‘I am the first’

In her college admissions essay, Sara recalled her disastrous start as a counselor in the summer bridge program for new students at her San Jose charter school, Downtown College Prep. An incoming 12th grader, she couldn’t control her group of new ninth graders. She wanted to quit — but she didn’t. Sara and her fellow counselors stuck with it, took control and turned their rowdy crew into winners of the spirit award.

When Sara started at Santa Clara University, she felt that she didn’t belong. But she stuck with it, joined clubs and made a place for herself. She had to leave for a year when the money ran out. She worked, saved, came back to finish her bachelor’s degree and now works at a high-tech company.

I met Sara when I was reporting and writing Our School, a book about DCP’s struggles to prepare disadvantaged students for college. I saw her last week at DCP’s event promoting their college success report, I Am the First. The school spent two years surveying its graduates — successful and struggling — to determine what influences college success for low-income, first-generation college students.

At the event, students and graduates held up signs: “I am the first in my family to learn English . . . I am the first in my family to go to high school . . . I am the first in my family to join a college fraternity . . . I am the first to study law.”

DCP is 90 percent low-income and 96 percent Latino; 80 percent of students enter with below-grade-level skills in reading and math. Forty-one percent of parents haven’t completed high school (or, often, started it).

Nearly 500 students have graduated since the first graduating class of ’04. The graduation rate for the first three classes is 40 percent — more than four times the rate for low-income students nationwide.

Those who drop out can talk to a school counselor about how to return to college. One graduate worked for three years in a factory, tightening screws, before going back to community college. He’s been accepted at a University of California at Santa Cruz. He wants to be a history teacher.

What leads to success?

“Empowered” students who take responsibility for their education are more likely to “advocate for themselves” and earn a degree, the survey found. DCP will encourage students to take leadership roles, such as Sara’s stint as a summer bridge counselor.

College counseling should include career counseling: For first-generation students, job one is qualifying for a job.

Teachers are the most important influence on students’ college plans, so DCP plans to make “every teacher a college counselor.”

The school also will devote more energy to helping parents handle the college transition. Sixty percent of DCP students live at home while attending college to save money.

“A college plan must include a financial plan,” the college counselor stressed. Two-thirds of students who leave college do so for financial reasons.

Finally, “college is an inside game.” Students need to be taught the unwritten rules. What do you do about a dreadful roommate? How do you form a study group?  When should you ask a professor for help? DCP will “teach college as a second language.”

College readiness requires tenacity

College Readiness requires more than academic knowledge and skills, concludes a report by the Annenberg Institute. “College knowledge” — knowing how to apply, get financial aid and navigate a college campus — isn’t enough. Successful students need “academic tenacity,” the “underlying beliefs, attitudes, values . . . and accompanying behaviors that drive students to embrace and engage with challenging work, and to pursue academic achievement.” And not to quit when the going gets tough.

Programs to help disadvantaged students get to college tend to focus on academic preparation and “college knowledge.” But only a few focus on building students’ tenacity.

In Our School, I write about Downtown College Prep‘s drive to instill ganas, which can be translated as true grit, in their underachieving students. When the first class went off to college, many struggled academically. But they told the college counselor not to worry. They’d done it before. “They know what it’s like to start a new school and get hammered,” Vicky Evans told me. “They can handle failure. They’ve done it, and survived.”

I had to fight the editor to keep “failure” in the book. She saw failure as weakness, the end of the road, not the first step. It’s inflated, unearned, phony success — everybody gets an A! — that weakens young people and sets them up for permanent failure.

The Education Writers Association analyzes the research on college readiness in a new policy brief.

Unexceptional success

My book, Our School, is about Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter high school that enrolls primarily low-income Mexican-American students who will be the first in their families to go to college. (Quite a few are the first to complete high school.) This year, for the first time, a DCP senior is headed for the Ivy League. Julia chose Brown over Princeton, NYU and other colleges, writes Jennifer Andaluz, the school’s co-founder and executive director.

In the college-going space we are fascinated with the “against-all-odds” success story. In truth, Julia’s story is rather predictable: she worked hard, established goals for herself, had the support of her mother, played by the rules, and had a mentor who ensured she made a “right fit” decision when it came to her college choices. Whether a student attends San Jose State or a select university like Brown, DCP aims to make college-going unexceptional.

