Partners Is Not Your Ordinary Summer School

The mentoring program based at College Preparatory School empowers, motivates, and inspires its participating middle school students.


Photo by Julie Anderson

Summer school. The very words are enough to inject fear into any kid’s heart: long, tedious hours locked in a stuffy classroom, thanks to a failed math or English class.

This is precisely what Partners is not. If anything, Partners is more like academic camp than school: It’s a four-week, tuition-free summer program featuring dance as well as math, art as well as English, with a hefty dose of carnivals, games, and drama thrown in. The kids who attend Partners are all from underserved Oakland middle schools. Based at the College Preparatory School Campus, Partners helps them prepare for high school — and have fun in the process.

“It’s not a remedial program, and it’s also not a super high AP advanced program; it’s all of it,” said Shelby Margolin, Partners program manager. “We’re a college-bound program, but we’re more about helping kids where they are right now and assisting their growth. We look for students who are excited about learning and excited about education.”

You can feel the excitement if you visit Partners on a summer morning. Classes are small — generally about eight kids — and very lively. They’re also a little unconventional. The average morning at Partners includes math and English, but it also features debate and a class called Life Pathways. In Pathways, kids discuss topics such as gender or race and share with one another very personal opinions about what community means to them or what gives them hope. Enter a debate class, and you might hear kids avidly discussing the pros and cons of free national health care. Later, after a lunch provided by Partners, students learn to code, practice a dance, or rehearse a scene from a play. The day concludes by reviewing assignments or engaging in a small contest or competition.

It’s the dance classes that most surprised Saul, in his second year at Partners. “You have to do dance; it’s not an elective,” he said. “I had my doubts, but it’s really fun.”

Amaya, a rising ninth-grader, added, “Everyone participates; everyone moves together. It’s really nice.”

Kids do different kinds of dance — capoeira, African dance, hip-hop — and work hard at it. In Colette Eloi’s eighth-grade dance class, kids practice Haitian-inspired choreography to a contemporary hip-hop beat. As they jumped, shimmied, and spun across the floor, their faces lit up with joy.

The coding classes are another unusual feature of Partners. While other summer enrichment programs may have coding classes, these are special in that they’re not taught by adults, but by older students. One of these students, Charles — a recent graduate of the College Preparatory School — is a participant in Oakland’s Hidden Genius Project. The project, which mentors young African-American men in technology and leadership, provided Charles with the skills to teach his own coding courses. Walk into one of them and you’ll see eight middle schoolers, each working on a laptop and writing code while Charles moves around the room, peering at students’ screens and giving them assistance.

Although coding might be the only course where the lead teacher is an older child, each class has several student teachers called mentors. Some of the mentors are college age, some are in high school, but all of them forge close relationships with the younger students.

“Mentors are your best friends,” Amaya said.

“They make you feel welcome and answer all your questions,” Saul added. “Like, ‘Is high school hard’?”

Sam Beltran, director of partners, said, “there’s all kinds of great research that shows how critical a strong, effective mentorship model is to inspiring, motivating, and empowering these young folks of color. The mentors pass on the values of the program; they make sure the students are engaged; they support and empower them.”

That was certainly the case for Jessica, a college mentor in Partners, but originally a student in the program herself. She said that the best part of Partners was the relationships she developed with her mentors.

“I realized there were a lot of opportunities out there that I hadn’t known about before, especially in terms of education,” she said.

Jessica is about to enter her senior year at Williams College and hopes to transform the lives of other young students of color by working in either college or high school admissions when she graduates.

The summer program is, however, only one component of Partners. High school mentors continue their work into the school year, tutoring the younger students one on one. They meet on a weekly basis at different schools around Oakland, providing both academic and emotional support. These relationships can last many years, and sometimes even extend into college.

Partners also has a third branch: high school advising. Run by Beltran and Margolin, this branch of the program provides counseling and information sessions for students and their families, as well as support around admissions essays and tests. The result was that in 2017-2018, all 22 of the ninth-grade graduating class entered top-tier college preparatory high schools, including the College Preparatory School.

College Prep not only provides the physical facilities; it also provides much of the equipment for the program and some of the funding. In addition, many of the student teachers are College Prep students and alumni. Monique DeVane, the head of College Prep, said that the connection between Partners and College Prep “is a two-way street. We’re not just a host; College Prep wants to engage in meaningful ways with the broader Oakland community.”

Indeed, Partners is very much a part of this broader community. The students come from 23 middle schools in the city and the surrounding East Bay. Ultimately, Partners is all about Oakland — and about partnering, or forging connections, between younger and older kids, between public and private schools, between schools and families, between local nonprofits. If community, in the end, is a series of interwoven relationships, each building upon and strengthening the others, then Partners, in seeking to forge these links and nurture them, is serving Oakland in all the best possible ways.

For more information about the Partners program, contact Samuel Beltran, Partners director, at

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