American (Hoop) Dreams: The Story of Eastside College Prep
What began as an afterschool basketball program for East Palo Alto students has become a college preparatory with a stunning track record of success
When you first step onto campus at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto, it’s hard to imagine its roots. Not only did the school have no campus to begin with, it wasn’t even a school: When cofounder and current principal Chris Bischof started Eastside, it was an afterschool basketball program with a strong academic component, designed to help East Palo Alto students sharpen their academic skills outside the classroom.
Now, not only does Eastside have a campus, but there are live-in dorms for students, and a track record of success—every student at Eastside has been accepted to college—that is truly amazing.
“It’s been a long-term process, evolving to where we are today,” says Bischof with a laugh, “to a place where now we’re not only serving kids through high school, but also continuing to help them through college—that’s a big part of what we do.”
While they made the transition from afterschool program to school more quickly than you might imagine, that original school was…small.
“We started with eight students, and worked up from there,” Bischof recalls. “At that point, our goal was simply to see if we could get every student into college—but we learned quickly that that wasn’t enough. We had to focus on helping them not only get to college, but through college and into a professional career, so that their hard work here can pay off for them over the long haul.”
The inspiration for the program, and the school, came from the community. When Bischof began, there was no high school in East Palo Alto—students had to be bused elsewhere for education, which meant that the same support, the infrastructure surrounding the schools they attended (afterschool programming included), was also typically at a distance from their homes. And that environment, which characterizes many of the most underserved communities in urban cores, can be toxic for kids.
“So, the basketball program started in 1991, five years prior to the start of the school,” Bischof says. “Again, we started with a very small group of seven third and fourth grade boys, following their way up and through eighth grade and taking on another group each year below them.”
At that time, the program was run out of an elementary school in the East Palo Alto community. That took care of facilities, and Bischof’s program also built strong connections within the neighborhood—lasting bonds that would go on to help when it came time to build a school of their own.
“There were a lot of big positives about that program,” Bischof explains. “It was very intense—six days a week, using participation as an inspiration to do better in school. We had an afterschool study hall and reading program, and in order to practice each day, the students would have to participate in that academic session beforehand. And then, in order to play in the games on the weekends, they would have to have completed their homework assignments throughout the week. So, there was a real, powerful link there.”
He continues: “It was exciting to see how students became much more motivated, both in terms of their attendance—showing up every day afterschool, making gains on their reading comprehension skills. But, it wasn’t enough to think that they could leave this program in the eighth grade, head out to high school outside of their community, and then expect that they would all be well prepared to go on to college four years later.
“That’s really where the idea came from, transitioning from an intense, afterschool program into a full-fledged, comprehensive school.”
There’s no question that Bischof and Eastside have made a tremendous impact. That’s a given. But, it has come at a cost—it takes an equally tremendous amount of work to get something like this done. So, what motivated them to take it on?
“It’s a combination of experiences, some of which came from playing basketball myself throughout high school in the East Palo Alto community,” Bischof says.
Bischof grew up outside the neighborhood, but formed lasting bonds with his teammates.
“Then, when it came to college, it was really eye-opening: I went off to college, and my teammates didn’t.”
Immediately, Bischof was inspired to get involved with the community where he had spent a great portion of his youth.
“I think it was really recognizing that sports could be a real motivator, a means to an end, to hopefully get students who might not otherwise be that interested in academics to focus in, and perform better in school,” Bischof explains.
His early work at the elementary and middle school levels then motivated him to pursue teaching as a career—Bischof graduated with a master’s degree in education from the Stanford Teacher Education program in 1993.
“The combination of those experiences motivated me to want to continue on this path,” he says.
Now, looking back at the success that Eastside has had, it’s impossible not to wonder, could this be a model that shapes, or at least informs, future public policy decisions?
“Well, I mean, I would hope so,” Bischof says. “And, I think [SportUp CEO] Drew [Payne] is definitely on that line of thinking as well, with all that SportUp is trying to do to essentially document the effectiveness of these programs, in many different ways—not only in terms of attendance, but also academic performance.”
He adds: “If that can be shown on a large scale, I think it would have tremendous implications for reform—for funding opportunities, for programs that complement the school system, for programs within the school system that allow students to really become engaged in the school community, developing a talent or interest of theirs that really motivates them to do well.
“In my opinion, I’m convinced that there is a powerful connection—that it is a powerful combination—and I hope that it leads to more [cocurricular] programs like these for students.”
And, ultimately, what’s the bottom line?
“What’s the alternative?” asks Bischof. “Kids are hanging out. And that tends to lead to risky, dangerous situations. If you don’t have alternatives, you tend to do what’s available, and that can mean doing things you shouldn’t be doing.
“Whereas if kids are given a positive alternative, they will seek it out. It has to be done on an intense basis—it’s not enough to do two or three days a week, because then it’s too hard to stay the course through the other three or four days? Then, they can get drawn away. But if you have that consistent, daily opportunity to participate in something positive, something enriching, it makes such a difference.”
It’s true. Kids want—and need—to be challenged. To be asked to push their limits. They’re not scared of hard work. They welcome it.
“Not only will it make a difference, but kids will respond to it. They will gravitate to it.” ^DFG
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