The teenagers, hired as peer educators to teach other kids like themselves, have two parts to their jobs. The first is to teach kids about safe sex. The second is to teach them about college. At this stage in the training, which is very early, none of them know much about either.

“We’re going to talk to you about college,” shouts  a small, rambunctious teenager. “Because we’re so cool!” She breaks into a nervous tap dance, and turns to the girl next to her. “Hey Erica! Can you go to college if you ain’t got no money?”

“No,” says Erica.

“The answer to that is false,” is the reply, as the student, fans out her hands like a dancing showgirl, “because there’s this thing called financial aid.

She gestures at a huge banner behind her, laboriously handwritten in rainbow magic marker. “Something you might want to do is look at the posters with the nice colors.”

As the story goes, when the nonprofit Mission Graduates decided to hire teenagers to teach other teenagers about their college options, they decided it was more efficient to just add what they wanted taught to another program. And so they partnered with a sex ed program run by Mission Neighborhood Health Centers.

The dual curriculum makes for some interesting juxtapositions. Half the educators will teach sex ed in the fall, while the other half will teach about college. In the spring, the roles will be reversed.

What this means is that over at the other side of the room, the other half of the group is deciding who will explain which reproductive anatomy. External male and internal and external female are already taken, but no one wants internal male. One of the guys at the table, a small, world-weary boy, sighs. “I’ll take it,” he says.

“OK,” he says, holding up the illustration and pointing. “This is your urethra.”

At the other side of the room, a student continues explaining college to a group of sympathetic, bored peer educators who are pretending to be the unsympathetic, bored students.

“Question!” she shouts. “Stanford, Harvard and Yale are the best schools!”

“Yes! No! Yes!” say the other teenagers.

No,” says she replies. “The best school may not be the best for you.”

The woman leading them through their presentation is small and blonde, and has curly hair like a silent film starlet. Her nose is pierced with a large-gauge bull ring, which would make someone larger look like a thug, but which just makes Jill look like the grownup at the table.

“So,” says Jill, changing the subject. “You’re borrowing money. Big amounts of money. What happens if you don’t pay?” Jill’s teaching style is Socratic in nature. If there’s a way to answer a question by asking one, she’ll do it.

“I think they kick you out of your housing and out of the school,” says Francois.

“You don’t have to pay while you’re in school,” says Jill. “But they’ll go looking for you. They’ll call you at your work.”

“That’s what they did to my brother,” one of the kids says, quietly.

“What if you run away?” says another. “Out of the country?”

Jill looks at her. “Do you really want to run away from this country?”

She changes the subject again. “What do you want to study?” she asks the group.

“I want to be a social worker or an architecture person or an astronomer,” says Elizabeth. “I want to live in an apartment with three kids. I want to move to LA.”

“I want to be a doctor. Or a children surgeon,” says Makoda.

“I want to be a dolphin trainer/biologist/dog trainer/mommy,” says another student.

“I want to be a music star slut,” says Francois. “I want to be a radio host psychotherapist ambassador smartest person in the world with the most money.”

He gets a flustered look, suddenly. “Those English learning kids are hella rude,” he says, referring to a workshop the group did last week. “They were giggling and speaking in Spanish.”

“Why do you think that is?” says Jill, true to form.

“Because they’re rude.

Jill pauses. “I don’t think they’re trying to be rude,” she says. “They don’t speak English very well. So what else can you do? Speak slowly. Write it down on the board. Sometimes they will be able to read it. It’s tough.”

Francois is still frustrated. “I don’ t know how to tell the children to stop talking without being rude. When I say something, they keep talking, but when she says something” — he gestures to Emily, a reed-thin, quiet girl with braces and a stocking cap — “they stop. I want them to stop talking when I tell them. I can’t stand disrespect.”

“Did you know any of the kids in that class?” Jill asks Emily.

Emily nods. “That’s one of the reasons why I translated for them,” she says quietly. “I knew they didn’t know.”

The group returns to the lesson plan. Across the table, Elizabeth has opened the black binder in front of her and is gazing at it. She’s been doing this throughout the workshop.

“Did you tell these guys?” Jill asks.


“Everyone!” Jill shouts. “Elizabeth has some news to share with all of you!”

“I got accepted to SF State,” says Elizabeth. She is beaming.

Suddenly, all sarcasm is gone. Francois extends both hands in front of him like Superman, and runs towards her. “Oh my god!” he yells. ” Jump for joy!”

