Paola Bernal (‘13) remembers what she wore on her first day of sixth grade at Chinquapin, walking into the gym that morning where [former co-directors] Bill and Kathy Heinzerling introduced themselves, “We all started together like we were family. This is home.” It was the most beautiful feeling ever.
Her path to Chinquapin was not guaranteed. Paola’s mother never finished the third grade, and her stepfather only made it through high school. They understood that education was a means to a better future, but they had no way to help her. Paola was intrigued by what she heard from Kathy who introduced Chinquapin to these Kelso Elementary School students. Paola decided to take a chance on the school without really knowing much more than her ten-year-old self could remember from Kathy’s presentation.
MapQuest and a Key Map guided Paola and her family to campus. She remembers thinking, “we can’t mess this up, we can’t be late.” (they were the first ones there!), arriving early, the mist rising from the ground. It was an environment unlike anything she’d ever seen. And one in which she thrived.
She was accepted early decision and immediately noticed the difference between her elementary school and Chinquapin: Receiving the summer reading list, bus schedules, and other documents made it feel like she was experiencing her very own Harry Potter experience – a magical school, choosing her, and receiving her own letter of acceptance. She’d found her people, and she began building relationships with her teachers who took time to really get to know and support her and care for her well-being. This made her far more willing to be vulnerable, to try new things. Her peer group provided a safe space to thrive, explore her interests, dive into inquiries without shame. The Chinquapin community made learning fun.
Fast forward to Senior Year, and Paola earned a coveted Posse scholarship to Bryn Mawr. She says that it had not been for the Chinquapin bubble, where she participated in conversations about civic engagement and her role in the world, developed self-confidence, was encouraged to use her voice, and where she found out who she wanted to be, she wouldn’t have been successful at Bryn Mawr.
During the summer of 2019, after the killing of George Floyd, she was compelled to show her support for Chinquapin’s Black students. She didn’t have the capital to fund a tuition scholarship, but she knew she could help these students feel seen and heard. She knew firsthand that financial burdens can take away from the college experience, and so Paola directed some of her resources toward helping get them a step closer to what they want to achieve. She established the Paola Bernal Traveling Scholarship, which provides funds to a Black Chinquapin alum for educational needs, primarily for traveling.
Today, Paola is a graduate student at Harvard where she focuses on education policy. She’s heartbroken by the toll the pandemic has taken on educators and students, how it has continued to affect disadvantaged communities and further widen the inequitable education system for Black and Brown students.
Chinquapin’s small size means teachers have the space and time to focus on social emotional learning. They’ve been doing this since 1969, well before everyone was throwing around the SEL catchphrase. This cultivates empathy and opens a world for students beyond just being students. Showing care and interest in students’ academics and well-being is crucial for future success. She’s living proof.