my comfort zone. With my peers we built friendships that spanned beyond the classroom, and I’m still very close friends with many of them to this day. The uplifting, inclusive community and classroom I found at Aim High gave me the space and encouragement to grow and thrive. I value education a lot more now. I realize there’s a purpose for each lesson and assignment.

After graduating Aim High as a ninth grader, I returned as a Teaching Intern and was assigned to teach math, even though it had been my least favorite subject as a student. I spent my summer lesson-planning, leading classroom and afternoon activities, and building a strong rapport with students. Not only did the students begin to see me as their mentor, their relationships with math changed, and so did mine. I was able to diminish the stigmas of math in the span of five short weeks. At the age of 15, I had found my purpose in life: To teach –  and the world became far bigger than the constraints of my limited resources.

I graduated from Galileo High School in 2013 and went on to attend City College. Today, I am a student at the University of San Francisco where I double major in Biochemistry and Math and am also earning a teaching credential. I aspire to one day rectify the issues of poverty and inequality in socio-economically-challenged communities. Without Aim High, my passion for teaching would not have been discovered and continuously amplified.

As a future teacher, I hope to instill the values of inclusivity, resilience, and activism into my classrooms. I am a product of public education, immigrant parents, and welfare services, and Aim High transformed my limited resources into unlimited potential.

My story is an Aim High story, and there are thousands more like me who will walk through Aim High’s doors next month. Thank you for supporting us all.

Bill Mellin, Aim High Trustee

Hello.  I am Bill Mellin, an Aim High Trustee.  Here is my Aim High story.

Several years ago, I decided it was time for me to do something to improve educational outcomes for the vast number of students without the opportunities my own children had.

My first step was to research public school reform. But I found that “school reform” is incredibly complex and there are a lot of competing theories about what should be done. There are already bright minds and big budgets devoted to the topic, and it takes a long time to see any results.

I realized this was not really what I wanted to do. I was looking for something that not only had an impact, but where I could make an impact, where it really mattered if I got involved or not.  And, being an impatient person, I was looking for more immediate gratification; I wanted to know quickly whether what I did had an impact.

I discovered a body of research on summer learning loss, some of it dating back to 1978, that caught my attention. One key conclusion: As much as 2/3rds of the achievement gap between low-income students and their middle- and upper-income peers is caused by summer learning loss.  My takeaway: If there is one thing that you could focus on to narrow the achievement gap that would make more of a difference than anything else, it would be summer learning loss.  This has been known and accepted for decades, yet there is little public awareness, little media attention paid, and little money allocated.  

Now, the research says that all summers matter, but there is no organization that provides summer programming for all ages. So I had to focus. 

I did more research, and another key finding stood out for me: the best indicator of high school completion is academic success in middle school and a successful transition to high school. So, if you want more students to earn a high school diploma, make sure that students succeed in middle school, and make sure they are prepared for high school.

This is exactly where Aim High operates.  It offers a free, multi-year summer enrichment program to middle school students from low-income neighborhoods, focused on improving academic performance and teaching the skills needed for a smooth transition to high school and, ultimately, graduation and beyond.

And Aim High gets results, fast. In one summer, it changes students’ attitudes and outlook.  In three summers, it prepares students for a successful transition to high school and puts them on the path to on-time graduation and college readiness.  And Aim High plays a meaningful part in closing that ultimate achievement gap: 98% of Aim High graduates graduate from high school, as compared to 79% of low-income students state-wide.

So, Aim High checked all my boxes. I joined the Aim High Board 9 years ago, and I will be taking over as Board President in the fall.

Now, I suspect that many of you have the same boxes I do – you want to improve educational outcomes, you want to be confident that you are doing the right thing, you want your own involvement to really matter, and you want results, fast.  If this is true, and you are prepared to invest in our work, then there is a box that you can check, today.  On the response card in front of you, before you leave, please check the box that says “I want to donate to Aim High,” and indicate how much you would like to pledge in support of our work.  A generous donor has committed to matching all new and increased gifts up to $25,000, so if you make a first-time gift, or give more than you did last year, your gift will be doubled.

To give you an idea of just how much impact you can have, if we raise $200,000 in this room today you will fund an entire site this summer and change the trajectory of 100 low-income middle school students.

