They made it!

In 2001, I started volunteering at Downtown College Prep, a brand-new San Jose charter school with an incredibly ambitious mission: Recruit low-income, low-achieving, Mexican-American students, push them into college-prep classes and prepare them to succeed in college.

Ninth graders came in with fifth-grade reading and math skills, on average. Most weren’t used to paying attention in class or doing homework. Their parents had forced them to try DCP. At first, they hated the school’s long hours, daily homework and demanding teachers. Then, after a few months or a few semesters, they started to catch on.

I wrote a book about the school’s struggles, Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds. (The hardcover is here.) My original title (vetoed as too confusing) was Ride the Carrot Salad. Teachers had talked of making up T-shirts reading, “Downtown College Purgatory: Ride the Carrot Salad,” after a boy’s misreading of “ride the carousel” on a reading test.

Last night, Downtown College Prep honored the 12 students from the class of ’04, the charter school’s first graduating class, who earned their college degrees in ’08. Another cohort will graduate in the next year or two. In all, 75 percent of DCP grads are on track to earn a four-year degree. (Students who attended private colleges were more likely to finish in four years, but the high costs have pushed most DCP grads to enroll in public universities.)

Graduates were called up to the podium with their families, the parents who’d forced them to stay at DCP, the siblings who now see college as a realistic goal.

Here are the ’08 college grads from the class of ’04:

Juan Guttierez, Cal State Monterey Bay, psychology
Yessica Solorio, Cal State Monterey Bay, kinesiology
Erika Rico, Mount Holyoke, math
Sayra Gallardo, San Diego State, criminology
Frank Canalez, St. Mary’s, theater arts
Linda Machado, St. Mary’s, communications
Magdalena Villalvazo, Dominican, business administration
Yuridia Garcia, Notre Dame de Naumur, sociology
Jesse Ruiz, Notre Dame de Naumur, business management
Armando Cervantes, San Jose State, business management
Veronica Lugo Perez, Santa Clara University, Spanish
Gloria Medina, UC-Santa Cruz, psychology

Magdalena, who gave a wonderful graduation speech at commencement, is working at a bank, where she’ll train to be an investment banker. I asked her what was hard about college. She said, “Everything!” But becoming a college student also was “exhilarating.”

Veronica, whose mother has a first-grade education, plans to get a doctorate and teach Spanish as a professor.

Erika, who came from Mexico without a word of English in middle school, has been hired by a space sciences company, which will pay for her graduate education.

I helped Yessica with a college form when she was a senior. She was struggling with English spelling and grammar. One question asked if she had work experience. She was working a five-hour dinner shift as a waitress three days a week plus 16 hours on the weekends at a furniture store. I said, “Thirty-one hours is a lot,” Yessica said she liked to work. She’d been very sick as a child, forced to rely on others. With better medical care in the U.S., her health had improved and she could enjoy the pleasure of doing things for herself. Some of her earnings helped support the family — her mother was out of work — and the rest went into her college fund. That work ethic paid off for her in college.

Gloria gave a speech about her turnaround: She was a rebellious, unmotivated student until her sophomore year. “I simply got tired of failing,” she said. She thanked her tutor, the college counselor and her mother. She started crying when she tried to talk about her mother and couldn’t go on. I told her later that we’d all gotten the gist of it.

Gloria plans to get a master’s in social work. She’s also being considered for a job at DCP-Alviso, a new middle-high school that will open in the fall.

I chatted with Juan, who’s going to work at a restaurant — the tips are excellent — for a year or two, then return to college to earn a master’s degree in psychology so he can work as a school psychologist. That kid who read “ride the carrot salad” eight years ago, that was Juan.

About Joanne


  1. What a great accomplishment, Joanne! Kudos to you and congratulations to those students. You must feel on top of the world.


  2. Brought tears to my eyes, Joanne.

  3. Cardinal Fang says:

    I hope you brought plenty of Kleenexes. I was tearing up just reading the post.

    Congratulations to all twelve of the new graduates. Good luck to the 2004 DCP grads still at California publics; may they be proudly holding their collge diplomas this time next year.

  4. Margo/Mom says:

    It is not only a triumph that 75% graduated college in 4 years, but also that you were able to all celebrate together. Says a whole lot about caring and believing. Congrats all around.

  5. The one that started my tears was Veronica – her mother has a FIRST-GRADE education, and she plans to get a Doctorate.

    Congratulations to the entire group, and best wishes for their futures.

  6. Congratulations to you and your students.

  7. Joanne,
    Great post and very interesting.

    Couple of thoughts.
    – Every kid needs caring, involved adults in their life.
    – Most of us do better in environments where there are high expectations.
    – Tenacity is the single most important trait in school and in life.
    – College is not for every kid (and I have no clue how to specify the criteria for which kids it is for and which kids it is not best for, but I saw the differences in my children).
    – Anybody who thinks immigration is bad for our country should read this post and visit construction sites and many farms during the summer months.

    I’ve enjoyed your blog for a long time. Keep up the interesting work.

  8. I wonder how the folks who think po’ folks can’t learn explain this?

  9. Roger Sweeny says:

    I’ve been saying for a while that some of my ninth grade students read, write, and do math at a fifth grade level. I think I was unconsciously echoing you (I bought the book a while ago and read it last summer. Consider this a plug for everyone else to get it and read it, too.)

    The difference is that I teach in a very ordinary, largely white, suburban high school. Unskilled students have been passed on because, hey, they’re nice kids, it would be socially devastating to hold them back, we don’t want to be mean, etc., etc. Most middle schools seem to have this same attitude because the students who come from out of district aren’t any better.

