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.