The way Diane Gray tells it, the Bayview-Hunters Point nonprofit that she started in 1999 is finding wild success in the era of COVID-19. According to the San Francisco native, the most recent batch of 21 high school seniors, whom her organization helped gain entry into college, won more than $640,000 in scholarships — a record haul that is twice the amount of the previous group.
Gray, an SF State alum, is the executive director of 100% College Prep — an organization committed to creating “college-ready students from San Francisco’s low-wealth communities to begin and complete post-secondary education.” What is also remarkable about the recent record-breaking scholarship haul is that it is two-thirds of the organization’s total operating budget, which is shy of $1 million.
While it has been documented that at-risk students — such as those 100% CP targets — are the “most vulnerable to learning challenges during the pandemic,” Gray said that despite initial concerns students passing through her organization are meeting and/or beating the organization’s trend of success from recent years.
“Once we went into the pandemic everyone was nervous about how this was going to work,” Gray said. “On our website it says 100% of our students have graduated from high school, and that still really stands.”
Gray also said that describing the growing success of students amid the pandemic as Black excellence is “perfect.” Urban Dictionary defines Black excellence as “someone that is Black and portrays great qualities and abilities that make the Black community proud.”
By its definition, Black excellence is on display among the nonprofit’s leadership as much as it is the students. Associate Program Director, and SF State Alum Tachelle Herron, said that staff have gone out of their way to provide students with programming that honors their success amid the struggles brought on by the pandemic. Last May, after many in-person graduation ceremonies were cancelled, Gray and her staff made it a priority to make students feel special.
“She [referring to Gray] went out of her way to get packages [to students] and make sure that their special day was celebrated,” Herron said.
Students notice the hard work put in by Gray, Herron and the other staff who comprise the organization. Moanee Angel-Short, a highschool junior who has worked with Herron since the sixth grade, said that 100% College Prep is a supportive place where she feels the staff is looking out for everyone.
“I like how everyone here is so supportive,” Angel-Short said. “All the adults have your best interests at heart. It’s just very helpful for people who struggle in school and also people who don’t struggle, but just need support in general.”
While Angel-Short can attest to the success of the organization, she lamented the impact the pandemic has had on her experience.
“Before there were a lot more kids coming,” Angel-Short said. “We usually play board games after we finish our work, but we can’t do that now because you have to stay six feet away.”
Six feet is a small stretch when you compare it to the length of time since 100% College Prep’s inception at the tail end of the previous millennium. In describing the origin of the nonprofit, Gray said that the idea came from a “conversation with young people, that just wasn’t what we wanted to hear” one day while tutoring students. The conversation left Gray and others present as though there were unmet needs in the community. What happened after was genuine community building.
“We just wanted our young people to prepare for their futures, but that wasn’t their mindset,” Gray said. “Before we knew it we had their parents involved, other parents involved and the community involved. It just really blew up from there.”
As far her work at the nonprofit goes, Herron said that what keeps her going is paying forward the privilege she was afforded as a young student by one of her mentors.
“My privilege keeps me going. I was told very young I have the right to go to college,” Herron said. “You can not stop. You must finish. Go get a degree.”
Angel-Short is following suit behind Gray, Herron and all the women in her life she draws inspiration from on her journey to make college a reality.
“They just inspire me everyday to push and be the best I can be,” Angel-Short said. “Now I know that there’s a school out there where there will be more people who look like me. I didn’t know that before I came to [100% College Prep]. I think that it has opened my eyes a little bit more to better things.”