What is worth noting is why Julia chose Brown. One of Julia’s closest mentors is a DCP teacher who is also a first-generation, Latina graduate of Brown. This teacher passed down the “social capital” gained from her college experience by sharing her journey. In the end, Julia believed she could be successful at Brown her teacher was successful.

And this is why DCP is valuable: every year a new cohort of DCP alumni graduate from college. They go from being the one who was inspired to being the one who inspires.
DCP reports that 96 percent of graduates complete the college-prep sequence required by California’s public universities and 96 percent enroll in a two-year or four-year college. The retention rate is 90 percent and the graduation rate is four times higher than the national average for Hispanic students.
 Our School is now on sale at a bargain price at Amazon.

Small school changes lives

Downtown College Prep changes lives, writes Tom Vander Ark after a visit to the San Jose charter high school. Most students come from Mexican immigrant families and enter ninth grade with fifth-grade reading and math skills.  All graduates in the class of 2011 will go on to  college, including Mount Holyoke, University of California at Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara and San Jose State. The school’s counselor helps graduates cope with college challenges, including transferring from community college to a four-year university.

Read all about it in Our School.

To and through college

In Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds, I wrote about a San Jose school that recruits low-achieving students and tries to prepare them to succeed in four year colleges.  “To and Through College” is the motto. With six graduating classes, Downtown College Prep has released a college success report.

While only 10% of low-income students complete college within six years nationwide, DCP graduates earn their degrees at the rate of 47%. We are encouraged by the results we have achieved thus far but remain determined to close the college achievement gap that exists in our community and our nation.

Overall, 57 percent of four-year college students complete a degree in six years.

Since 2004, DCP has graduated nearly 400 students. Ninety percent come from low-income families, 97 percent are Latino and 92 percent are first-generation college students.

Some 94 percent are eligible for the University of California and the California State University system; 82 percent enroll in college.

In answer to some questions in comments: I’m sure DCP makes a difference for its students because many were not on track to complete high school, much less qualify for college. By comparison, only 29 percent of Latino graduates are UC/CSU eligible in San Jose Unified, even though the district made the college-prep sequence a graduation requirement years ago. Graduates aren’t eligible because they earned D’s in some classes.

The Silva family took a chance on DCP in its first year. His older son, Jose, is now a Chico State graduate; Elizabeth is a junior at UC Davis and Benny Jr. is a freshman at San Francisco State. At an event honoring teachers and staff, Benny Silva Sr., who works for Roto-Rooter, was asked to speak:

“Every day I go into other people’s homes to repair their toilets. What they don’t know about me is that my children are college graduates.”

Or on their way. Below is Elizabeth Silva’s graduation photo, which includes her grandmother. Including family members in the picture is a DCP tradition.

Elizabeth Silva, Class of 2008

Forbidden failure

Forbidden to fail students, a fourth-grade teacher in Baton Rouge has filed suit against the principal, superintendent and school board.  Sheila Goudeau, a teacher for 20 years, says teachers were told to make 60 percent the lowest score and D the lowest grade, no matter how poorly students had performed. She claims the principal harassed her for protesting the policy.

Setting a minimum score at 60 percent (or 50 percent) is becoming common. The theory is that students will try to improve a 60 percent but will give up if their average is so low that they can’t possibly raise it to a passing grade. On the other hand, why try if you’ll be passed along anyhow?

My honors chemistry teacher let us retake tests to raise our grades, if we thought we could do better. My daughter’s journalism teacher let students rewrite assignments to raise their grades. It seems fair to let students wipe out bad marks by proving they’ve mastered the material. Pretending they’ve learned fourth-grade work and are ready for fifth grade is setting kids up for failure, as Goudeau says. That’s failure with a D, I guess.

In checking out Downtown College Prep’s new web site, I saw the story of Pauline Fernandez, who moved in with neighbors in 12th grade after her mother’s death from a brain tumor. “Pauline wants to learn; not just earn credits. In fact, she asked one math teacher to fail her so she could take the class again to get a better grasp of the concepts.” An ’08 DCP graduate, Pauline goes to community college and works two jobs to support herself. She plans to transfer to San Jose State to complete a four-year degree. That was her mother’s dream. (The book is here.)