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. As an employee of a local, family owned business in the Mission, I am very familiar with the Mission Local paper, and have always respected it as a source for supporting the unique community that the Mission has to offer, but this article has changed my opinion. This is clearly an example of poor journalism, it feels as if the author is trying to give a representation of what Mission Graduates offers, but instead gives only silly banter and odd, somewhat demeaning physical descriptions of the students and the staff. It feels as if the journalist only spent 30 or less minutes with Mission Graduates and then just threw together this article with what she remembered. I would be ashamed if something like this was written about the business I am so proud to work for. This article is really unnecessary, and I just wanted to voice my opinion, and I really hope that Mission Local will brush this article off it’s shoulders and go back to publishing stories like the one Betty Bastidas did about Mission Graduates back in March 2010, saying that Mission Graduates is an important education program that really works. Thank you for your time.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. We agree that Mission Graduates is an important education program. The In Class series – one we have done at several schools in the Mission – is an attempt to reflect what is going on in different classrooms. As you note, we have done other stories on Mission Graduates and we will do more, but it’s also important for Mission District residents to experience the classroom and students. To me, this piece does that well – the students are serious, funny and kind. The classroom is like life – full of contradictions. But yes, we will follow up and do more. Thank you, Lydia

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  2. As a social worker in a local non-profit, I know how important programs like Mission Graduates are. This program offers students the rare opportunity to play a central role in the learning process.

    The students in this article sound engaged and enthusiastic. It is obvious that there is real learning and a genuine dialog present in these interactions.

    How sad that your reporting sounds extremely bias and completely misses the whole point of the program. It shows a blatant lack of respect for the students and the instructor alike. You have downplayed one of the students being accepted to college and directly stated that they do not have the choice to go to an Ivy League school. Shame on you.

    You have really taken away from the successes brilliance in the teaching style here. Thankfully, anyone who understands this kind of work knows that Jill’s “Socratic” teaching style encourages discussion and openness in her classroom. And by the way, who cares what she looks like or what kind of piercings she has? Her students are learning, and there are evidenced successes in this program.

    Your attitude, which is ever present in today’s society, is exactly what programs like this are fighting against. We should be lifting these people up, not cutting them down. Kudos to Mission Graduates!

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  3. Hi Heather,

    Thank you for taking the time to write an article on Mission Graduates Peer Educator program, although it is currently incorrect. We had discussed you attending one of their ‘College 101’ presentations and contacting me with additional questions, none of which happened. If you had contacted me, I could have clarified the program structure and history, as it is not accurate.

    Unfortunately, since the above did not happen, there are quite a few pieces of misinformation in your article. We do not have any educators in the program named Kelly. I would also like to clarify, you had visited with our group in mid-November. While you state, “At this stage in the training, none of them know much about either”, it would be helpful to note that this stage in the training was over 5 months ago. Elizabeth is not pregnant, as you insinuated, and at this point in time, she has been accepted to 5 colleges, in addition to SFSU. These 6 schools include CSU’s, UC’s and private schools. She also has received over 5000 dollars in scholarships, and is waiting to here back from another 20+ scholarships.

    A number of omissions also occurred, such as a long discussion we had during the meeting on ALL financial aid options, including grants, and scholarships. We also discussed A-G requirements (which are the courses required to be eligible for CSU/UC admission) and myths/facts around college access. The quote about loans was taken out of context, and I only replied that “they would look for you” after a youth kept thinking up scenarios “if” someone avoid repaying loans. Many youth in Mission Graduates programs never need to incur loans, as other financial aid options, and hard work on scholarship applications, are able to cover the full cost of tuition.

    We also had a conversations on college options. Many youth who are apart of Mission Graduates programs are excepted to a wide variety of universities. You quoted “Kelly” stating that Stanford or Harvard may not be the best schools. Again, we do not have an educator in the program named Kelly, so I am not sure who you are quoting here. In addition, the message is not to discourage Mission District youth from applying to these schools. I firmly believe the youth in our programs are fully capable of being successful at top ranked schools. The message is that choosing a college is a very individual choice, that should be based on campus size, atmosphere, location, student activities, and academic style.

    The youth take the ‘College 101’ presentations very seriously, and I think you would have been impressed with their level of skill and professionalism, had you attended one of the presentations. To date, they have presented to over 120 youth. Some of our program outcomes include:
    100% of Peer Educators who have participate in the program as seniors, are currently enrolled in a program of post-secondary education.
    100% of Peer Educator have developed personalized educational plans and receive comprehensive college counseling
    90% of Peer Educators have reported they are more likely to talk to parents or guardians about their future plans/college
    90% of teens who participate in a College 101 workshop are be able to define the A-G requirements (which are the courses required to be eligible for CSU/UC admission)
    90% of teens who participate a College 101 workshop are be able to identify a supportive adult in their life who will be encouraging of their future goals
    90% of teens who participate in a College 101 workshop are be able to define the FASFA

    All youth in our Peer Educator program attend Mission High School, or John O’Connell High School. Both of these schools were recently granted School Improvement Grants (SIG), due to low test scores. As you state “they all know they are part of a system that doesn’t place them anywhere near the top”. Youth in our program join because they are dedicated to the cause of educating their peers about college, and are aware that many of their Latino and African American peers are not receiving equal access to educational opportunities.

    The Mission District youth need allies, not criticism. I hope in the future Mission Local will spend more time with the programs they are writing about, so they too can become an ally.


    Jill Marinelli

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    1. Jill,

      Thanks for the extremely thorough, and thoughtful reply. I did not in any way intend the article as criticism of the program or of the potential college options of any of the students. I’m just going to go ahead and remove those portions of the article that you mentioned as specifically offensive, and let your comments stand as they are.

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