Mountain View Voice: Students in need come to POE

Aug 2, 2010:

"My mother, who struggles with mental illness and substance abuse, had me when she was 15." "I've slept in a bed less than one year of my life." "I lost my home in a fire, but also my mother and my childhood."

So begin some of the application essays for Pursuit of Excellence (POE), a Palo Alto-based organization that grants scholarships to local low-income high school seniors.

The organization, founded by Dick and Jerry Smallwood of Palo Alto in 1984, started out small, giving out just one scholarship in 1985. Since then, over 300 students have received POE scholarships.

Dick and Jerry had slightly different reasons for starting POE. Dick attended MIT on full scholarship and wanted to help others realize their own college dreams. Jerry's previous work as a teacher and social worker led her to realize that helping young people succeed gives her "a boost."

Unlike many other scholarship organizations, POE commits to supporting its students through each year of college, provided that the students are making satisfactory academic progress, which is defined on an individual basis. In extreme cases, this might mean supporting students for as long as six years as they work their way through school. One student who will graduate this spring first received a POE scholarship in 2003.

POE has a very hands-on approach with its scholarship recipients. Each POE board member mentors three or four students, meeting with them at the beginning of each school year to review the student's transcript, budget, and plans for the next year.

"I used to meet with all the students myself," says Jerry Smallwood. "Now that the board members are involved it's easier to track the students. We also adjust the student's financial award each year, although the amount is usually the same as or slightly higher than the previous year's award. We like to be flexible; when a student needs extra money due to a change in circumstances, we try to provide it."

To find its applicants, POE targets school districts which either have an AVID program or a significant number of low-income students. The greatest number of scholarship recipients have come from the Sequoia school district. Other students are from Eastside College Prep, East Palo Alto High School, Mountain View High School, and — to the surprise of some people — Palo Alto and Los Altos high schools.

"A lot of people say, 'Los Altos!' But a number of students at Los Altos High School live in the apartments near El Camino or in Mountain View and are very low income, so there is a lot of need there that tends to go unrecognized," explains Jerry.

The top two characteristics the Smallwoods look for in applicants are financial need and determination. Indeed, many of the students demonstrate their ability to overcome enormous obstacles in their application essays by writing about topics such as the death, incarceration or deportation of their parents; parental drug abuse, mental illness and domestic violence; their own homelessness, abuse or neglect; and the everyday struggles of extreme poverty and having to help raise their younger siblings.

Says Jerry, "I read the newspapers and get depressed. Then I meet these amazing kids and think maybe the world isn't so bad after all."

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