Merced Office of Education donates auto to Project 10%

Cesar E. Chavez Middle School eighth grader Alejandra Tenorio, 13, signs her “high school diploma” during a Project 10% session at the Planada school last spring.
Cesar E. Chavez Middle School eighth grader Alejandra Tenorio, 13, signs her “high school diploma” during a Project 10% session at the Planada school last spring. Merced Sun-Star file

Sometimes it takes a vehicle to make an inspirational message possible.

The Merced County Office of Education has donated use of an automobile that will make it easier for UC Merced students to visit eighth graders, urging them to stay in school and consider going to a college or university when they graduate.

During the school year, UC Merced students visit middle-school students throughout the county, in a program called Project 10%. For some of these UC students, transportation is an issue. The project’s goal is to increase high school graduation rates by 10 percent over a five-year period. The project is a partnership between faculty and staff at UC Merced, MCOE, the Merced County District Attorney’s Office and the local bilingual publication “Between Friends.”

Vernette Doty, associate director of student life and civic leadership at UC Merced, said the Ford Explorer that MCOE has made available for visits to local campuses is highly prized. The university doesn’t have enough vehicles for the Project 10% students to use and some students don’t have a car of their own.

Annie Dossetti, assistant superintendent for educational services with the Merced City School District, said UC students visit all four local middle schools, talking to eighth graders about the importance of graduation from high school and convincing them that their education is important.

Dossetti said students have an easier time relating to the university students than police officers or guidance officials. She said sometimes the UC students share stories about the hardships they’ve faced growing up and inspire the youngsters to press on toward higher education.

Carlos Fuentes, a local attorney since 2002, believes in Project 10% so much so that he donated a $1,500 for gas, so the UC students will be able to travel to campuses throughout the county.

“You can’t do very much with a vehicle without gas,” Fuentes said. “The statistics are horrible for those who don’t graduate, as far as staying out of prison or making money. You ignite these children’s minds and there is no stopping them.”

Fuentes said many students have no idea that there is a university here in Merced or that there are options when they finish public school. Before the UC students talked to them, they had no plans for their future, something that shows up frequently when the middle-school students turn in evaluation cards after a Project 10% visit.

Steve Gomes, Merced County superintendent of schools, said Project 10% is a great opportunity for the county’s eighth-graders to see how students who might not have had the easiest path ultimately succeeded.

“You just don’t know how one story can have a major impact in getting a student on the path to college and career,” Gomes said. “The reverse is true, too. The UC students are never the same after visiting the eighth graders.”

Kia Bursey, a senior sociology major who will graduate in December, said when she speaks to individual students, she tells them never to give up when things get hard.

“Everybody goes through tough times,” Bursey said. “They learn if they push through now, they will be more successful in the future.”

Bursey, a 22-year-old from Lancaster who has been at UC Merced since 2010, isn’t sure about her career goal but would love to teach and ultimately wants to help children in poverty and shape public policy in this area.

Doty said Project 10% started in 2012. Those behind the project don’t have statistics to measure the impact of the older students’ words to impressionable adolescents, but said the impact of these messages is far-reaching. Doty said 15 to 20 students have been through the half-day of Project 10% training and another nine are awaiting training.

“It’s making an impact on the eighth graders and our students, too,” Doty said.

For the 2013-14 school year, 15 UC Merced students spoke to nearly 3,200 middle-school students at 19 Merced County schools. So far in the 2014-15 school year, there are seven UC Merced students with more than 10 in training and 217 that have spoken to more than 200 middle-school students.

Since the project’s inception, about 6,500 middle-school students have benefited from the presentation.

Sun-Star staff writer Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.