    It occurs to me that our unskilled students may actually have a more difficult time than the students at DCP. We pretend that all our entering students are pretty much ready for high school. Yes, we have Learning Centers where weak students can go instead of study halls, but the teachers there can only do so much, mostly help out with homework and studying for tests.

    The mature thing for an ill-prepared ninth grader to do would be to say, “I have a lot of ground to make up. If you’re willing to help me, I’m willing to put in a lot of work.” But these are ninth graders. Learning Center teachers (and some regular teachers) will try to be cheerleaders and pushers. Alas, many students will not be pushed. They fall further and further behind and drop out at some point–though often not before retarding the education of their peers.

    DCP knows its students are behind and forces them to catch up. I wish we could do the same.

  10. KateCoe says:

    Congratulations to you and your kids!

  11. Kimberly Swygert says:

    Congratulations! What an accomplishment on the part of those kids AND you. I’m sure your tireless volunteering and the book played no small part in helping the school succeed.

  12. Yay!! This is such a great story!

    I bought 2 copies of the book, and ended up giving away the copy I thought I’d bought for myself. Guess I need to order another one.

  13. Cardinal Fang says:

    A hundred and two students started at DCP in 2000. Fifty four graduated in 2004. Now twelve have gotten four year degrees.

    (I have no comment on this. I just thought someone else might have wondered what the numbers were, as I did.)

  14. Congratulations to the grads.

  15. Ben-David says:

    I don’t usually expect to tear up when reading your blog… but I did this time!

  16. Margo/Mom says:


    I am intrigued when you say: “DCP knows its students are behind and forces them to catch up. I wish we could do the same.” What would you say are the barriers that you encounter that DCP has either overcome or not had to contend with?

  17. Roger Sweeny says:


    DCP knows many of its students aren’t ready for high school work. As I recall, it pretty much forces them to bring their English and math skills up to high school level before they can take high school courses. It offers and requires remedial work.

    At my school, there are no remedial courses, no “we know you’re behind; here’s your opportunity to catch up.” Instead, ninth graders start out in high school courses. When they struggle, we offer “extra help” but they are under no obligation to accept it. And no one of us is in a position to offer the sheer amount of catching up that many of these students need.

    In my ideal world, you would have to–and would be given the opportunity to–earn the right to attend high school. In most of America, all you have to do is be three years older than you were when you entered middle school.

  18. Guest Anon says:

    Like many charter schools I wonder if DCP requires students and parents to sign a contract that enables the school to let a student go if they do not attend school regularly, have extreme discipline issues, etc which are the issues that PUBLIC schools have to deal with.

    I guess my question is if a student ends up ditching the classes at late hours, does graffiti, never does homework, and constantly disrupt class, does he/she stay at DCP?

    If you can keep up with us, stay with us. If not transfer to the nearest public school mentality might create wonders for some charter schools. but does not reflect a solution.

  19. Like all charter schools, DCP is a public school. It doesn’t require a contract. Students are not dismissed for academic reasons unless they flunk a grade twice. They may be suspended or expelled for chronic bad behavior.

    Quite a few students leave because they find the work too hard and the hours too long; others come from transient families that return to Mexico or move to cheaper areas when jobs become scarce in San Jose. Few students are kicked out.

    At district-run public schools, low achievers may be transferred to alternative schools; those who pose serious discipline problems are suspended or expelled. Most are sent to alternative programs or continuation school or sent home to do “independent study.” In fact, DCP has taken a number of students expelled from district-run schools or transferred from regular high schools to alternative programs. (When California adopted an accountability system, all the high schools in San Jose created separate “opportunity schools” for low achievers; their scores aren’t averaged into the home school’s scores.)

  20. I guess my question is where do those “quite a few” students go when they leave “because they find the work too hard and the hours too long”?

    Maybe using the term “kicked out” was not the right choice, but the way the charter school works is still concentrated on creating a very demanding environment, so only the most motivated and the most concentrated stay.

    As you also mentioned students do get dismissed if they flunk grade level twice. Since this is a high school how do they flunk a grade level? Isn’t it credit based? Don’t you only retake the courses you failed? So, how can you fail a whole year?

    I guess if we look at it, we still see that charter schools implicitly retain the students who are themselves and their parents well motivated by creating a demanding workload.

    I do not have problem with that. It is just that they make themselves look like they have a magic wand. Well, if the magic wand is having school six days a week, eight hours a day, and a bunch of parents and students who are OK with that then I would like to see a public school that runs like that. Public schools do not have the luxury to ask the parents to change their lifestyle so that their students can learn some remedial English and/or Math. Even if they did, I doubt many parents ans students in the real world, would greet such an idea with open arms. If all the parents were that willing, we would not have needed charter schools in the first place.

    So, we cannot compare their success to public schools who do not have most of their conditions.

    It is not that public school do not want to educate and improve students from underperforming groups, but they do have parents and students who consider school a merely a socializing arena which is I doubt and issue for a charter school.

  21. Roger Sweeny says:

    Guest brings up an extremely important question. What should ordinary public high schools do with students who refuse to work to bring themselves up to grade level?

    Right now they fail a few courses, pass a few courses, make things harder for students who do want to try, and often drop out prior to graduation.

    Should we have an alternative situation for them? Perhaps something less academic? It is easy to say, “No, that would deprive them of a chance for a high school diploma” but most of them won’t get a diploma anyway, and right now they’re taking down the rest of the school with them.


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