Westmont Magazine Helping Kids Get to College
Terri Furton ’93 grew up with an alcoholic mother and found refuge at school. Three of her siblings dropped out as teenagers but she made it to Westmont despite struggling academically. She worked hard to earn a degree in history and chose a teaching career to help students like herself.
After 18 years in secondary education, she accepted a new position: principal of a charter school, Downtown College Prep (DCP) Alum Rock High School, in San Jose. She can relate to her low-income, first-generation students, many of whom have never ventured downtown. “I was more privileged and came from a better neighborhood, but I understand the challenges of a difficult home life,” she says. “My students are high-need but giving and loving. They really show up in a crisis because they know about trauma. They want to hang out after school rather than go home, so we find meaningful activities for them: sports, clubs, helping students with special needs, and reading to the elderly.”
To graduate, DCP students must pass all the high school classes required by the University of California and California State University—and be accepted to a four-year college. Teachers work with families to apply to schools that fit them best, and alumni who’ve gone on to college also help.“We want students to develop the habits they need to succeed in college,” she says. “We teach them to make choices and support them, but we don’t want to do too much hand-holding.”
Terri has added an engineering class and club and hopes to build a STEM-focused school with project-based learning. When students from the club entered a Samsung contest in 2015, they won a national prize for their residential gray-water recycling filter. “We seek to provide opportunities like this for students,” she says. Teachers work on motivating students who may be disengaged or openly defiant. Addressing disobedience directly, teachers urge students to get their lives back on track, explaining how their behavior hurts the community. “We’re building a strong culture here centered on community,” Teri says. “Teachers get close to students so they can talk out potential problems and prevent things like fights and substance abuse. They all work together to provide a stable environment for students lacking in many of their homes.” Terri works to hire good teachers, searching for people who are coachable and know how to connect with students and build relationships in the classroom. She invests in professional development for her staff and spends most of her time coaching them.
Attending Westmont changed Terri’s faith, her thinking and her life. “I had a lot of truth implanted in me,” she says. “People asked me questions I had never thought about, and I had never read the Bible before.” With her husband, who works for the city parks department, she cares for family the way she looks out for students. They took in Terri’s late sister, ill from paralysis and a brain injury, and remain close to her son, Joshua Christensen ’13. They assist their aging fathers. They build community even within their family.