Nancy Ahlberg Mellor
The dusty town of Coalinga in Calfornia’s Central Valley is four hours from the academic-urban hurly-burly of the University of California at Berkeley. But for the children of Central Valley farm workers, it might as well be a continent away.
When Nancy Ahlberg Mellor followed her husband to a job in Coalinga in 1984 and began teaching middle-school math there, it wasn’t the division problems in the book that caught her attention but the division in the classroom. Children from the immigrant community were deeply divided—from the white, middle-class students and from the chance for a higher education. "It hit me, and it has not stopped hitting me, that these wonderful kids did not have educational opportunities." So she founded Coalinga-Huron-Avenal House—a program named after her school district—that prepares students who have not had educational advantages for college.
When she first arrived, the Quaker teacher with a classroom pet rat named Pepito couldn’t have seemed more different than her charges. But pupils and teacher learned what they had in common when a straight-A Hispanic student named Gilbert was barred from honors English: It was for the college-bound. Mrs. Mellor begged to differ, and ultimately Gilbert went to Yale. She also arranged for another student, Ricardo, to take summer courses at Berkeley. The 14-year-old boy was lonely there, and Nancy could relate—she grew up in rural Michigan, then attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts among worldly, affluent classmates. She persuaded the director of the Academic Talent Development Program (ATDP) at Berkeley to offer her students a place with those from more academically advanced schools. That first summer, 17 kids, four parents, and Nancy lived in a fraternity house (thus, the Coalinga-Huron-Avenal "House") at Berkeley. "The experience showed the students how intellect, rather than social station, can be used to get someplace," Nancy recalls. Now, 20 years later and a superintendent in a neighboring school district, she still exudes the robust humor and firmness that distinguishes great teachers.
And each summer, 30-some students spend six weeks at ATDP, experiencing the rigors of an advanced curriculum and the vibrance of Bay Area culture. Of the 300 who have gone through the program, most graduate from college, and many go into helping professions. Like Nancy, they see what needs to be done, do it—and pass it on.
Photograph: Michael Weschler
Text: Akiko Busch