SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) – The city of San Jose is partnering up with schools to give students in lower-income neighborhoods a pathway to higher education, counseling and cash for college.

“We’ve raised now more than $6 million to support our hard working students. Most of whom are first-generation students,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo.

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In launching the program called SJ Aspires, Liccardo pointed out how the pandemic hit East Side families the hardest, and underscored some historic inequalities.

That’s why the city is focusing the program in East Side schools first.

SJ Aspires is a partnership with private companies, the San José Library and the San Jose Library Foundation to provide a path to college by providing mentors, counseling and cash to needy students.

“The barriers for our public high school students are both financial and informational. They’re often not getting the information they need to make those good decisions from the very first week of high school,” Liccardo said.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the students of San Jose,” said Analisa Villanueva, a 9th Grader at Overfelt High School, who joined the program.

Her parents never attended college but she has dreams of going to a top university.

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“I’m hoping for UC Berkeley, UCLA, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz,” Villanueva said.

The program involves 700 9th and 10 graders from Overfelt, San Jose High, and Opportunity Youth Academy which serve students who often can’t afford tuition.

“They often have to defer their dreams because they can’t afford to do that next step into college,” said Vito Chiala, Principal at Overfelt.

Students can begin earning virtual “scholar dollars” by getting good grades and can earn up to $5,000 in cash for college by the time they graduate.

“I’ve made $175, and I’m trying to keep on working hard to get the rest of the money,” Villanueva told.

She wants to put her money in a tuition fund to help her family pay for college.

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Liccardo said he’s looking for more corporate support and donations to expand the program to more San Jose schools.