For achievers, it's not the money

High-achieving, low-income students aren’t kept from college over money, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. He’s responding to one part of Columbia Professor Andrew Delbanco’s NY Review of Books article, Universities in Trouble.

When the poor but gifted and motivated students Delbanco describes materialize, they are treated like 6-11 power forwards looking for athletic scholarships.

Money is a barrier for average students with low incomes:  A 2002 federal study “estimated that more than 160,000 students with annual family incomes below $50,000 were qualified for college admission but did not attend even a two-year community college because of financial barriers.” But “qualified” was defined as a 2.7 grade point average or an 820 combined math and verbal score on the SAT.

We’re losing the “potentially successful,” Mathews writes. Most low-income students don’t develop the academic skills and work habits they need to excel. They’re out of the game long before 12th grade.

Low-income students with good brains continue to perform poorly in large part, I think, because they attend high schools run by people who don’t believe such kids can learn very much and who don’t try very hard to teach them. Educators who do believe in their potential find it difficult to get the resources they need because too many policymakers, politicians, voters and taxpayers do not share that optimism.

If you know “any gifted and motivated students you know who have been unable to go to college because of money,” send their names and contact info to mathewsj@washpost.com. Mathews promises to help.

Mathews is correct for students who are citizens and legal residents.  If they’re truly high achievers, they will get college scholarships.  For undocumented immigrants, who aren’t eligible for public aid, it’s much tougher. Some private colleges will offer aid; many will not fund “international” students.

I recently interviewed graduating seniors at Downtown College Prep, the San Jose charter school that’s the subject of my book, Our School (available in hardcover or paperback).  The undocumented students are starting at community colleges, which they can afford, and planning to transfer to a four-year university with a private scholarship raised by DCP. (Eventually, they will legalize their status through a relative’s sponsorship or marriage.)  Without the promise of a scholarship, even the high achievers would find college an impossible dream.

Angst of an admissions director

Pitzer admissions director Angel Perez writes in the LA Times about the agony of rejecting well-qualified students. Pitzer received received 4,079 applications for 245 spots in the freshman class. (The college accepts 22 percent of applicants; most who are accepted choose to go elsewhere.)

I recall the fate of one young woman whose academic profile was top-notch. She had a 4.0 grade-point average at a competitive high school in Los Angeles, she listed a fair amount of extracurricular activities, and her essays read well. But she was from a town very close by and had never taken the time to visit the college. We offer many opportunities to do so, but she had had no contact with us.

She was rejected on the suspicion that Pitzer wasn’t her first choice. But Pitzer took “a young man from New York City who was academically below our margin.”   
I interviewed him, and in my evaluation I wrote, “This kid bleeds Pitzer College.” He was concerned about issues of social justice and social responsibility — two key values that our institution was founded on.
The student’s grades were below the Pitzer average; he submitted no test scores (tests are optional).  Perez read his essay out loud to the admissions committee.
They laughed out loud in response to this young man’s humor, and they could not believe how much time he took to demonstrate to us how right he was for Pitzer.

I followed up the reading by telling them about my impressions from the interview: “He won’t graduate top of his class, but he is going to be a powerful presence here.” One of our staff members, who was clearly impressed, said, “This kid really does want to change the world, doesn’t he?”

Pitzer tries for an even balance of men and women (it’s 61 percent female), a mix of California and out-of-state students and ”a strong balance of socioeconomic and ethnic diversity,” writes Perez. Clearly, they’re trying to boost their rankings by showing that a higher number of accepted students choose Pitzer. That means highly qualified students looking for a back-up school will be rejected while less-qualified students who really, really want Pitzer will get in.

Last week, I interviewed Downtown College Prep seniors who were applying for college scholarships funded by the charter school’s donors. The class of ’09 is unusually large and remarkably talented.  Most students apply for a scholarship — financial need is a  factor as well as grades — so I saw top students and students who’d struggled academically. I wasn’t most impressed by the kids who wanted to be a role model for the Hispanic community or those who said, “I don’t want to be a statistic.” I liked the girl who said, “I love math.” She plans to study aeronautic engineering. And the boy who said, ”I love reading.” He’s hoping to qualify for the nationals in a slam poetry competition.  There was a boy who’s into chemistry but may not get enough aid to study chemical engineering at the excellent private university that accepted him. (Not a tragedy: He’s got a UC option.)  Another kid was fascinated by the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war in Yugoslavia. I met kids who are passionate about photography and choreography. Most come from working-class families; some are working to help their laid-off parents pay the bills. 