Just a few more enticements, and then I’ll move on.  In his opening remarks, Alec mentioned that 2300 students this summer will experience the “Aim High Magic.”  Now, while the transformation and growth that Aim High students experience is “magical”, it is not magic; it is the result of a rigorously crafted program delivered with care and precision that has been continuously improved over 33 years.  We know what we are doing.

And while it is fantastic that we will provide life-changing opportunities to 2300 students this summer, there are 23,000 more students throughout the Bay Area who qualify for our program.  And the only thing keeping us from reaching more of them is money. You can make a difference here, in this room, today.

If you are not quite ready to commit your support, then please check the “I want to learn more” box at the bottom of your response card and someone will follow up with you.  Best of all, if you want to support us today and also learn more, check both boxes. Thank you.

Oscar Acabal, 2009 Aim High Alumnus

Good afternoon, my name is Oscar Acabal and I am a proud Aim High graduate.

There’s an important ritual we have at Aim High. It’s called the morning mantra, and we recite it at the beginning of each day. Although I’m no longer an Aim High student, this mantra means a lot to me. It reminds me to never forget the community that raised me, and how all experiences – good or bad –  lead you to where you are in life.. It goes like this:

With my roots in community,

and the building blocks of respect.

I choose to reach for opportunity

and exceed my expectations

to make this day,

and every day

the best day ever.

Middle school can be a strange time for many people. Some view it as embarrassing, to others it’s a blur – I think the general consensus is “we don’t talk about it”. Looking back now, middle school holds a special place in my memory; yes, it was a time filled with ups and downs, but it was also a time filled with great opportunity.

My parents divorced when I was six, so it was just me, my mom and my brother. As a family of three residing on 24thth and Potrero in the early 2000s, we were familiar with the gang activity that polluted the area. We woke up to news of stabbings around the block from our apartment just because someone wore the wrong color. Like any parent, my mom feared that drugs and gangs would somehow twist themselves into my, or my younger brother’s life. Summers especially presented a problem as my mom worked full-time leaving us with no supervision.

When I was in sixth-grade year, my mom signed me up for Aim High. I was resistant – I just wanted a break from school! I never understood it back then, but I get it now; My mom was  trying to protect her family from the dangers that lurked so close to us.

I sulked my way across town to my first day of Aim High. I really didn’t want to be there. It was only days later that I realized all my preconceived notions couldn’t be further from the truth. At Aim High, learning was fun and meaningful. Each academic class was taught by a team of three teachers, and each one brought something different and dynamic to the classroom. They gave us individualized attention, which in turn helped build  mutual trust and respect. Soon enough kids were walking down the halls joking and high-fiving their teachers.

While I loved every class at Aim High equally, I did have a tiny preference for one specific class, Issues and Choices, an adolescent development class. It was taught by my favorite team of teachers, Dakari, Sydni and Marietou. In Issues + Choices, we would cover topics that were culturally relevant and had discussions that allowed me to feel like I was tackling important issues in the world. A controversial issue I remember discussing was the night Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna. It sparked a discussion surrounding why men should never hit women and where double standards appear in society. The conversation at first was awkward, but Issues and Choices taught me to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Once you get past the discomfort, the conversation really begins.

For the rest of my middle-school years, I looked forward to summer. I came back year after year to catch up with the friends and staff I’d met. Every summer was a reunion, and although we hadn’t known each other for that long, we had experienced some of the best moments of our lives together. When it was time to graduate the program, I was surprised at how heavy my chest felt saying goodbye to friends and staff alike. I didn’t want to leave the community I loved so much. So I didn’t. I returned the next summer as a volunteer and for the following six summers, to work as a teaching intern and recreate that same powerful experience for other young people. Every summer I gained a better understanding of what responsibility was, and how I had to grow in order to handle it. My time as an Aim High educator helped me become a confident young adult who went on to graduate from high school and attend college, becoming the first in my family to do so.

No matter where I am in life I always find myself coming back to Aim High. What began as a way to keep me busy throughout the summer, became a way to learn how to navigate life’s challenges and develop ways to grow from them. Aim High has shaped and changed me at my core. I’ve taken the skills, values, and confidence I gained at Aim High and continue to apply them in my life today. Currently, I am a software engineer at Salesforce. I still live by the Aim High mantra and am propelled forward by the program that gave me not just a summer pastime but a home and community as well, because…[NOW, REPEAT AFTER ME]

With my roots in community,

and the building blocks of respect.

I choose to reach for opportunity

and exceed my expectations

to make this day,

and every day

the best day ever.

Thank you.

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