Building A New America: Kyle Halle-Erby

Microsoft Bay Area is committed to helping solve local challenges through technology, deep relationships and a commitment to serving the needs of the Bay Area community. Here on our blog, we’ve focused on the organizations and civic leaders that are moving our cities forward. In our latest series, we’re highlighting fellows from New America CA, which supports social entrepreneurs at the forefront of local innovation.

In San Francisco, students and teachers are building change together. San Francisco International High School, a public school that opened in 2009, offers a unique program serving exclusively newcomer immigrants who are also learning English.

Kyle Halle-Erby, New America California Fellow and teacher at San Francisco International High School (SFIHS), works in building college and career pathways for these students. But he doesn’t stop at high school. The big issue for his students is college retention — and he’s looking to fix that.

“My work has been around what schools and school districts can do to improve retention rates around community colleges,” Halle-Erby explains, “and the success they can contribute by integrating these programs beyond high school.”

Halle-Erby says he helped develop three new programs at SFIHS in response to a need he saw with his first graduates; as a new school founded in 2009, their first graduating classes showed how little progress is made for immigrant students after graduation.

“We’d have kids come back and visit and we were so excited to see them,” Halle-Erby says, “and we’d hear they dropped out. There were so many issues of advocacy and understanding at large that students didn’t really have. So many challenges they have as newcomers persist, and as they move away from an environment that isn’t designed for them, they still need that support.”

Halle-Erby makes a point that these students are still college-ready. There are skill deficits and knowledge gaps for every student population, but for students who that wasn’t the case, the cultural barrier still made it difficult to stay in college. So they thought: how could that change? How could SFIHS support students, not just in high school, but through the transition to college and through earning degrees?

There’s a big disconnect in how much we standardize and integrate programs/services among K12 and postsecondary education, and SFIHS conceived these new programs to fix this disconnect.

The first program is a work-based learning internship experience where students in their junior year take time in their school day to work off-campus at organizations in San Francisco. This program, Halle-Erby tells us, is an opportunity for them to improve their language skills in an authentic environment and develop awareness in the work world and what their career interests will be.

“The question I want them to keep in mind,” Halle-Erby says, ”is what kind of work do they want to do in the future?”

SFIHS also provides an Early College experience for its students — one that the district is currently adopting to spread in other schools. Through a partnership with City College of San Francisco, the district allows high school students to take community college courses during their school day,  in designated departments that are career-oriented.

“These are not gen-eds,” Halle-Erby explains, “but electives like computer networking, biotechnology, digital media design, and automotives.”

Students, then, are gaining valuable education in fields where they see themselves working in the future. And the departments that City College aligns SFIHS with is able to give certificates to SFIHS students. They begin taking these courses in their junior year with an “intro course” on how to be a college student called College Success. Then they move onto their concentration, with a goal that students will graduate with their certificate.

After they graduate, though, Halle-Erby wants to stay connected with his students to keep them on track. That’s where SFIHS’ College Retention program, known as Span, comes into play. Span focuses on three main pieces: building a student support network at school that connects them with campus services, continuing to build a supportive peer environment, and continuing to give them language instruction.

“Mastering a new language doesn’t necessarily coincide with the number of years you’re in high school,” says Halle-Erby. “This doesn’t necessarily include being a better reader or writer, but more along the lines of: ‘What’s the language I need to send an email to my professor? How do I ask for office hours?’”

After doing this work for five years and seeing great results from his students, Halle-Erby felt there needed to be a way to share all he had learned and spread the impact of SFIHS’ programs. That’s why he came to New America California, where he’s looking at English learners and newcomer immigrant students — and more.

“So many of these issues are transferable to minority, American-born, low-income students,” he tells us. “So many of the solutions that we’ve developed would be impactful to other communities.”

It’s also important to Halle-Erby to show that the solutions he’s helped develop make an impact without an influx of outside cash or resources. Rather than relying on angel investing like other education initiatives, these resources come straight from the district and community college. Meanwhile, he’s looking at ways these community colleges can benefit — and seeing the incredible value of community colleges as a whole, which he thinks can help expand programs like his nationwide.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure in community colleges that’s designed to support students and it’s incredibly underutilized,” says Halle-Erby. “Discovering how many services were there and how many people were dedicated and passionate to working on this problem brought me to New America. I’ve learned some things, figured some things out, and can take these things and run with them and spread them around.”