One of the interviewers was Magdalena Villalvazo, a member of DCP’s first class who spoke at the first graduation in ’04 and earned her college degree in ’08. She works as a banker. Her speech is in my book, Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds.

The ‘immigrant paradox’

The first generation comes to America and struggles, but their children do better and the third generation does even better. That’s how it’s supposed to work.  But scholars are trying to understand the “immigrant paradox,” reports Education Week. The Americanized children of immigrants often do worse in school than the foreign-born generation, despite fewer English problems.  American-born children have more health problems and are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and act violently.

(Brown Professor Cynthia Garcia Coll) noted that the more acculturated students speak better English but do less homework. In addition, she said, “they are starting to buy in to the notion of minorities here [in the United States], that even if you work hard and play hard, discrimination is going to get at you.”

Reading scores improve for Mexican-American children from the first to the third generation as English skills improve, but math scores decline.

Asian-heritage students tend to excel in school, but some groups show “a slight drop in academic success” between first- and second-generation students. Chinese- and Korean-American students are exceptions.

In (UCLA Professor Min Zhou’s) research, she’s found that the Chinese-immigrant community in Los Angeles has been very effective in using ethnic after-school programs to bolster academic success. She said that in addition to teaching the Chinese language, those programs provide previews and reviews of school lessons.

Chinese parents are reluctant to send their children to public after-school programs, Ms. Zhou said, because they have a stereotype that “bad children” go to them, which she interprets to mean the children are “too Americanized.”

The New York Times wrote about a Maryland high school where immigrant students do well academically, but don’t interact much with native-born students.

I met many students from Mexican immigrant families at Downtown College Prep, when I was reporting for Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School that Beat the Odds.  The kids expected to work hard to make it in life; once they harnessed that work ethic to school work, they started to catch up academically.

Foreign-born students, some of them here illegally, finished college in four years at a higher rate than American-born students. Those who got no state or federal aid worked harder to get through quickly. The “immigrant paradox” is the result of immigrant hustle.

Should I let kids fail?

An after-school robotics club advisor asks whether she should let students fail at what’s supposed to be a fun activity. Laura Reasoner Jones, a technology teacher in Virginia, coached fifth and sixth graders, who were supposed to build and program robots for a demonstration to which parents were invited. Two of the five teams didn’t get a robot to work.

Am I going to let them experience the natural consequences of inaction, or am I going to intervene and fix things?

. . . They spent weeks playing with the software but would not use any of the canned programs that are great starting places.

. . . When they finally got a robot built and found they could not get the program to work, they were unwilling to either tinker with it or start over, and the time just dribbled away. So, now it is the last week before the demo, and they have nothing. Nothing!!!

Jones decided she could not let them “watch all of their friends be applauded and praised by staff and parents,” while they had nothing to show.

(The after-school program) is about personal success, whatever form that may take.

I think about my goals for this project. I want each child to build and program a robot, learning that he/she can do new things and stretch his/her brain into new fields without fear of failure. I want each child to see herself/himself as an engineer, a builder, a creator. And above all, I want each child to feel pride in his/her work.

But personally, as a mother and as a teacher, I also want each child to learn from mistakes, to take risks and experience the consequences of risk-taking. I don’t want to rescue kids. I want them to learn to rescue themselves.

Finally, she decided to ask the engineer mentors to rescue the slacker students so they could “experience success.”

Is it really success? Would failure have been more educational?

In my book, Our School, a hard-knock charter school, Downtown College Prep, sends teams of students to compete in a Silicon Valley robotics contest called the Tech Challenge.  The best team takes fourth place; another team’s robot fails the challenge, while the girls’ team is sidelined by a bad battery.

“You’re all champions,” says the presenter. Adam and Rico look dubious. They don’t want anyone saying this was their best effort, because it wasn’t. They can do better.

. . . The Lady Lobos also aren’t satisfied with their performance. They glare at their yellow ribbons, given for participating. Their machine didn’t work, and they’re not going to pretend it did.

After three fourth-place finishes in the Tech Challenge, a DCP team won the grand prize in 2004. One of things those kids learned was how to try, fail, get up off the floor and try harder and smarter next time around.